A featured soprano of an award-winning American Fork choir isn't likely to clutch a string of cultured pearls while hitting the high notes of an Italian aria.
Jeans and T-shirts are more his style.Gregory Russell affects a genuinely embarrassed smile at the proud choir director's praise of his strong, clear voice. In private, though, he concedes he really likes to sing.
With a hesitation typical of one so young, he says one of his favorite songs from the Great White Way is "Everything's Coming Up Roses," made famous by Ethel Merman.
"Singing is a hobby that takes me away from my worries," said the Mountain Ridge Junior High School student during a two-hour rehearsal at Forbes Elementary School. "And I guess I have the same worries as any other 12-year-old kid has."
Like math class. And practicing the saxophone. Or baby-sitting younger siblings.
Russell auditioned for the American Fork Children's Choir last fall because he'd heard the 45-voice group had been selected to compete at a national music festival in Washington, D.C.
"I've never really been that far away," he said. "I've been to Illinois, you know, to see Nauvoo, but I've never been to Washington."
Gold-medal performances at previous choral competitions earned the choir entrance to the prestigious Festival of Gold. American Fork's chorus is the sole Utah delegate, as well as the only children's choir scheduled to perform at the by-invitation-only event April 25-27.
American Fork's choir, made up of Utah County children ranging in ages from 9 to 16, have toiled at four-hour practices twice a week for the last month to hone songs in Latin, French, German and Spanish languages.
They will be required to perform four songs as a group in the competition. Another four songs are being learned for a joint performance with the other choirs. And an additional four must be memorized for select choirs that will be chosen at the festival.
Nationally known conductors will judge the field of 25 choirs. Of those, eight will be selected to sing at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The judges, hailing from such places as University of Missouri at Kansas City, University of Arizona and the American Choral Director's Association, also will hold 30-minute, on-stage clinics with the choirs.
"It can get hard to get them to stand still," said Laura Dunn, an assistant director of the American Fork choir. "But it's not a social club. Not the way the director works them. They get a 10-minute break in two hours."
Director Marilee Barratt, who is a music teacher by trade, started the choir in the rural Utah County city 10 years ago. She has traveled across the country to study how top conductors brought out the best in children's voices.
Barratt, with help from vocal coach Julee Wright, wants to expose children to "quality music," as well as proper singing and breathing techniques. A strict attendance policy requires dedication and a responsible nature for the boys and girls, who all pay $195 in tuition each year to belong to the choir. All performance trips are paid for by each individual member.
"I wish we could get more participation from boys," lamented Barratt, nodding to the handful in the choir. "Boys provide depth. But it's not - at least in this town - a macho thing to do."
"I'd like to have a few more boys," agrees Russell," but it's good to work with girls because they are probably a little more mature."
Jaymie Beck, 11, found a place in the choir this year. The Highland Elementary School student is enchanted with the foreign songs, although she's not really sure what the lyrics mean.
"They tell us but I forget," said the self-described fan of pop-rock groups Hanson and the Spice Girls. "But it wasn't too hard to learn."
Kaiti Warnick takes time away from basketball practice to be in the choir. The 12-year-old from American Fork can't wait to visit the nation's capital.
"Being the choir is just fun. I like being with people and being with friends."