Spirits ran high on the bus trip Saturday morning that took Cherokee High School's Concert Choir southward to a most auspicious gig indeed - performing during the holiday season tour at the White House that afternoon.
There was excitement in the seats. The 34-student choir from Marlton broke into their own version of Barry Manilow's "Copacabana" as their coach powered along.
At 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., they were shown into a dressing room with photographs of luminaries like Yo-Yo Ma (Ooh!) before they took their places in the gilt-and-wreath adorned East Wing. (Aah.)
But then came the time for them to sing.
"They were consummate professionals," choir director Nicole Snodgrass said of the performance. "They know when it's time to perform. They go into that mode."
She had no doubt they would.
The talented boys and girls of Cherokee's Concert Choir were among groups from around the country that sought and won a coveted place performing for the White House's annual winter holiday season open-house tours.
Two years before, their predecessors in the Concert Choir also were selected to sing at the White House.
Snodgrass entered the current Concert Choir, one of six singing groups at the Burlington County high school, She sent in a sample of their skills, but she didn't let them know. It was a secret.
"We heard a couple weeks ago," said Paige Ward, 17, a senior and choir president. "She called us all down during lunch so she could tell us about it."
Needless to say, they were psyched.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Elizabeth Hood, a junior and choir treasurer.
Having the choir invited back, even with different members, also was an honor for the school and its music program.
"The first time is awesome," Snodgrass said. "It's a shock and a surprise. The second time is sweeter. It means people loved you, and they want you back."
The Marlton choir has worked hard, with frequent practices. But the preparation goes beyond vocals.
"I teach my students, 'You have to believe you are worthy,' " said Snodgrass, whose father was choir director at Woodbury High School.
Always be prepared, she tells them, and be grateful.
"We write a lot of thank-you notes," Snodgrass said.
The Concert Choir members, like those in other Cherokee choral groups, have had their voices heard outside of school. The current Concert Choir accompanied the group Foreigner in concert and had the thrill of performing at Carnegie Hall.
"That was the greatest day of my entire life," said Alysia Torio, 17, a senior who is considering pursuing a professional singing career.
"When I'm on stage, I'm really comfortable," she said. "All the bad things go away. It's like healing."
"I feel like it's a way of relieving stress," said Hood, who wants to be a choral director. "Whatever mood I'm in, the music seems to fix it."
Like other music-loving young people who work hard to perfect their art, they and their voices rose to the occasion Saturday afternoon. Dressed to the nines in tuxedos and formal black gowns, they sang two sets of Christmas classics.
Torio and Cristian Ognibene, 17, a senior, sang solos on "O Holy Night." Hood accompanied her friends on a massive Steinway piano that, according to their director, had been played by celebrities such as Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles.
When they were done, they were rewarded with warm applause and lots of praise, Snodgrass said.
Before heading back to New Jersey, the choir stopped for dinner at a restaurant called the Majestic in Alexandria, Va.
"The head chef asked for them to perform," Snodgrass said.
Which they did, happily.
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