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Sing! Music Academy's free youth choral program teaches music and much more

Children in the Sing! program gathered for an all-choir rehearsal at the Music Academy in September.
Beth Thornton
Children in the Sing! program rehearse during their after school programs then gather for monthly all-choir rehearsals at the Music Academy of the West.

Sing! is a free choral program for Santa Barbara children in 1st through 6th grades offered by the Music Academy of the West and coordinated through after-school programs on elementary school campuses.

“We wanted to bring Sing! to where the children are instead of forcing parents to try to take off work or to try to get their children to this program and that’s why we placed it in the after-school programs,” Ellen Barger said.

Barger is with the Santa Barbara County Education Office. She’s also on the Board at the Music Academy. She said Sing! creates opportunities for all students regardless of income to have music instruction at a world-class level.

“Sing! has been designed with attention to equity and based on the belief that while talent may be equally distributed, opportunity is not,” Barger said.

She said the president of the music academy started the program in 2018 after a trip to London. He learned about the London Symphony Orchestra’s youth choral program and brought the idea back to Santa Barbara.

Barger said Sing! has six school sites around the county, and they hope to grow the program over time.

“Currently, we are only serving the southern part of the county from Carpinteria to Goleta, but we have plans to expand over the next several years to the full county,” she said.

The program is fully funded by the Music Academy through grants and donations, and Barger said all children, regardless of where they attend school, can participate at one of the after-school sites at no charge.

“All children from all local schools, and that can be public schools, charter schools, private schools, home school. Every single child in the area is invited,” Barger said.

Erin McKibben is the program director with the Music Academy. She said Sing! is performance-oriented but students first learn the fundamentals of music. They also learn the importance of teamwork.

“They learn that their voice really does matter. They do have opportunities to shine individually, but they learn that they are really crucial to making the whole group successful,” she said.         

McKibben said singing in a choir is a great way for children to express themselves. They also perform songs in a variety of languages which she says introduces them to music from other cultures throughout the world.

“Whatever they go off to do, they will have a greater degree of empathy and understanding of others, and that is, I think, the main goal of our choral program,” she said.

About 150 students are signed-up for this year, and McKibben said the children make a commitment to attend rehearsals after school and also at the Music Academy.

“We expect quite a lot of our singers. They go to two [rehearsals] during the week, and then once a month we provide transportation to our monthly all-choir rehearsals and they are here at the Music Academy,” McKibben said.

She said many of the children and their families have never been to the Music Academy located just up the road from Butterfly Beach in Santa Barbara.

The Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara hosts musicians from around the world. The youth choir performs with some of the visiting artists.
Beth Thornton
The Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara hosts musicians from around the world. The youth choir performs with some of the visiting artists.

The Music Academy of the West is a 10-acre estate that regularly hosts musicians from around the world. The building itself is a work of art with music halls, practice studios, and gardens.

“It’s really fun to see them step into this beautiful space and own it and know that they belong here, and that this is their choir and their space to be in,” McKibben said.          

Fifth-grader Niki Sarouei said the children’s choir sometimes performs on the big stage with visiting artists.

“It’s really fun and you get all these privileges, for example, who gets to sing in the Granada Theatre with Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra,” she said.

Niki attends Hollister Elementary School in Goleta. She said, since joining Sing! three years ago, music has become an important part of her life – along with school and sports.

“My favorite part of the program is my friends, my teachers, and our voices all combined together,” she said.

Niki recently took up piano, too. Her mother, Aazam Feiz, said the program inspires her daughter and the whole family to learn more about music.

“Music helps you when you are sad, it helps when you are happy, it helps you for everything,” she said.

Feiz said Sing! brings children together which is especially meaningful after so much pandemic isolation. She said her daughter is making music and memories.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.