The polished, soaring voices of Montana’s high school choirs will be in the television limelight when the Tim Janis Celebrate America Montana PBS Special airs on Monday.
In January, hundreds of students representing nine choirs from around the state gathered for individual recording sessions in Bozeman for the national production that puts the spotlight on the nation’s youth and their musical talents.
Among the stars of the show: Missoula’s Hellgate High School Chamber Choir.
“We took about 45 kids that day to sing, and it was a really good experience for everyone,” said Lee Kirkegaard, Hellgate High School choir director.
“The whole process of making music is different when it takes place in a studio,” he said. “The kids learned you only have x-minutes to get it done, and even though there’s no audience, they had to sing as if there was someone they were singing to.”
Adding pressure to the unusual performance was the challenge of standing in the hot spotlights and many cameras necessary for making the production.
“When we sing in our regular environment, the audience is usually seated beforehand and is very polite and we have their attention,” Kirkegaard said. “But this was very different.
“With the TV lights it was incredibly bright, and the director was calling over his headset, cables were everywhere, and the crew was running back and forth.”
The Hellgate choir, which is the only Missoula ensemble in the show, performed two songs – the Hellgate school song and “Irish Blessings,” an original work composed by Kirkegaard.
For the past five years, Janis has travelled the country to produce the Celebrate America program, putting the spotlight on 22,000 students in different states and different cities.
This season, the show will feature an hourlong program on the Montana choirs, and also two other productions that include choirs from Detroit, Mich., and New Orleans.
Janis was impressed by the quality and enthusiasm of the Big Sky students, which included choirs from Belgrade, Big Timber, Billings, Polson, Stevensville, Livingston, Hamilton and Bozeman.
“The students did an amazing job and were really well prepared,” Janis said in a phone interview while at his home in Maine. “I think the music educators and their level of excellence they brought to their program and brought on air really shines through on the television broadcast.”
The whole point of the productions is to showcase the talents of American high school musicians and share their abilities and talents to broader audiences, Janis said.
“It is really a platform to give these opportunities to share what our music educators and what their school performance can achieve,” he said.
For Kolbey Gaustad, a Hellgate junior, the experience was exciting and unexpected.
“I have never been in a recording studio like that before, and it was really fun,” he said. “Tim Janis really kept our spirits up and kept us relaxed, and I felt like we did really good work to get the sound we wanted – and I think we surpassed what we wanted to do.”
Claire Zellmer, another member of the choir said she never considered how things unfold in a recording studio.
“It was kind of intimidating at first because I thought we would be on stage with just a microphone, and when we got into the studio it was kind of overwhelming to have all that production stuff around,” Zellmer said.
“I learned it takes a lot more work – more tries than I thought it would,”she said. “It was a really cool opportunity for our school.”
Monday, when the program airs to all of Montana, will be the first time the choirs will see the production.
“You never really know what it will sound like because of the editing process,” Kirkegaard said. “But the important thing now is that our students have a sense of what goes into a studio process, and the was a big thing for them.”