When Elena Sharkova, artistic and managing director of the Los Altos-based chorus Cantabile Youth Singers, noticed that her students seemed exhausted and disconnected coming to rehearsals, she decided to remove all of the chairs from every rehearsal room. Instead, singers can sit on the floor if needed, but Sharkova said they rarely do.
“They constantly explore and learn music with movement, so if they sing a line, they are encouraged – and now really cannot even do it without actually moving with the line,” she said. “It’s music, movement and mindfulness. If you look at the line, how it actually looks in the air, you will be a much better singer because you’re engaging everything.”
Sharkova guides Cantabile, which includes more than 200 singers ages 5-18, with the mottoes “music, movement and mindfulness” and “curiosity, compassion, courage.” The former is integrated throughout rehearsals as a way of expressing music, while the latter is how Sharkova hopes students will approach their repertoire.
“Sometimes it’s much easier to sing something that has a sweet, maybe a romantic message, something familiar, right?” she said. “But to sing music that is only sung (in) bare feet, music that is only sung outside, not in the beautiful concert hall – that requires courage because you don’t just put it into your violin, you have to open your own mouth to let that music live in the space where you’re in.”
Jace Wittig, director of Cantabile’s Young Men’s Division, said activities such as yoga and meditation require students to be “playful (and) engaged in every moment of rehearsal” that affects their performance.
“The thing about being a singer that differs from being an instrumentalist – and not for better or worse, just different – is that your whole body is your instrument,” he said. “So if you’re feeling a certain way, it’s going to affect how you sound, and that can be expressed in a positive way or at least in a deeper way when you involve the whole body in making movement and making music.”
Music and memories
Los Altos resident and high school senior Ninaad Raman said Sharkova and Wittig’s emphasis on empathy and understanding songs’ origins are among the most significant lessons he learned during his nine years in Cantabile. Raman, who will study at the Berklee College of Music after taking a gap year, added that it’s “really apparent that (empathy is) needed in the world today.”
“If you’re singing the music without an understanding of that, then it’s really hard to effectively put across the message that was intended for the song,” said Raman, who graduated from St. Francis High School in May. “And I think that’s something that can be applied to many more fields apart from music and just kind of social interactions with people on a daily basis.”
Cantabile also goes on tour every summer; this summer, Wittig said some of Cantabile’s choirs are headed to Hawaii and Sweden.
Los Altos resident Jessica Carlson, who will be studying music education at UCLA in the fall, said touring contributes to the “pretty astounding” lifelong friendships she’s created during the nine years she’s spent in the choir.
Carlson recalled singing “Amazing Grace” at a funeral in Italy after a man approached the choir after their scheduled performance nearby, humming “Amazing Grace” and leading them toward the funeral.
“It was one of those things where I was like, ‘Wow, we really are making an impact every time we go to do something, like every little thing counts,’” said Carlson, who graduated from Los Altos High School in June. “You never really know when you’re going to get an opportunity to change someone’s day or something like that, and that’s one of those things that I never would’ve experienced had I not been a part of this choir.”