'More than just singing': Voena choir channels healing power of music

For the Voena choir, it is not just about the song.

"At first when I perform, I get nervous, but then I get engaged," said 12-year-old Adlai Kakhadze. "It helps be more bold to speak to someone and not be shy."

The choir's founder Annabelle Marie says the choir focuses on physical singing.

"The movement gives a full body feeling to the music. It's not just head, it's full body relationship and feeling to the music," Marie said. "When the kids have this full body capability and full body expression, they really digest it, almost like they digest food."

Marie created Voena in Benicia back in 1994, and she said she always knew this children's choir would be different.

"The biggest thing about this, teaching these kids in this choir," Marie explained, "is it's helping them have teamwork skills, leadership skills, because I want these kids to make a difference as adults. And so Voena is more than just singing."

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There are no auditions, and the choir has had an estimated 1,200 children from all over the Bay Area joining in. On average, Marie said, the children are in the choir for 8-12 years, and their audience is global.

"We get to travel worldwide, so when I am singing out in front everybody – and especially when I have solos – it makes me feel special," said 11-year-old Grace Castaneda.

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

"President Clinton said that ‘You are a truly American choir,’ because we are so eclectic in what we do and so unique," Marie said. "So President Clinton wanted to own that and say, ‘You are truly an American choir, and you represent the United States.’ That's why we represented the United States at the World Expo in Japan."

Beyond the World Expo, 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 of the countries, we are the very first children's choir from America that they've had," said Marie proudly. "There's been so many times that we've had that privilege."

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

She said the concerts began on one night, but they continued because "it was visibly so valuable because we had people walking on the rocks to sit at different places. We had boats coming in, we had kayakers coming in and couldn't wait for 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 Voena was created, music remains the thread that connects them all.

"Oh, my gosh. I love it all. I love it all," Marie said. "I will sit here at the piano and I’ll play until 1:00 in the morning and just playing and singing."

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

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

Yet, these days, it can give us even more.

"I’m still dealing with kids who have eating disorders from the pandemic depression. I'm still working with kids on that and picking positive, positive, positive songs," Marie said. "Our season for spring was called voices of courage."

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