Seneca Valley eighth-grade singer shares worldly experience
It's too early in Jonah Akers' singing career to call this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The Seneca Valley Middle School eighth-grader is a member of the Children's Festival Chorus of Pittsburgh and recently joined fellow performers to sing at the One Young World Summit on Oct. 18 at Heinz Hall in front of an audience that included former president Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations.
“It felt good to be singing at something so important,” said Jonah, though the big names didn't rattle his nerves. “I'm really good at keeping cool.”
Jonah, of Cranberry, joined CFC in the sixth grade, partly prompted after seeing his older sister perform at a choral concert. He realized he also had a desire to sing.
His mother, Maureen, had no idea he could sing until she heard him in the shower one day.
“I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I thought there was a radio on,” Maureen said.
The CFC is a nonprofit premier children's choral program that provides professional-level choral education to children in the Pittsburgh region. With a reputation for high-quality performers, the CFC was selected to perform at the recent summit, specifically the program's top Bel Canto level of which Jonah is a member, said CFC executive director Jim Van Valkenburgh.
“(One Young World organizers) were looking for an inspiring group. We were very honored to be selected,” said Valkenburgh, of Shadyside.
The One Young World Summit is “where young delegates, backed by One Young World counselors, debate and formulate solutions for pressing issues the world faces,” as noted the One Young World website.
The Bel Canto group of 38 performed an opening number with three songs, including one in Swahili and French, which produced a standing ovation from the crowd, said Valkenburg.
“I was welling up with tears,” he said. “They were so amazed by the reception they got.”
CFC members can range from the age of 5 to 16, with current enrollment at about 140, Valkenburgh said.
Members are part of three levels, beginning with Talisman, Troubadours, and then the Bel Canto, which is the most accomplished of all levels.
While Bel Canto might do more involved musical performances, often singing in different languages, all three groups work together, he said.
“The CFC gets you to try to be not just a better musician ... it helps you be a better person,” Jonah said.
Valkenburgh said the program is led by artistic director Christine Jordanoff, professor and director of Choral Organizations at Duquesne University's Mary Pappert School of Music.
The children are also taught by associate conductors Lisa Jaworowski and Angela Evans Machi, both who work full-time as music teachers in area school districts, said Valkenburgh.
The Pittsburgh Symphony, the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops, the Pittsburgh Opera and the Mendelssohn Choir are some of the professional performance groups that use the CFC children for their performances from time to time, he said.
Maureen, 42, said her whole family is involved in music, though she and her husband, Daniel, “don't know where they got it.”
Their oldest daughter Rebecca, 16, occasionally performs with the Pittsburgh Musical Theater and her other daughter Suzannah, 9, is also in the CFC at the Talisman level.
Her other son Ben, 11, did one semester with the Troubadours but she said his interest level for singing isn't as high and is taking a break from it.
Jonah, 13, also plays baseball at SVMS and has a current affinity for French.
The children of CFC spend a lot of time together, including about two hours every Monday for practice, usually at Duquesne University.
The two older groups also spend a week-long summer camp for members to learn more musical skills, as well as getting to spend time together, said Maureen.
“We really get along. We do have the opportunity to be social during our breaks,” said Jonah. “We all know we all have something in common.”
Maureen is impressed by the level of dedication and maturity these children reach, while still being able to be kids.
“They're extraordinary kids and they all meet these demands with joy,” she said.
The CFC performs a variety of shows each year, including the much-anticipated winter production this year titled “One Singing World,” which will include some songs from the Young World Summit, said Maureen.
The performance will be held on Dec. 9 at 4 p.m., at East Liberty Presbyterian Church 116 South Highland Ave. in Pittsburgh, said Valkenburgh. Tickets range between $15 to $26. These can be purchased through their website at www.cfc-pgh.org.
Natalie Beneviat is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.