South Jersey residents with a keen eye may have caught some familiar faces on TV during the Democratic National Convention – and that doesn’t mean any of the politicians or their supporters.
At the start of the DNC, the 57-member Choir Across America performed the National Anthem. While the participating children may have been representing the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the other five U.S. territories, a number of them call South Jersey home.
“It was pretty crazy,” Diya Ramesh said.
The 14-year-old Voorhees resident admitted her anxiety got the best of her before seeing the performance, but it quickly dissipated.
“As soon as I saw my face, I feel like all the nerves went away,” she recalled with a smile. “It was like a pure moment of euphoria. I was so happy.”
Ramesh was one of the first performers to appear on screen alongside her peers from the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Commonwealth Youthchoirs (CY), which assembled the Choir Across America ensemble. CY has five programs across South Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania, including the Garden State Girlchoir and New Jersey Boychoir, both of which rehearse in Moorestown and at Rowan University.
Part of the reason Ramesh was nervous to see the virtual rendition is because no one – not even CY founder and artistic director Steve Fisher – knew beforehand how it would be presented or who, if anyone, would be featured. All they knew was that their collective voices would be heard.
“I have to say I was much more nervous than I thought,” Fisher admitted, likening the experience to the feeling right before going live on stage. “I knew that millions and millions of people would be watching. We had done a lot of social media, so choir directors around the world were watching.”
As it turns out, no one needed to worry.
The performance was remarkably powerful, a constantly changing montage of young, diverse faces singing on screen while donning red, white and blue. The sound was incredible and the emotion was palpable.
Not bad for a virtual rendition put together in just 10 days from individually recorded performances by 57 young singers.
Fisher pitched the performance to both the DNC and Republican National Convention last year, but he never heard anything back, until shortly before the August DNC, that is. With such short notice, Fisher didn’t agree the first time he was asked, either. Once he did agree, he made his terms clear, one being no one could be asked who they were supporting in the election. And two, the message was how music could bridge a divide.
“We’re doing it to show singing can bring us together, even when we disagree in other ways,” Fisher explained.
The CY staff worked around the clock for nearly two weeks to make the virtual performance a reality, from negotiating with the DNC staff, to ensuring every singer had a solid tie to the state they were representing, to learning the arrangement and teaching it to the singers via Zoom.
Cherry Hill resident Knight Loo, 11, remembered thinking, “Wow, this is actually happening!” when the performance began.
“I was really excited,” he said, adding he had “butterflies in his stomach” for the duration of the anthem, until he saw his own face appear on screen near the end. At that point, he was “dancing around the house” from exhilaration.
For Knight’s older brother Cyrus, 13, the experience was extra special since the singer had already seen Knight featured in special events.
“I always felt a little behind. I felt very excited this time,” Cyrus said.
The choral group was assured everyone’s audio made it into the final rendition, but with the single song and so many performers, not everybody’s image was featured.
“Quite frankly, we’re a choir, so while we like to be seen, what’s most important to us is how we sound,” Fisher said.
And while there may have been some disappointment from those who didn’t make it on video, it was taken in stride. Two Moorestown sisters in the process of relocating to Canada, Nicole, 16, and Nyomi Pinto, 10, both lent their voices to the performance, but only Nicole’s image made it to the final cut. Nyomi said a lot of her friends messaged her during the performance to say they saw her sister.
“I’m like, ‘Hello! My voice was on TV, too. Did you hear that?’” Nyomi said with a laugh. “It was a bummer, but my sister was there, and that was OK. It was also nice to watch the other people who were also in my group, to watch them on TV, too.”
Sicklerville’s Arabella Pirrone, 16, also wasn’t featured on video. She said the toughest part leading up to the performance was her insecurity in anticipation of being on TV.
“Overall, it was a nice learning experience, and it helped me be more confident in myself,” she noted.
Nicole agreed the anticipation was nerve wracking.
“Seeing your face on TV, it doesn’t hit you until you see it,” she explained. “Being anxious and waiting for that to happen, trying to scan through all the faces because you recognize so many people. When you see your face, it’s like, wait, I’m looking at myself right now.”
For Charley Bazzle, the anxiety went away when she submitted her video.
“When I was recording the video, I was nervous because I wanted to be able to present the best of myself. I wanted to make sure it was perfect,” the 16-year-old Marlton resident said. “But when I was done, it was sent, it was out of my hands. I wasn’t so nervous. I had no control over the situation anymore.”
Fisher couldn’t be happier with his performers.
“I’m very proud of how everybody accepted what the final product was, was happy for their fellow singers, was proud of the group effort. And I think that’s a really important lesson in life,” he said.
“Not everybody can do everything. Not everybody can be heard. Not everybody can be seen. But you take pride in the journey, not the destination.”
Check out the DNC performance on the choir’s YouTube Channel. Commonwealth Youthchoirs serves 800 children in South Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania through its family of five programs: Find Your Instrument, Garden State Girlchoir, Keystone State Boychoir, New Jersey Boychoir and Pennsylvania Girlchoir. Auditions are currently being held for the coming season. For more information, visit cychoirs.org.