UHS Choir Wins Contest to Sing with Rock Legends
Urbana High School choir students had the chance of a lifetime—to sing backup vocals at a rock concert at the State Farm Center. We chatted with their director, Becky Park, to hear what it was like to perform with the iconic rock band Foreigner on October 22. We also learn about the choir’s fundraising efforts for their upcoming trip to Disney World, where they will give a performance and have some well-deserved fun.
Becky Park has been teaching at Urbana High School (UHS) for nine years. Originally from the Chicago suburbs, Park earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Park always wanted to be an teacher but disocvered choral education was her calling when she was 12.
“I think the reason for that is because I was in a children’s choir when I was younger, and the director was a Korean woman,” Park explained. Having someone who not only was a great musician but also looked like her was a big motivator. “I was just so inspired by her and what she was able to do with a young group of kids,” she continued. It was in this choir that Park discovered her love of singing. Singing engages the whole body and mind, a sensation that made her feel “the most alive.” She knew she wanted to share this experience with her future students.
Aside from her love of music, Park was drawn to the relational aspect of teaching. “Because teachers had such an impact on me in my formative years, I wanted to be able to do the same and be another adult figure in some of these kids’ lives, especially for some who maybe didn’t have the best adult figures,” she said.
At UHS, Park directs three curricular choirs and two extracurricular a capella groups. Since taking the position nine years ago, Park has tried to focus on building community within the choral program. She tries to get to know her students, their families, their backgrounds, and their cultures and lets that inform her music choices. By fostering a sense of community, she hopes to provide a safe space for kids from all backgrounds and grade levels to come together and discuss difficult things happening in the world, at home, or at school.
She also hopes to get her students out into the community and have them experience the world through music. Pre-pandemic, she took students to sing at Carnegie Hall in New York City. She also takes her a capella groups to compete around the Midwest. This semester, music is taking these eager young singers to two exciting places: a rock arena and Disney World.
At each of the stops on their tour, Foreigner mounts a competition for area high schools to sing with them on stage as a way to spotlight the importance of arts education. Speaking with WCIA 3 News, Foreigner bassist Jeff Pilson said, “When there’s funding problems in schools, the first thing that goes is the music department. And that’s just so wrong, because it’s been proven that music education really helps all other areas of education.”
Park found out about the competition earlier this fall when colleagues and parents sent her the press release. Park gauged her students’ interest first before applying because she did not want to make them do anything they were not excited about. Granted, Foreigner did not have universal name recognition among her students, but they were excited nonetheless. While some of her students said their parents were fans and already had tickets to the concert, most recognized Foreigner’s famous 1984 power ballad “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
It was a good thing too, because that would be the song the students would sing with the legendary band later that month.
To apply, the choir had to submit a video of an unaccompanied arrangement of a classic rock song. Park chose Queen’s 1976 anthem, “Somebody to Love,” which the choir later performed at the school’s pep assembly. A dozen other area schools applied, submitting videos to WHMS’s website. The videos brought in over 19,000 votes, with UHS edging out Mahomet-Seymour by 100 votes.
Park and her students only discovered they had won the contest just two weeks before the concert. On the big day, Park and 30 of her students arrived at the State Farm Center two hours before showtime. Although they did not have a chance to soundcheck with the band, they met with a stage manager, who covered the do’s and don’ts and the logistics of getting on and off the stage. Because “I Want to Know What Love Is” was second to last on the setlist, the students got to watch most of the concert from the audience before heading backstage for their big moment.
“The kids were just instructed to sing the melody of the chorus of the song,” Park explained. “Obviously, there’s one part where the band drops out and it’s like an a cappella moment, and you hear the kids and everyone in the audience singing along, and that was pretty magical.” After the song finished, the lead singer kept the kids on stage while he explained why they invite high school choirs to sing at all of their concerts and the importance of funding arts education.
When asked what she thinks her students will take away from this experience, Park said her students were surprised at how many people there were and how intense the lights were from up on stage. “I hope that they’ll also take away from the experience seeing what a professional group looks like on stage and just how much they work the crowd and how much they get into the songs,” she said.
What she thinks her students will remember most, however, is performing alongside their friends and the sense of camaraderie that grew out of the competition process itself. They had to not only learn a difficult arrangement for their audition but also campaign to get enough votes to win. “I think we grew a lot as a group, just even in learning that song in a short amount of time and actively caring about it being the best that it could be because the stakes were so high.”
In addition to the fun experience of performing to a crowd of 15,000, the UHS choir received a $500 donation from the band, which will go towards their upcoming trip to Disney World in December. The students have been fundraising for over a year through catalog sales, car washes, and a silent auction. This extra donation will help cover transportation costs to and from the airport. Though some students can afford to go on their own, the fundraising will help cover travel expenses for the many students whose families are not in a financial position to pay for the trip.
The choir will perform at Disney Springs, the shopping center at Disney World. They will sing a mixture of repertoire, but mostly selections geared toward audiences at Disney, such as Disney medleys and Pentatonix songs. They will also attend a recording workshop at one of the Disney hotels. While not singing, the students will get some well-deserved downtime exploring the parks. “We’ll be there for New Year’s Eve, so they’ll get to ring in the new year with their friends at Epcot, which I hope will be magical,” Park said.
To prepare for their trip, the UHS choir will be giving a winter concert on December 13 featuring traditional holiday fare alongside Disney classics. You can also catch UHS carolers at the indoor Market at the Square at Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana on Saturdays in December.