Peru HS swing choir performs at Carnegie Hall

Apr. 28—PERU — Students in Peru High School's swing choir say they are better than ever.

The chords are more in tune. The entire group, composed of 19 students, can stop singing at the exact same time.

"We're able to pick up on each other's vibes," said sophomore Samantha Gornto.

The students credit a March trip to Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, where they performed with other high school choirs from across the country and rehearsed with a guest composer.

The high school swing choir was invited to audition by the National Youth Choir for the Festival at Carnegie Hall.

Peru went to the festival eight years ago.

"Our music program has a pretty solid reputation," said Jason Gornto, choir director.

Swing choir features more advanced vocals and combines vocal jazz, acapella and choreography. Essentially, it's an advanced choir that also dances. Peru High School's swing choir is audition only.

Choirs representing Indiana, North Carolina, Texas and Washington attended this year's festival. About 150 students in total participated. Peru had one of the smallest groups.

Choirs were tasked with learning and performing college-level songs, which have a greater vocal range and more challenging rhythms and harmonies. One song had students sing in multiple different languages.

The Peru kids were up to the challenge.

"These songs were all what you'd expect for a college choir," Gornto said. "As musicians, they individually grew. They are better now than before they went."

Anton Armstrong was the guest conductor. He is the conductor of the St. Olaf Choir and a music professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.

"He brought a wealth of experience to rehearsal that really benefitted our kids," Gornto said. "It reinforces a lot of things we are already doing."

Sophomore Miguel Sebastian said they also learned new things they can apply to their performances.

"I think we were able to improve ourselves as musicians," he said.

The students said they worked on enunciating consonant sounds and being more articulate in their singing. They picked up tricks, such as placing a hand on their face to feel how open their mouth was during practice.

The trip to Manhattan was all expenses paid. Local donations, money saved over the years and a $5,000 contribution from the Peru School Board ensured no student had to pay to go.

For most students, it was their first trip to New York City. For half, it was their first time flying.

The group made the most of their trip, going to Broadway, the Empire State Building, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Little Italy and Chinatown.

"For most of us these kids, this is life changing," Gornto said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime trip."

Giving students unique experiences is one part of his job that Gornto relishes.

"It's a really important role I think teachers have," he said.

Though the trip was over a month ago, students still talk about it with excitement.

"Imagine the most mystical scene from a movie ... that's it," Sebastian said of performing at the historic Carnegie Hall.

"Performing in Carnegie Hall means you've made it," Samantha Gornto added. "That energy has stayed in the theater."

Spencer Durham can be reached at 765-454-8598, by email at or on Twitter at @Durham_KT.