WMS chorus hits a homer with performance at Braves game

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For most Atlanta Braves fans, just sitting in the stands and watching a game is enough to get their adrenalin pumping. 

But just imagine being a middle school student, standing on the edge of the center-field grass and singing the national anthem in front of thousands of baseball fans in the “home of the Brave(s).” 

That’s what 28 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade chorus students from Woodland Middle School got to do Saturday afternoon before the Atlanta Braves-Miami Marlins game at SunTrust Park. 

“It was a surreal experience and such a fun and memorable way to finish out middle school,” said Abby Cates, who will be a freshman at Woodland High this fall. “It was so exciting to be able to do this with my friends and have my entire family there to watch.”

Sydney Groves, also a rising freshman at Woodland High, agreed.

“The experience was awesome,” the 14-year-old said. “It was so fun to go out on the field in front of everyone with all my friends.”

Director of Choral Activities Mallory Tafoya couldn’t have been happier about the way her first group of students to ever sing at a Braves game performed.  

“I am very proud of my students and of their performance on Saturday,” she said. “I think they put it all out there, and it really paid off.” 

Tafoya and the chorus received an email Dec. 7 inviting them to sing at a game after the director submitted an application and a recording of the group singing its arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” 

“I decided to submit our chorus to the Braves for consideration to sing because I truly believe in my students’ skill and ability to perform well in any venue,” she said. “Once we were accepted, we were given the schedule of available dates and asked to submit three that worked for our group.”

“Being invited to sing at the Braves game was a huge honor,” Abby said.

When performance day rolled around, a contingent of about 200 supporters — including Principal Michael Blankenship, instructional lead teacher Tia Wilkes and new WMS teacher Amber Steele, Tafoya’s high school friend — headed south to the Braves’ new home in Cobb County.  

“What a great opportunity for our students to shine,” Blankenship said. “When I heard that our chorus was going to be able to sing the national anthem at the Braves game, I was elated. I knew they were good. This would be an opportunity for thousands of others to hear them and know how good they are.”  

Tafoya, who was grateful for all the support received from chorus parents and school and district administrators, said the most special moment for her happened “about halfway through the performance itself.”

“You’re standing there, in the middle of the field, in front of thousands of people, and there’s this huge echo from the microphones,” she said. “The chorus was singing, and the sound from the speakers reached us about three words later. It’s really tough for anyone to sing in that situation, regardless of age, but my students were doing a spectacular job of following me with the tempo, and I could hear all three parts evenly. They weren’t over-singing, and they were paying attention to their vowels and the ending consonants — two things we work on quite a bit in class. I was hit with this overwhelming mixture of pride and joy because I knew that this was a moment my students would look back on with pride. They didn’t just perform in a crowded stadium — they truly made music there.”

Blankenship also may have popped a few shirt buttons due to the group’s performance, saying he was “one proud principal when I saw them walk out on the field and heard it being announced over the speakers.”

“Ms. Tafoya and the chorus did a fantastic job,” he said. “It’s one of the best renditions of the national anthem I’ve ever heard. Those students stood there on such a large stage and just shined. This definitely stands as one of my proudest moments as a principal.”

The performance was a chance for WMS, as well as the entire Bartow County School System, to shine, Blankenship said. 

“We have so many good things happening in our system right now,” he said. 

Abby, 14, added it was “just incredible to be able to go out onto the field and sing the national anthem and represent Woodland Middle.”

Tafoya said any student involved in the 2018-19 choral program was eligible to sing in the Braves game chorus, and rehearsals were held after school let out for the summer. 

“The eighth-grade students learned this arrangement in August, as we performed it for the Eighth Grade Night at Woodland High School and for the school’s Veteran’s Day ceremony,” she said. “The sixth- and seventh-graders who joined us for the Braves game came to rehearsals that were scheduled from June 22 to July 3.”

The group had “relatively short rehearsals for this event, as it was well into summer break,” Tafoya said.

“I offered several different options, and students were only required to come to one in order to perform,” she said. “The eighth-graders assisted the younger students in learning their parts.”

Tafoya said “The Star-Spangled Banner” is “definitely one of the most difficult songs to perform well,” due to the large vocal range and the “rather long” phrases.

“Additionally, the fact that so many pop stars have recorded their own versions or have performed at national events, such as the Super Bowl, means that young singers tend to copy it,” she said. “The vocal techniques used by the pop stars are fine for them since they are mature singers, but they can be harmful to the untrained voice and make it more difficult to sing well.”