Voena Choir channels the healing power of music

For the Voena choir, it’s not just about the song.

“At first when I play I get nervous, but then I get engaged,” 12-year-old Adlai Kakhadze said. “It helps to be bolder to talk to someone and not be shy.”

Choir founder Annabelle Marie says the choir focuses on physical singing.

“The movement gives a full bodily feel to the music. It’s not just the head, it’s a full bodily relationship and feel with the music,” Marie said. “When kids have this full body capacity and full body expression, they really digest it, almost like they digest food.”

Marie created Voena in Benicia in 1994, and she always knew that this children’s choir would be different.

“The most important thing about it, teaching these kids in this choir,” Marie explained, “is helping them learn teamwork skills, leadership skills, because I want these kids are making a difference as adults. And so Voena is more than just singing.”

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There are no auditions, and the choir has hosted approximately 1,200 children from across the Bay Area. On average, Marie said, children are in the choir for 8 to 12 years and their audience is global.

“We travel all over the world, so when I sing in front of everyone — and especially when I have solos — it makes me feel special,” 11-year-old Grace Castaneda said.

Marie said the choir has been to the White House five times.

“President Clinton said ‘you’re a real American choir,’ because we’re so eclectic in what we do and so unique,” Marie said. “So President Clinton wanted to take that on his own and say, ‘You really are an American choir and you represent the United States. That’s why we represented the United States at the World’s Fair in Japan.”

Beyond the World’s Fair, Marie continued, Voena was also the first children’s choir in Soweto, South Africa, as well as the first American children’s choir at international festivals in Bali and Sicily.

“When we go to these other countries, oh, so many countries, we’re the very first children’s choir in America that they’ve had,” Marie said proudly. “There have been so many times that we have had this privilege.”

For Marie, music is what binds and heals. For months during the pandemic, she was on her patio every night, bringing together people who had to stay away.

She said the concerts started one night, but they continued because “it was obviously so precious because we had people walking on the rocks to sit in different places. We had boats coming in, we had kayakers coming in and we couldn’t wait until the next night.”

When she couldn’t be with her choir in person, she brought them together online for Zoom collaborations.

Twenty-eight years after the creation of Voena, music remains the thread that connects them all.

“Oh my God. I love everything. I love everything,” Marie said. “I’m going to sit here at the piano and I’m going to play until 1:00 in the morning and just play and sing.”

Eight-year-old Evelyn Large described how music can change her mood.

“Usually the song, if it’s sad, it makes me sad,” Large said. “If it’s a happy song, it makes me happy.”

Yet nowadays it can give us even more.

“I’m still dealing with kids who have eating disorders because of pandemic depression. I’m still working with kids on that and picking songs that are positive, upbeat, positive,” Marie said. “Our season for spring was called Voices of Courage.”

The choir is currently preparing for a performance at Carnegie Hall in November.

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