Fifth graders Claire Thompson, Sophia Porreca and Tamilyn Lechuga, from left, all attend Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy.

(Photo: Courtesy Denver Public Schools)

More than 1,000 students from around the United States are performing this weekend with the National Children’s Honor Choir in Salt Lake City. It’s one of the most prestigious junior choruses in the country. And three students from a school in southwest Denver made the cut. 

"This is enormous,” American Choral Directors Association director of education and communication Scott Dorsey says.  “It simply does not get bigger than this.” The non-profit music education organization is sponsoring the event.

Their accomplishment is all the more notable because none of the three girls  -- Tamilyn Lechuga, Sophia Porreca, and Claire Thompson -- has ever taken private voice lessons. They attend Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, a school in southwest Denver where 80 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced lunch.  And they just love to sing.

From the moment they learned they’d been selected in mid-November, they were hard at work learning eight new songs for the performance, as well as their numbers for the school musical, "Alice in Wonderland," and rehearsals for the elementary school play.

All three say they got their start while riding in their cars when they were around 3 years old. "That’s where everybody sings, pretty much," Lechuga says.

It was the musical "Annie" that inspired Porreca to exercise her vocal chords. "I got obsessed with it," Porreca says. "And I just sang those songs all day long."

Lechuga said singing makes her happy on sad days. If she’s not feeling like going to school, she sings; if there’s too much homework, she sings. "Once you get the hang of it, hey, you can do anything singing!" she says.

Porreca, too, likes how singing can change moods.  One day, when her family was in the car and everyone was in a sad mood, Porreca started singing to a song on the car stereo. 

"I just started singing and then the whole car lit up and everyone was singing," Porreca says. "And I was like, ‘even your worst day can be happy if you just sing a song.’"

Thompson, for her part, likes to sing songs to reflect her emotion in any given moment.

"If I’m sad, or just calm, I’ll sing a favorite song that’s pretty quiet and slow," she says.

Getting ready for the big day

Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy choir teacher Sara Burton.

(Photo: CPR/Jenny Brundin)

Preparing for the national choir has taken a great deal of work. Instead of hanging out or playing tag, the girls spend their recesses practicing with their choir teacher Sara Burton. The eight songs the girls are learning are at the difficulty level typical of high school music. The repertoire includes a Baltic song sung in Latvian and a Brazilian song in Portuguese.

Porreca and Thompson are sopranos. Lechuga is an alto. They’ve learned their parts on their own and this week they’re practicing them together. It’s challenging, and Burton patiently dissects the music with her students, going over every line.

Burton began working with the girls about six years ago when the school first opened. The principal at the time had a vision that students in this southwest part of the city, marked by high levels of poverty, could practice the arts.

Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy offers a wide spectrum of rigorous arts-focused programming. It includes dance, music, choral singing, fine art and graphic design.

"We have students that never would have been able to do this that have just succeeded and they’re representing the school," Burton says. 

She is particularly proud of her students’ achievement of making it into the National Honor Choir because the more prominent metro area art school, the Denver School of the Arts, did not get any of its students into the ensemble this year. 

"I love Denver School of the Arts and they have a wonderful program and we are not them," Burton says. "It’s great to be able to compete at that kind of a level and give the same opportunities to our students that they have up there."