The PYC tales

Last month, four Mt. Lebanon middle-schoolers said “cheerio” to the U.S. and embarked on a weeklong trip to England with Pittsburgh Youth Chorus. It was PYC’s first international trip in the organization’s 33-year history, and it will not be the last.

Four Mt. Lebanon students participated in the International Children’s Choir Festival in England. Front: Lilly Cheskawich, Elaina Berdyck Back: Natalie McGee, Alex Farb

“We now have a policy that we will have a major trip every three years, and on the off-years we will do something smaller-scale, like [music festivals in] Philadelphia or Columbus,” says Shawn Funk, Artistic Director at PYC, a nonprofit specializing in classical choral education and performance for kids in the Pittsburgh region.

More than 150 children participate in PYC yearly in one of its three choirs: Troubadours (third grade and up), Talisman (fifth grade and up) and Bel Canto (sixth grade and up). The inaugural international trip to England was for the older students in the Talisman and Bel Canto choirs.

The trip started in Canterbury on Sunday, July 23, for the first part of The International Children’s Choir Festival, led by acclaimed British conductor Dr. Henry Flood and American conductor Henry Leck, who specializes in children’s voices.

The students got to stay at Christ Church University, where they rehearsed in Christ Church and Canterbury Cathedral with choirs from Massachusetts, Virginia and California, in addition to doing some sightseeing in the area. While in Canterbury, PYC performed a short solo concert, which featured a cappella repertoire including an Appalachian folk song and the Zambian tune Bonse Aba.

Sightseeing in London on PYC’s first international trip.

The group moved on to London on Thursday, July 27, for the second part of the International Children’s Choir Festival, where they got to do some touring around the city, including a trip to the Tower of London. They also performed in a large combined concert in Southwark Cathedral, which featured varied classical and sacred repertoire. It concluded with Holst’s I Vow to Thee, My Country, a patriotic British hymn that was a favorite of Princess Diana’s and was played at both her wedding and funeral. PYC returned home on Saturday, July 29. Some of the families, including two from Mt. Lebanon, extended their trips so that they could spend more time in Europe.

“The festival is a very non-competitive atmosphere. It’s very much an attitude of ‘let’s share, let’s learn, let’s talk, let’s connect,’ which is very congruent with our philosophy,” says Funk. “At PYC, we teach children a lot about reading music, music history, vocal production, developing their voice and singing healthfully … We hope that this trip will also be a good social experience for the students, as well as musical one.”

Elaina Berdyck, Lillian Cheskawich, Alexander Farb and Natalie McGee were the Mt. Lebanon students who participated in the trip. Scroll down to read about each student’s time in London, including tips for travelers and for children who may be interested in auditioning for PYC.

Elaina Berdyck (8th Grade, Jefferson Middle School)

Elaina Berdyck (Center Right) enjoys high tea with PYC friends.

Favorite Part of Your Trip: “Singing in the cathedrals. When we hit the final note of the song perfectly, the sound rings through the building, and it is magical … In PYC, we learn to sing in different languages and the festival gave me the opportunity to sing in beautiful languages such as Latin, Hebrew, French, English and African dialects. As a Christian, it was important to me to worship in such a historically significant place.”

The Things You Learned: “I was … awed at how well the history in Canterbury and London is preserved. I experienced life in a part of the world that is so much older than America, and the fact that I could still stand in a cathedral, which is over 1,500 years old where monks and saints were, is absolutely amazing. I also realized how much I adore my friends who sing with me, and how we have become such a tight-knit family. I learned that when you get once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, you must live in the moment and soak up every moment because you will most likely never do that again.”

Your Experience with PYC: “This year will be my seventh and final year singing with PYC. I auditioned in second grade when I was seven, soon to be eight years old. I have been a member of all three choirs … I love everything about PYC. I love the beautiful music, the talented conductors, the performance opportunities, the travel adventures and the lifelong friendships. If someone is considering auditioning, I would tell them to go for it. The staff are extremely kind and accommodating and they make auditioning fun. PYC has changed my life through performance experiences, an outstanding music education and the bonds formed with fellow singers.”

