Don’t Stop The Music

Members of Kapa‘a Middle School Choir and ‘Ukulele Band practice performing for the upcoming Heritage Festival.

Kapa‘a Middle School Choir and ‘Ukulele Band members are always looking for ways to improve their craft and share their love of melodies and harmonies with the community.

The delightful voices of young, talented musicians from Kapa‘a Middle School Choir and ‘Ukulele Band fill an empty classroom during a recent Friday afternoon. Some wāhine are dancing hula, while another strums an ‘ukulele with her instructor, Loke Sasil. At the helm is choral director Mary Lardizabal, who tickles the ivories and directs their lovely voices.

This group of young ladies are among the 44 students from Kapa‘a Middle School Choir and ‘Ukulele Band who will make their way to WorldStrides Music Festival next month. Their plan is to bring home the gold for the second year in a row, and by the sound of it, they might do just that.

‘Ukulele is a large part of Kapa‘a Middle School Choir and ‘Ukulele Band.

“The judges are right in front of you,” says eighth-grader Kayla Branco-Maxwell. She adds that last year’s festival was nerve-wracking for the group.

Even though their nerves might have been on red alert, the team won a double gold — first place in both ‘ukulele and choral performances.

“We’re all really proud of each other,” adds Bran-co-Maxwell.

The group, the only ensemble representing the state, packs their bags and heads to Anaheim, California, in mid-March, with the competition set to take place March 17.

This year, ‘ukulele and choral students will perform and dance hula to a Hawaiian rendition of Michael Jackson’s Heal the World. They will also perform Mahalo Ke Akua, a song written by Sasil, and Hōkūle‘a Star of Gladness. The chorus will perform Rhythm of Life, Stand in the Light accompanied by sign language, and Alterations.

Keahi Bacon and ‘ukulele instructor Loke Sasil practice as Mary Lardizabal plays piano in the background.

“It’s very, very deep and challenging music,” says Lard-izabal.

Offering an artistic avenue for keiki and something other than sports for middle school students is what Lardizabal has been championing for two decades at Kapa‘a Middle School. She says learning music helps them grow academically and assists in building self-confidence. This is especially true for the students who

opt to perform in the choir and ‘ukulele band — something in which only a fraction of her 165 students choose to invest their extracurricular time. She sees them grow each time they perform in the public.

Lardizabal and her students offer free performances at various venues, including Kapa‘a First Saturdays.

“It’s just our gift, we want to give back,” she says.

And watching her students perform is one of Lardizabal’s favorite pastimes.

Kayla Branco-Maxwell regularly dances hula and sings with her musically inclined classmates after school.

“Just to see how amazing they truly are,” she says.

She adds that music is her life and passing her skills along and watching keiki shine is the cherry on top of her sundae.

“It makes you happy,” agrees Sasil, who volunteers her time once a week to instruct ‘ukulele students. “You sit back and watch the creation that you built, and to me, that’s a prize.”

Even though Sasil won’t be attending the festival this year, she knows her students will do well because she gets to watch them improve each time they practice in front of an audience, including during their local winter and spring festivals.

“The more they perform, the better they get,” she says.

Kapa‘a Middle School Choir and ‘Ukulele Band members share a laugh. Many of them formed friendships after becoming a part of the musical ensemble.

Seventh-grader Keahi Bacon says she feels lucky to improve her ‘ukulele-playing skills with Sasil because learning to play the instrument has greatly impacted her life.

“With this one instrument, you can bring a whole crowd together,” Bacon says.

But that’s not to say that being part of the Kapa‘a Middle school Choir and ‘Ukulele Band doesn’t come with challenges.

“You’ve got to hit the right pitch; you’ve got to know how to read the notes; you’ve got to memorize the songs and be performance ready at all times,” says sixth-grader Mia More.

It’s something that can be overcome, however, especially when everyone feels like they’re working together.

“And it’s just one big, happy family,” adds seventh-grader Jennifer Hayakawa. Being a part of the ensemble has also allowed Hayakawa to make a lot of new friends.

Tyra Koerte-Llego dances hula with her Kapa‘a Middle School Choir and ‘Ukulele Band classmates during an after-school practice session.

Among them are sisters Carah Koerte-Llego (eighth grade) and Tyra Koerte-Llego (sixth grade), who not only have made friends through Kapa‘a Middle School Choir and ‘Ukulele Band, but also have become closer to their family members at home.

“They would always come home and sing the songs, and it sounded super fun and cool,” says Carah. “And I always wanted to sing, so I thought that coming here would help teach me how to sing a little better.”

And sing well they do. In fact, Lardizabal says her students this year are among some of the best she’s ever taught. They’re not only strong vocally, according to the music teacher, but their expressions as they perform are also right on par.

“Some kids just have a natural talent,” says Lardizabal.

Lardizabal, who has now taught generations of students, including the Koerte-Llego sisters’ mother, Joanna, has no plans to stop.

“I’m going to the end,” she says.

Donations may be made to Kapa‘a Middle School Choir Booster Club, a 501(c)(3), at P.O. Box 1493, Kapa‘a, HI 96746. The spring concert happens at 6:30 p.m. May 9 at Kapa‘a Middle School’s covered court. Email for more information.