Yang Chen ought to be more frustrated than he appears.
It's after school, two days before the skinny, spiky-haired Grade 12 student will lead a group of his Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute peers to the Show Choir Canada Nationals – wherein 11 high school choirs from across the country will compete for the distinction of Canada's top song-and-dance ensemble – and rehearsal is hardly going smoothly. The band is fudging Yang's most recent arrangements to varying degrees of success while the choir oscillates between effort and giggles with uniquely teenage aptitude.
"Guys, you gotta focus," Yang, 17, instructs his choir between stage blocking tweaks and music troubleshooting. "I know it's hard, but I need you to focus."
For a second, they oblige.
This school year's tense TDSB labour climate hasn't been kind to city high schools' ad hoc arts ensembles. With staff-supervised extracurricular activities nixed for most of 2013, seven of 18 confirmed choirs pulled themselves out of Show Choir Canada's running altogether.
"The strike threw a lot of wrenches in the competition this year," concedes George Randolph, Show Choir Canada co-founder and the president and founder of Toronto's Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts.
To keep the Marc Garneau D-Verses in the mix, Yang took over the group himself, leading rehearsals during lunch breaks three days per week. From song selection to musical arrangement and choreography, every aspect of the performance bears his mark. He's even co-ordinated costuming, recruiting volunteers – his own grandmother among them – to sew the D-Verses' jewel-tone tunics.
In two days of performances, ensembles are rated on visual presentation (which includes costumes and choreography), vocal prowess and set design. After day one's preliminary competition, the 12 schools are whittled down to six for day two's final competition on Sunday, where they'll perform as many songs as they can cram into their maximum 30-minute set. Some schools opt to pluck from the pop pantheon, while others go for show-tune standards.
"We have a lot of immigrants from [south Asia] and southeast Asia, so we're doing a kind of Romeo and Juliet program to bring these two cultures together and represent the diversity of our school," is how Yang explains his programming. D-Verses, he adds, is a play on "diverse."
The schools participating in the weekend's competition are diverse, too. In addition to the math and science-oriented Marc Garneau Collegiate will be past champions Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts and Etobicoke School of the Arts (ESA), as well as groups from as far away as Montreal and Vancouver.
"The arts should be number one, then get to the computers and math," half-jokes Wexford Gleeks director Ann Merriam, a statement that's tough to imagine a representative from Marc Garneau Collegiate repeating. Meanwhile, Paul Aikins, director of ESA's Splash, brought in a top choreographer from Chicago to co-ordinate his students' moves.
"Of course we want to win," says Mr. Aikins. "But I'm pretty confident that we're going to have a showcase that's really entertaining, and probably pretty different from everybody else's."
Mr. Randolph prefers not to discuss the wide resource gulf between some of the competing schools. He insists that, ultimately, the competition is more about the learning process that led to it than it is about end results.
"The purpose of the competition is to empower young people," he says, citing an educational mandate that includes free workshops with the likes of Broadway star Lisa Stevens. "We really believe that the arts help develop the individual as a whole person."
"There's a community built up, and it becomes a safe place," concurs Ms. Merriam. "We create a village. There's no single class that can provide that the same way as the arts, when you're building a show or a show choir."
For Yang Chen, this might be especially true. Directing his peers hasn't always been easy, but it's been rewarding. While he admits that his group might not have the strongest performers of the bunch, he feels privileged to have helped them progress. "It's really amazing for me to lead this group of students. I really want to see them develop confidence and be part of something special."