When Suzanne Eldridge, vocal teacher and on-stage director at McDonogh School, middle school division, in Owings Mills, saw children performing at Walt Disney World during a family trip almost 10 years ago, she knew she had to find a way to give her students that same opportunity.
And find a way she did.
In 2008, she and the 7th and 8th grade students of the McDonogh Singers sent in an audition tape to perform at Disney World. They were accepted. This Feb. 20 through 23 will mark the group's fourth straight trip, as they audition every other year.
"You have to submit your audition tape, I think it's 6 months in advance to a year, but space is limited so the earlier you submit the better," she said.
Groups from around the world audition for the opportunity offered by Disney Performing Arts, Eldridge said, with performances held at Disney World, in Florida, throughout the year.
But the trip isn't just a chance to sing in front of people.
"They get there the first day and generally the first day we let them go to the park in the afternoon … then they come back at the hotel and they relax. The second day we start out with a workshop and this year we're going to do Broadway Magic … so the people that perform in Disney World will come in and teach the students the music and choreography from a song in [a current Disney Broadway show]."
The workshop typically lasts about three hours, Eldridge said. The next day, the students will perform a 20-minute set of assorted songs, from show tunes to jazz hits, for a live audience at Disney World, but not before they get some tips from Disney professionals.
"Then they talk them through where to look and where to project and where the microphones are and where to stand on stage and everything," she said.
On the last day of the trip, students will get the chance to learn how to do voiceover work on a real Disney animated movie.
"Then we have one more day of another workshop. We do the Disney Sings workshop … they take the Disney animated film and they remove the voices from the film and they teach the students the choral voices for say 'Can You Feel the Love Tonight,'" she said.
The students leave with a DVD of the voice over movie and a trophy in commemoration of their performance.
The trip is pretty expensive, Eldridge said, with costs running at about $1,200 per child.
Because of that, McDonogh hosts a special annual fundraiser each year, alternating between McDonogh Idol one year and Faculty Follies the next, to raise money for families who might need some financial assistance to enable their children to go.
"Faculty Follies is a performance by the teachers in the middle school and it's sort of a lighthearted, fun night where students can get up a do a serious performance or they can do something more comical," Eldridge said.
McDonogh Idol, which was held in November, raised about $3,800, Eldridge said. In addition to raising money, the competition also serves to get the students ready for their upcoming trip, said Jennie Burke, of Annapolis, mother of McDonogh student Caroline Burke.
"It really gets the kids excited about the trip and it makes the community aware of music and McDonogh Singers and the opportunities they have," Jennie said.
Jennie, who has three other children, two of whom attend McDonogh, said the opportunities provided for students of the arts at McDonogh are "unparalleled."
"I'm sure that there are other schools that provide music education — I'm sure that there are. It's just really important at McDonogh and it's very — the depth, the quality of the teachers, the importance that they place in immersing the children in music is rare, I think, for schools these days," she said.
One of the unique opportunities the McDonogh Singers get is a trip to Broadway. The students go every other year, alternating with the Disney World trip.
The trips to Broadway, offered by Broadway.com, offer students the chance to learn the choreography and lyrics to Broadway songs from the cast before watching a show.
Laya Neelakandan, 13, said she loved her trip to Broadway last year.
"We first had this workshop with the people from 'Aladdin' and they taught us a song from 'Aladdin' and they taught us the choreography and so we sang it and danced to it at the same time and it was really fun. They gave us the entire show feeling so it wasn't just dancing … and the singing, you have to enunciate really well so the audience can really hear what you're saying, so we got all the little details, so that was a great experience and afterwards we got to see the actual Broadway show," she said.
Jennie said that, despite the long hours of the trip to Broadway, Caroline had a great time.
"She loved it. It was exciting for her. It was a jam-packed day singing and she just enjoyed every moment. They get up really, really early and they get home really, really late and it's just a day of doing what they enjoy," she said.
Having the chance to get such hands-on learning is what makes McDonogh, and Eldridge, so unique, Laya's mom Sunita Govind said.
"I think it's an amazing opportunity and we're very thankful that the school has supported this venture. It was Suzi Eldridge's brainchild to come up with both of these programs," she said. It's one thing to sit in a classroom and learn all these songs but to be able to learn from the professionals … that just takes musical education to a whole new level."
And that hands-on experience doesn't just benefit the students' musical education, Eldridge said.
"I think the most valuable lesson they learn is how to listen. Because a lot of what we do during those four days [at Disney World] requires a lot of focus and concentration … listening to what the directors and musicians and the performers there are telling them. Kids in school who may not always do well or be able to focus, this hones in on what they do best so a lot of these students, performing arts is their strength so the listening skills that they learn in the performing arts can carry into whatever else they're doing, their math class, their English class," she said.
For Eldridge, seeing her students perform at Disney World every other year is its own reward.
"It's like proud Mama Bear. A lot of these kids I've taught since they were in fifth grade and since we're a K through 12 school, a lot of them I have watched grow up since they were in kindergarten. So just watching the maturity that they show on stage, it's a proud moment to see kids that I've seen since they were real little get up there and show poise and stage presence and professionalism," she said.
Her students are certainly more than a little excited to make the trip.
"I have a solo and I'm very excited to sing it and I'm also excited to do our girls song that we're doing a cappella, 'Just a Dream' and 'Just the way you are' mashed up — it's from 'Pitch Perfect,'" Caroline, 14, said.
And for this year's trip to Disney World, Laya has a special reason to be excited.
"I'm most looking forward to probably performing because we've really been working hard on these songs and I'm so excited to actually perform it in front of all these people. I'm also really excited because we're going on my birthday. My birthday's the 22nd and were going to be there on the 22nd so it's kind of exciting too," she said.
No matter what she learns, Jennie said, she hopes Caroline has fun doing what she loves — because that's what it's all about.
"I'm excited because my daughter really loves to sing and to travel and to do what you like to do is really an adventure, it's really joyful and I think that that ultimately is the reason to do anything — because it gives you joy," she said.
For more information about the McDonogh Singers, contact Eldridge at email@example.com.