Children's voices last week filled the music room at McLoughlin Middle School in Pasco with an "Oooh" that seemed to never end. While the altos and sopranos sang the long note, their director mouthed instructions to them.
And still the "Oooh" rang on.
Finally, the last, challenging syllable of Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas Is You came to a harmonious end. The treble choir let out a collective sigh of relief.
The kids had picked out the contemporary pop song for their holiday repertoire, perhaps underestimating the sonic pitfalls of emulating a singer known for her extreme vocal range.
"Mariah Carey is something that's not really for them," said Kurtis McFadden, the choir director.
It is difficult to find music for middle school choirs, said JoLyn Glenn, who directs the choirs at Enterprise Middle School in West Richland and Hanford High School in Richland.
The teens are too grown up for little-kids' songs, but don't yet have the prowess necessary for adult compositions.
That is why McFadden and Glenn four years ago took the unusual step of having a professional composer write a piece just for their two treble choirs. It went so well that they have jointly commissioned a new work every year.
The two directors' efforts to find better music for their students is producing results for kids everywhere. The original song the two choirs performed last spring was accepted by a major publisher recently and will be available for distribution to schools nationwide early next year.
It is very rare for middle school choirs to commission original music, McFadden said. But that didn't stop the two music teachers from discussing it over dinner one night.
"We decided to get proactive, in the hope of spreading this music to other teachers and other choirs," Glenn said.
In 2009, their two choirs merged for one evening to perform a piece by Reginald Unterseher, currently the composer-in-residence with the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers.
The next year, the kids sang a composition by Dave Cazier, director of choral instruction at Columbia Basin College.
Earlier this year, a concert of the two choirs at Hanford High featured the world premiere of Possum Gonna Play by Vijay Singh, a professor of music at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.
It just was picked up by Heritage Music Press and will be distributed across the country early next year, Singh said.
And after the winter break, the choirs will start rehearsing a composition Judith Herrington, the founder and director of the Tacoma Youth Chorus, wrote just for them.
Composers charge $700 to $3,000 to write a piece and hold a clinic with the kids, Glenn said. The money is raised by parents and boosters, and does not come from the district, she said.
For that money, the kids get a lot more than just a song -- they get a tailor-made composition.
Glenn and McFadden send the composers recordings of their choirs and examples of other works they can comfortably perform.
"I had a pretty good idea of how they sound," Singh said. "And I had a lot of artistic freedom."
The tricky part was to write within the technical limitations of the teenage voice while still producing something creative and challenging.
The kids can tell the difference between those custom songs and other material.
"(The commissioned songs) fit our voices more," said Paige Stanco, a 14-year-old soprano at Enterprise. "It just sounds better than the songs written for general choirs. These are made for us."
Not only are the songs written for them, but the kids also are instructed by the composers about how to perform the piece as intended. As part of the commission, each composer comes to the Tri-Cities to work with the kids on the day that the song premieres.
It leaves a lasting impression on the students.
"We worked with the McLoughlin choir at Hanford (last spring) and met Vijay Singh," said Kaarin Von Bargen, 13, a second soprano at Enterprise. "It was so fun."
"It was super fun," agreed Paige. "He was like a cartoon character. He could do all these voices."
More importantly, he helped them improve their own voices, Kaarin said.
"He taught us a lot of new tricks for singing," she said. "We learned a lot."
Singh told them how he wanted Possum to sound and helped the two choirs blend together, Paige said.
Directing the kids for a day was Singh's favorite part about the whole experience.
"The vibe was just fantastic," he said. "They were respectful. They were having fun and enjoying the interaction. Working with talented young people was really cool."
Interacting with a composer in the flesh makes for more than just a fun day for the students, McFadden said. It brings the art and skill of composing back to life, after dealing mostly with works written by classical artists of long ago.
"Most of them are dead white guys," McFadden said. "This gives kids an opportunity to see, 'You can do this.' "
Students have been inspired to write their own songs after meeting the composers, he said.
Commissioning the songs also has provided opportunity for the two teachers to showcase their kids to their former mentors. Glenn studied under Cazier at CBC, McFadden under Singh at EWU.
"Vijay is somebody I've looked up to -- same for JoLyn and David," McFadden said. "We could share a part of our past with the kids -- it's a new connection."
The students learn to interact with accomplished composers as equals, which contributes to the many skills being in choir can teach, Glenn said.
To become part of a choir, kids learn to collaborate, learn to work in groups and learn people skills, she said.
The students know they need to put the interest of the group before their own.
"Sometimes you just want to belt it out to the world," Kaarin said. "But you have to lay back -- I mean, it's a choir. It's a team."
The next world premiere featuring the collaboration of the two middle schools will be in April.