SALT LAKE CITY — As Melanie Malinka prepares 24 of her Madeleine Choir School students to sing the national anthem at the Utah Jazz game on Feb. 6, there’s one thing she’s especially happy about: The court won’t be slippery.
Just three months ago, Malinka's students performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “O Canada” for the Los Angeles Kings-Vancouver Canucks exhibition game at Vivint Arena. While her excited singers had a rug (albeit thin) separating them from the ice, Malinka did not — an unfortunate circumstance she realized a little too late.
“It was frightening because I’d gone ice skating before and I know it’s slippery, but I had no idea that ice could be that slippery,” she said with a laugh. “I was just worried that if I conducted like I usually conduct, I would lose my balance. If one foot had slipped out, it was that slippery I would’ve not been able to hold myself up.”
So as her choir students’ three-part harmonies filled the arena, Malinka stood almost motionless, using small hand gestures to guide her singers through a brief performance that felt like a lifetime.
“My legs were shaking afterwards,” she recalled. “I’m excited that this one’s not on the ice.”
But the choir director still has her fair share of things to worry about for Wednesday's performance. National anthem performances are timed down to the second, and that kind of precision can be tricky when a large choir of children is involved.
“You’re told when to walk on, you have to stand exactly in this formation and once you’re on, you can’t change anything,” said Malinka, who grew up in Germany and has been with the Salt Lake choir school since 2001. “They immediately plop the mics in front of you and then somebody (says) ‘Go!’ and you have to start. That aspect for me is always nerve-wrecking.
“(And) they’re kids, after all. They’re doing this after having been in school all day, so it’s not like they’re rested,” she continued. “And they’re pumped up because they're excited about the opportunity, so the adrenaline is a little bit higher. … It can be unpredictable.”
But there’s one thing Malinka doesn’t need a crystal ball to foretell: Her students are going to knock it out of the park.
Because for the fifth through eighth-grade choir students at the Madeleine Choir School, performing is second nature. The choir goes on tour every year, rotating between national and international performances, and just last year the students traveled throughout Italy and performed in Vatican City. Last month, more than 20 students participated in Utah Opera’s production of “The Little Prince,” and some are now preparing for the upcoming production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” Most choir students also perform multiple times weekly, taking part in Mass services at the cathedral.
“The type of singing they do … it’s a great service that they provide to our community at the cathedral,” Malinka said. “But I think because it’s every week, sometimes you can kind of get in a rut.”
The over 18,000-seat Vivint Arena is by far the largest venue the kids have ever performed in — the Cathedral of the Madeleine seats around 850 — but the singers aren’t nervous.
They’re ecstatic. Especially 12-year-old Oliver Laughlin, who’s a big Rudy Gobert fan. And while Abbey Trewitt, 12, looks forward to seeing the players up close and watching them warm up, she’s even more excited to share her talents with a different — and much larger — crowd.
“It’s something kind of out of our norm,” said Trewitt, who performed the national anthem with the choir last year. “It’s a good type of different. When you think of a children’s chorus singing a national anthem, it’s usually not in tune or (it’s) pitchy — it’s not really the best. But then when (the crowd) hears us, you see all these people light up. … I love that feeling.”
The 24 choristers don’t have a lot of time to work their magic at the game. This isn’t a three-hour opera production or Mass service — they only get to take center court for a minute or two. That’s why Malinka sought out Cathedral of the Madeleine organist Gabriele Terrone to compose a flashier arrangement of the national anthem — an arrangement she hopes will cause Jazz and Suns fans alike to take note. The arrangement has it all: high parts, three-part harmonies and, near the end, even a four-part harmony.
“It’s not your typical pop kind of arrangement,” she said. “You can hear in it what type of music we usually do without making it sound sacred or churchy.”
But for Malinka and Matt Kitterer, the choir school’s director of advancement, above increasing the choir’s exposure, the best part about the students getting to perform the national anthem at the Jazz game is the valuable lesson it teaches that sports and arts don’t have to — and shouldn’t — live in mutually exclusive worlds.Comment on this story
“You think about choir school, and athletics doesn’t come to mind,” Kitterer said. “That is something that’s a little bit of an uphill battle for us. We’ve had really successful athletic programs, and a focus from our leadership here is balance. … There’s a lot of opportunity (at the school) to be involved in (athletics) and that’s something that isn’t always understood.”
“This is a great opportunity for the students to see that you don’t have to choose,” Malinka added. “You can do both — you can be sporty and you can also do music, and it’ll only enrich your life in all different kinds of ways.”