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For choir students at Liberty High, it's about more than music

Liberty High choir, led by Julie Wydrzynski
Julian Abraham
Julie Wydrzynski leads the choir through a warm-up. In this exercise, they are singing a warm version of "Hey Jude" by The Beatles.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — As choir Director Julie Wydrzynski warmed up her students in the Liberty High School auditorium on a recent Friday night, she took time to congratulate aloud a few of the singers in the group of 135 about their solos, upcoming graduations and hard work.

Every time she did, the students let out hearty applause for each other, and some got off the risers to give each other hugs.

If that sounds unexpected from stage full of teenagers, Wydrzynski says things are different here.

"That's them," Wydrzynski said. "They're just a super supportive group. You can say anything, like mildly significant, and they're just all in. They're so happy to be part of this.

"I love that they cheer for each other nonstop — like somebody could tie their shoe, and there's a thunderous applause because they did it well. They're just cool people."

The group was about to perform in the 2023 Spring Concert for a sold-out crowd. In addition to the choir, there was a pit orchestra in front of the stage — strings, horns, woodwinds and a comprehensive percussion section with some focused-looking kids who played timpani, chimes and what appeared to be every type of drum imaginable.

Liberty High School Choir

Wearing tuxedos, black dresses and some historically-convincing Barbershop Quartet outfits, the students warmed up on stage with a few vocal exercises. It was hours before the show, but some eager parents started to fill the auditorium just to hear the warm-ups.

In one practice song, they sang an a capella version of The Beatles' "Hey Jude," taking turns among altos, tenors and sopranos. It was just a warm-up, but sounded perfect to the untrained ear.

In another warm-up called "Shake it out," the kids jumped up and down, flailing their arms like an inflatable tube man outside of a car dealership, singing and yelling gibberish like a made-up language, laughing with each other.

Pep talk

Addressing the group, Wydrzynski took on a serious, yet nurturing tone.

"I think it's safe to say we put an epic amount of work into this," she said. "Months and months, and hours and hours and hours. So now it's time to shine, it's time to put all that hard work to use and to be totally focused."

"They're just a super supportive group. You can say anything, like mildly significant, and they're just all in. They're so happy to be part of this. I love that they cheer for each other nonstop — like somebody could tie their shoe, and there's a thunderous applause because they did it well. They're just cool people."
Julie A. Wydrzynski, director of choral music at Liberty High School

The students nodded, looking fired up. Some of the students playfully shook each other by the shoulders, like a coach might do to a pro boxer before a fight.

"Seniors, this is your — I don't want to get you emotional — but this is your last time on these risers, and I want it to be a memorable one for you," Wydrzynski said. "Not sad, not sad in any way, just — if you guys are feeling those feelings of sadness, it's because you had a great time. And that's the whole point of what we do."

Wydrzynski explained that the red stage curtains were going to open at 7 p.m. sharp — and instructed the kids to be on the stage, smiling and ready to go at 6:58. She emphasized the importance of greeting the audience with smiling faces, to set a tone for the show.

More than music

Many of the singers who spoke to LehighValleyNews.com said they were proud of what they do. Before the show, with an hour to kill, a number spent the time by the auditorium doors, welcoming people.

Senior Harley Cooper stood outside with a bright smile, and was greeted by a kiss from his mom. "I'm so proud of you," she said, and handed him a bouquet of flowers. The flowers weren't for him, Cooper said, but for a surprise later, on stage.

Cooper was visibly excited for the show.

"It's easy to be excited for things when we have such a great director, Ms. Wydrzynski," Cooper said. "She's absolutely amazing. It makes every single practice and rehearsal just so much fun."

Harley Cooper
Julian Abraham
Harley Cooper, before the show.

"We strive for the space to be a positive," Cooper said. "Anyone can sing, anyone can do anything here. But it's just so it's so welcoming from like the beginning when you when you come in as a freshman, we start out with, instead of rehearsing music, we're playing choir games to get to know each other."

Cooper said there are some traditions in the choir — like a freshman getting paired up with a senior for mentorship. The day before the concert, the freshmen all put up signs on the front lawns of the seniors' family homes, decorated with their names and congratulating them on their upcoming graduations.

For Cooper, and other students, music is like therapy.

"Our other teachers in English and Math are always great, but it's something special when you're performing together, or we're all just not having good days," Cooper said. "So we're going to do our shaking it out to get out our nerves, things like that are something you cannot duplicate in any other classroom in any other space. That's just the power of music."

Another visibly excited singer was freshman Joel Martinez. He spent his hour before the show with friends, playing mini golf at a wooden course constructed by students for guests to play that night.

Joel Martinez
Julian Abraham
Joel Martinez plays some mini golf to calm his nerves before the show.

"I am really excited," he said. "We've been putting a lot of work on this concert, I'm pretty sure it's gonna sound pretty well, and I hope the audience has a pretty good experience with us — hopefully it's the best."

Martinez admitted he was a bit nervous, but also confident. His spot is in the front row of the choir near the microphone, so he said there's a lot of pressure — but it's worth it.

"When I'm singing, I forget about all my problems, and just concentrate on singing," he said. "I just forget about my schoolwork, homework or anything else — and just concentrate on singing, and trying to do my best."

Martinez got his start singing in church at a young age, in Spanish, when he was only nine years old. Since then, he said it's become his favorite thing, and makes school fun.

"Not something most of the kids think school is," he said with a laugh.


As the singers promised, their smiles were beaming at 6:58, and the curtain opened two minutes later on the dot. The smiles promptly spread to the crowd, and they cheered so loud the audio technician had to turn the speakers up.

The show opened with a lively spiritual — "My Soul Has Been Anchored in the Lord." Between a mix of mid-century classics like "It's My Party" and "I Will Survive," Wydrzynski took the microphone and congratulated individual students on their hard work.

Joel Martinez
Julian Abraham
Joel Martinez warms up for the show.

The students had a surprise for her as well. A group of students smoothly interrupted the show towards the end, and gave her the flowers Cooper's mom delivered. Senior Tommy Fortsch, president of the Student Leadership Senate, shared how much Wydrzynski meant to his fellow graduates.

"We've been through so much in our four years of high school," Fortsch said. "And I'm speaking on behalf of all senior classes, all of everyone in choir, that [Wydrzynski] has honestly been such a motivator for us. She has been so helpful. She established a welcoming environment in choir, and it felt unlike any choir I've ever been a part of. I'm so grateful for that."

Handing Wydrzynski the bouquet, Fortsch said, "She taught us so much about what it is even just to be ourselves."

Wrapping up the performance, graduating students came out wearing orange t-shirts with "Class of 2023" on them, and sang their graduation song, "I Lived," by OneRepublic.

Midway through the song — a sob could be heard from a singer in the front row. She started tearing up, and hugging her friend next to her. This spread quickly, even Wydrzynski appeared to be moved to tears while conducting from the podium.

Singing graduation song
Julian Abraham
The students, wearing their class of 2023 shirts, sing their graduation song right before the mood shifted.

After the curtain closed the students rushed backstage, hugging and thanking each other for all the memories.

"This is like a family to me," senior Avante Kendall said. "So like, to just leave it like that — it's sad. I'm gonna miss them so much — like so, so much. Not seeing their faces every day, it breaks my heart, it really does."

Kendall is heading to Moravian University next year, where he's been accepted to the Music Education program. He said the choice was inspired by Wydrzynski.