Lillian Cheskawich (8th Grade, Mellon Middle School)

Elaina Berdyck and Lillian Cheskawich

Favorite Part of Your Trip: “My favorite part of my trip to London was getting the special opportunity to work with the International Children’s Choir Festival conductors, Mr. Henry Leck and Dr. David Flood, and their fantastic accompanist, Thomas Allery. These fine conductors taught us new ways to use our voices to get the desired sound.”

The Things You Learned: “I learned … that, in the UK, steering wheels are on the right side instead of the left. I also learned is that the Queen’s royal guards’ black fuzzy hat is called a ‘busby.'”

Your Experience with PYC: “Besides singing I also enjoy playing the violin and softball … I’ve been a member of the PYC choir for five years. I am a singer in the Bel Canto Choir … PYC is such an amazing program for those who enjoy singing and want to learn about different styles of music. Everyone is super friendly and gets along. If someone is considering auditioning, I say go for it! PYC is a phenomenal group who make beautiful music together.”

Alexander Farb (7th Grade, Mellon Middle School)

Rehearsal in Canterbury Cathedral

Favorite Part of Your Trip: “The first concert venue, Canterbury Cathedral. Even when the softest words were spoken, the sound still echoed, which means that when around 200 singers start singing, the sound is quite loud and grand. Even our conductors say that the cathedral ‘sings back to us.’ It also has so much history behind it, and to be singing in a piece of history is almost like being a part of it myself.”

The Things You Learned: “One of the things that I learned about in England was the story of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was interesting to see the different famous places where he and others performed various actions, like where Becket was decapitated. I also learned about different English phrases and the correct ways to interpret different them, like how American fries are ‘chips,’ how American chips are ‘crisps’ and how lemonade is always carbonated. If someone says, ‘with greatest respect,’ they basically mean ‘you’re an idiot.’ If a sign has an arrow that says ‘lifts,’ it leads to the elevators.”

Your Experience with PYC: “Starting this September, I will be in my fourth year of PYC in my first year of the Bel Canto choir. The last two years, I have been in the Talisman choir … I love working with all of the conductors … If anyone were to consider auditioning for PYC, I would tell them to not stress out. It’s only an audition. You can’t be penalized for not knowing about the very thing that you’re there to learn, especially if you’re planning to have fun while doing it.”

Natalie McGee (8th Grade, Mellon Middle School)

Natalie McGee and Lillian Cheskawich

Favorite Part of Your Trip: “Simply being in a new place with different people, laws, traditions and history was thrilling by itself. But what was truly the best part was singing in Canterbury Cathedral. Where many people who go to Canterbury simply stop in to admire the architecture for a few minutes, we had the opportunity to really be part of the cathedral every day and know it like a second home.”

The Things You Learned: “Each of the choirs was from a different place, but when we all came together with very little in common, save for the songs we were told to learn, we were able to create something beautiful. Another thing that I learned was to always bring an umbrella! Truly, it could start pouring at any point in time and being soaking wet in sixty-degree weather is not fun. Finally, egg salad is ‘egg mayo,’ tuna salad is ‘tuna mayo,’ chicken salad is called ‘coronation chicken,’ and shrimps are called ‘prawns.'”

Your Experience with PYC: “I have done PYC since I was in fourth grade, and I am in the Bel Canto singers … Being a primarily classical group, PYC is not what a lot of kids think of when they think of singing. Of course, we do a wide variety of other songs as well, but make sure that you’re sure this is what you want before you audition. PYC is an incredibly rewarding and fun experience, but it takes a lot of practice and dedication to get there. But don’t get me wrong, there are so many great things about this choir and we would love to see you next year!”

PYC in the 2017 International Children’s Choir Festival’s final concert at Southwark Cathedral, London.

Know a student who is a good fit for Pittsburgh Youth Chorus? Auditions for all three choirs (third grade and up) will be held on Friday, August 11, at Pittsburgh Opera’s headquarters in the Strip District. Click here to schedule an audition, though walk-ins are welcome. No audition prep is necessary.

Or click here to learn more about the Neighborhood Training Choir for students in first through third grade, which is a twelve-week session to introduce basic music principles to young musicians. The South Hills training choir meets at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Upper St. Clair.