May 10 was a day of firsts for choir teacher Chris Maunu as he directed a piece that was full of challenges, changed at the last minute and unusually captivating for the audience.
“When we performed, the audience was absolutely silent — there was no shuffling around, no checking the program,” said the Arvada West High School choir director. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The piece, “A Hive of Frightened Bees,” focuses on the fear students face as gun violence becomes more prevalent within schools. Arvada West’s Company West choir performed the song for the first time at its concerts on May 10 and 11.
The song’s lyrics come from a poem written last year in an Arvada West class by former student Taylor Huntley. Huntley wrote her poem, “A Hope for Change,” in response to a violent threat written on one of the school’s bathroom walls. The threat was written just after 17 died in a school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
“There was a lot of trauma and frustration that the students had to live in fear at school,” Maunu said. He added that the threat took an emotional toll on the community as, after being discovered in the late afternoon, the threat was not fully investigated and dismissed until the next morning.
Huntley proceeded to draft her poem and share it with her choir class, leading Maunu to post the poem in a Facebook group for choir directors. He was soon approached by Andrea Ramsey, a composer and music educator, who said she wanted to put the words to music.
Maunu agreed, deciding with Ramsey that the Company West choir would be the first group to perform the piece.
The choir performed just days after the May 7 incident at STEM School Highlands Ranch, in which one was killed and eight were injured. The tragedy prompted Maunu and Ramsey to edit the piece at the last minute, adding the name of the STEM School to a list of schools which the choir recited at the end of the piece.
Company West, made up of sophomores, juniors and seniors, has spent more than two months rehearsing the piece, Maunu said. He added that he allocated about 60 percent of the class’s daily rehearsal time to the piece, finding that the technical and emotional aspects of the song warranted extra rehearsal time.
“It was more difficult than what we usually do,” he said. “The vocal parts are more complex, and we spent a lot of time in discussion about the topic.”
Kaylee Nguyen, a senior at Arvada West, said the emotional nature of the piece played a role not only in rehearsals but also in the performances.
“There were moments on stage when I had to bring myself back and not let the emotions weigh me down,” she said, “but I think the emotions helped, because there was passion behind what we were singing.”
She added that she and her peers had been looking forward to sharing the song with the community.
“I think over the entire choir, even though it was something new and scary, we were definitely willing to try it,” she said.
“Choir is so connective by its nature. It’s one of the best places to approach different topics,” Maunu said. “The kids have had some really healing conversations.”
Maunu said he may assign the piece to other choirs in the future and that any choir director in the country can now use the piece.
As for the first performance, he felt the long hours of rehearsal paid off in the moments at the end of the concert.
“There was an epic standing ovation that seemed to last several minutes,” he said. “I think this can get people thinking and talking about the topic in a responsible way.”
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