Feels Like the First Time: Reliving My School Choir Days

Foreigner_-_I_Want_to_Know_What_Love_Is
English cover of the 1984 single “I Want to Know What Love” Is by Foreigner.

You know that feeling you get, when something you always thought was pretty cool coincides with something you love, and makes a whole pile of awesome? Benedict Cumberbatch on Sesame Street, the It’s a Wonderful Life episode of Warehouse 13, little boys dressing up as Darth Vadar for Superbowl commercials. All of that rolled into one big moment for me this week, when I found out that Foreigner—a British/American band that brought us “I Want to Know What Love Is” and “Feels Like The First Time”—was not only playing in my town, Portland, Maine, this week, but on stage with them would be the choir from Deering High School.

I was a bit of a choir geek back in the day. Sure I toyed with Orchestra and the violin, I half heartedly learned the guitar, but it was to the choir room I found myself going year after year throughout high school. From Mr. Mason, our choir director, I learned lessons of diction and clarity that I still hear myself repeating on an almost daily basis. How long to carry an “s” sound in the middle of a word. When to use a hard “g” in “ing,” and when to swallow the middle of a word. From Mr. Mason I learned the opening pre-amble to “White Christmas,” memorized the words to “The Seven Joys of Mary,” and learned that a high E was within my range. It is no longer within my range.

Turns out, this is something that the band has done across the country for the past six years as part of their effort to promote music education. Along with the chance to perform on stage with a band that has sold over 80 million albums, the participating choir gets $500 and the opportunity to sell Foreigner CDs on site. The sales go to the music education fund of the Grammy Foundation. The Choir’s role is only a minute long; they will sing backup on “I Want To Know What Love Is.”

I got the chance this week to ask a few questions of Gil Peltola, the Choir Director at Deering High School.

GM: What excites you most about this opportunity?
Gil: This is a great opportunity for my choral students to actually be on stage with a world famous rock band. They’re usually in the audience looking up, but this time they will be on stage looking at the audience.

GM: What excites the kids?
Gil: Pretty much the same thing.  The thrill of being on stage with a famous rock band. Actually, the parents are just as excited (maybe more!) about this adventure—they grew up with Foreigner.

GM: Has the Glee effect had an impact on how you, and indeed how the kids, approach choir now?
Gil: I just had this conversation with my students as we plan our music for the future.  They would like movement to be a part of their singing and productions but also realize that the music must come first.  They are thrilled about adding motion to their music.

GM: Were you a Foreigner fan before this?
Gil: I listened to them on the radio but I was more of a jazz fanatic.

GM: What are you doing to prep yourself, and to prep the kids for Tuesday night?
Gil: Not to down play our performance, but we will be just singing the chorus of “I Want To Know What Love Is” with the group on stage. We have a recording and video to watch.  Most important we need to be professional throughout the entire performance and smile as big as we can.

GM: What is your favorite memory of your own time with the groups of your youth?
Gil: Again, being a jazz aficionado, I had the opportunity to see jazz musicians such as Cannonball Aderley, Buddy Rich, Bud Shank, Herbie Mann, and others at local jazz clubs.  I hope my students will remember this concert and enjoy being a part of music on stage.

Gil expressed his thoughts on music in our education system, thoughts that I can testify worked in my own life thanks to a strong music program. “For me, the purpose of music is performance.  We work so hard at rehearsals to perform usually only one time. Hard work produces good results.  They can go as far as they wish with hard work and dedication.  Hopefully this will excite them and make them go further in life.”

My own choir director taught me vocal tools that I use everyday so the key thing I wanted to know from Gil was what he most hoped the kids would take with them when they left his Choir. “I hope they take the love of music with them.  I always tell my students that music is a life long personal partnership. In college there are many music groups, instrumental and choral.  Every community also has musical groups that the public can join. Love music and performance, and keep it in your life as much as you can—it is good for the soul.”

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Foreigner is playing, with Deering High School, at the State Theater in Portland, Maine, on Tuesday February 18th. Their tour continues throughout the year, check out their tour dates and see if they are playing with a high school choir near you.