Chris Fresolone sang out “do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do” and the dozen girls standing before him in navy blue Imago Dei Middle School polo shirts sang back.
“Now pretend you have a golf ball in your mouth,” he instructed, leading them on another vocal exercise.
His assistant, Hailey Butler, took the lead on the final warm-up, softly singing the question “Are you happy?” “Yes I’m happy,” the dozen girls, members of the Tucson Girls Chorus’s fledgling Imago Dei outreach choir, sang back.
For 90 minutes on that Wednesday afternoon in early May, Fresolone and Butler, a high school senior and member of the Girls Chorus Advanced Choir, led the girls in a half dozen songs, music that until last September few if any of them had ever heard before, much less sung.
The Imago Dei is one of two outreach choirs the Tucson Girls Chorus added this year, continuing the remarkable momentum and growth that has defined the chorus under Marcela Molina’s leadership.
Since she arrived in 2006, the chorus has grown from four ensembles with 67 singers to nine choirs and more than 200 singers. Even before she became executive director in 2010, Molina was expanding the choir’s presence in the community.
“My first goal was to get out and sing,” said Molina, a former artistic director of the Tucson Masterworks Chorale. “I just wanted to put the girls out there so people would know about them. I would call people and say ‘Look, we’ll do it for free.’”
They started doing shows at senior centers and retirement communities. In 2009, they joined members of other community choirs and the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra for Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” And each summer, the Advanced Choir, comprised of high schoolers, hits the road. They left Saturday on a tour that includes performances in Pittsburgh and Toronto.
But it’s the new outreach choirs that fill what Molina saw as a glaring gap in the 30-year-old performing group’s makeup.
“There are a lot of white girls, a lot of girls from the foothills. Where are my south-side girls? Where are my African-Americans?” said Molina, who was born in Colombia and earned her doctoral degree in music at the University of Arizona.
Most of the girls in the outreach ensembles cannot afford the annual tuition, which ranges from $500 a year for beginners to $1,150 for the Advanced Choir. Scholarships and financial aid are available, but many of the girls in the outreach choirs also struggle to find reliable transportation to the Girls Chorus East River Road campus.
Last summer, the Stonewall Foundation kicked in funding to support the Imago Dei choir for two years. Fresolone, the chorus’ assistant director, started the group with about 20 girls from the inner-city parochial charter school, which is open to low-income students. The Pascua Yaqui group launched a six-week program this spring.
Imago Dei practices once a week after school. That Wednesday earlier this month was the school’s final rehearsal before two concerts — one with the full Girls Chorus, the second a headlining concert with a guest appearance by the Mariposa Singers, also made up of middle-schoolers.
The girls formed a two-row semi-circle around Fresolone and Butler in a corner of a spacious second-floor room. A few of the girls were fidgety, nervous about their big spring concert. To get their attention, the towering conductor raised his hand — almost touching the low ceiling. A hush fell over the room as they followed his lead on Benjamin Britten’s folk tune “Old Abram Brown”:
“Old Abram Brown is dead and gone / You’ll never see him more. / He used to wear a long brown coat / That button’d up before.”
“Don’t go too high,” Fresolone said, and off on the far right end of the front row sixth-grader Mireya Caballero smiled sheepishly, revealing braces and an enthusiasm that was contagious.
Butler stepped in to conduct the English folk tune “The Water is Wide,” and her inexperience was not lost on the girls. Her timing was a bit off, her emphasis not as seamless as it needed to be. Fresolone offered pointers and two choristers in the front row, Melody Zuniga and Idolina Perez, reassured her that she was doing fine.
As the rehearsal went on, a few of the younger girls lost their focus and Imago Dei math teacher Ariel Beggs stepped in to settle them.
“It’s just been a brand new experience for them. It’s been a journey with them,” said Fresolone, 39, who came to Tucson in 2006 to get his doctoral degree in organ performance from the UA. “We’re just trying to give them that experience. For some of them that will be enough, and maybe some of them will get the music bug and want to continue learning.”
Few of the students were familiar with how a chorus operates when they started, said Beggs, who is the liaison between the school and the chorus.
“I really think every girl walked in thinking ‘American Idol’ because that’s their only real reference to watching people sing. I think they are really starting to see that music is a way for you to express yourself. I think they are definitely along that journey toward that end.”
Mireya said she never imagined herself singing anything outside of radio pop songs. But on that Wednesday she stood tall and sang a traditional Zwahili folk song in the native language.
“I think this opportunity is amazing,” the 12-year-old said afterward. “I like singing these kinds of songs. I think it’s really different, but it’s really nice and I actually enjoy it.”
“When you talk to the girls, they talk about how empowered they are and they (develop) such deep friendships,” Molina said. “They just start believing in themselves and they will literally find their voice.”