This summer, the Fountainview Academy Orchestra and Singers travelled from their private, Christian boarding school outside of Lillooet to tour and perform across Europe.
For their A Mighty Fortress performance, the high school students stopped in five countries including Germany and Portugal and recorded a to-be-released DVD of their gospel music performances.
"The philanthropist who got that rolling is a business man from Lisbon, Portugal, who has a winter home in Whistler," says Craig Cleveland, director of music at the school. "It's one of the reasons we're going to Whistler. It all kind of ties together."
The group — made up of all 85 students at the school — will be performing songs from their European tour at Millennium Place for a free show Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. (They'll also hold a show earlier that day at 2:30 p.m. at the Pemberton Community Centre. They'll be playing gospel songs like their title track "A Mighty Fortress," "Heaven Came Down" and "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."
The school focuses on vocational training, with students learning skills from farming to cooking, and all must participate in either the choir or orchestra. Around 75 play instruments with the other 10 singing.
But how does a musical group without a tryout process become good enough to be invited to perform around the world?
"We have always said that while we have a strong music program, we are not officially a music school," Cleveland says. "To come to Fountainview you don't have to be a violinist or a singer. Every year we have kids learn from scratch."
The secret, he says, is to capitalize on their strong points and be encouraging. He remembers one student in the choir who didn't have a particularly great voice, but performed with a big smile. "I would teach him voice skills and I told him, 'You need to be really careful of what you do, so I want you to sing a little softer than (before). He learned to sing where his out-of-tuneness wasn't noticed, but he sang with a gorgeous smile."
Later on, at an event to promote the school, a video of the group performing was playing and a passerby pointed at the same boy. "Look at him singing his soul out," Cleveland remembers them saying. "Little did they know he's a totally tone deaf kid. Everybody has something to offer, even if it's someone smiling and singing a little quieter."
All of the students hone their skills though with tons of practicing. They rehearse for 50 minutes four times a week, with students getting one-on-one training every day and practicing on their own.
Their hard work has paid off as they've travelled up and down the west coast stopping in Oregon and California to perform. During spring break next year, they're also planning a tour across much of the U.S.
"It's an experiment," Cleveland says. "Things have gone well enough before. They love to travel and share."