SILVER SPRING – It was one of the last practices before a performance in front of the White House, and the Forest Knolls Elementary School fifth-grade chorus this week was reviewing pitch, tone, lyrics — even how to walk onto the stage.
“You’re going to tempt them to sing. Inside, they’re going to sing along with you,” teacher Arlene Christiansen said of the audience on the Ellipse, where the students are scheduled to perform Friday as part of the Christmas Pageant of Peace.
The Forest Knolls choir is one of more than 60 organizations, 22 of them from Maryland, that will sing, dance and play instruments in front of the National Christmas Tree during the monthlong celebration of the season.
“It’s going to be kind of freaky, but I think we’re going to do it — if everyone is in the right key and listens to Mrs. Christiansen,” said Ben Sudbrink, 10, after Wednesday’s rehearsal at Forest Knolls.
Christiansen frantically rushed around the school’s cafeteria Wednesday, shushing some chatty children while trying to coax louder signing from others in preparation for their 8 p.m. performance.
During the hour-long rehearsal, Christiansen tried to get the students beyond just singing in tune, encouraging them to make facial expressions, emphasize hand motions and “smile with your eyes.” Those who did were treated to M&M’s.
“That means alive in your face, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” Christiansen told the children. “You cannot exaggerate the words enough. We’re actors and actresses when we sing.”
Fifty-seven of Forest Knolls’ 92 fifth-graders are in the chorus, which will sing holiday melodies including “All Night, All Day” and “Snow is Falling.” Students will also play the recorder and xylophone — and, if one student’s father succeeds in hauling two harps downtown, there may be a father-daughter harp duet.
Their program includes a mix of light-hearted winter tunes and more mature pieces with some religious overtones. Religious music must be limited to a small portion of each presentation: The National Park Service requires all performances to be approved ahead of time to make sure the programs meet separation of church and state requirements.
The chorus was also scheduled to perform Thursday at school — another opportunity for the students to “try to do it as best as we can so we can prepare mentally for Friday,” Christiansen said.
“At this point, they’re not nervous,” said Mary Abe, whose son, Thomas, is singing. “I think when they get there they will be. But when they’re performing, they’ll be more focused than they are now.”
Forest Knolls, known for its emphasis on communication arts, is also sending a faculty ensemble to perform at the Ellipse. Forest Knolls students have attended the pageant in previous years, but Christiansen limits the performers to fifth-graders.
That means Friday’s performance is a first for all the students.
“It’s just going to be awesome, because there’s the Christmas tree and so many people,” Ben said. “It’s such an honor.”