The new teacher struck a chord. In less than a year, her classes saw a 49 percent increase in student enrollment. They had to double the number of classes and hire another teacher to handle the growing interest.
What made nearly one-fourth of Kahuku High and Intermediate’s total student body flock to these classes? Jacosa Limutau-Ainuu’s choir program, which offers everything from Bruno Mars-style choreography to hip-hop, jazz, classical and rock music, to performances and competitions. (Photo: Jacosa Limutau-Ainuu belts out a song.)
Some 340 students attend at least one of three courses offered in nine separately held classes: high school choir, intermediate choir and Vocal Motion. Newest choir teacher Amy Gold instructs four classes.
The power of a great leader, who can hit all the right notes and motivate a tough audience, is evident in the spiked numbers of happy participants, teachers and classes in choir director Ainuu’s program. She came to KHIS from California last school year, bringing more than 10 years’ experience in directing high-profile musical productions, performing and teaching.
A Kahuku native, Ainuu has taught private voice and piano lessons, and music at the elementary, middle, high school and college levels. She’s managed large theatrical productions and soloed at hotspots including House of Blues Los Angeles. Along the way, she earned director-category awards and placed in annual jazz festival competitions in Monterey and Santa Cruz, Calif., and Reno, Nev. She also coordinated a Gladys Knight tour.
Vocal Motion is a class and the name of the school’s competition-level group. “These students perform the most difficult material,” said Ainuu, who obtained a music-education degree from Boston University. “They’re expected to be program leaders, help behind the scenes, choreograph, hold after-school rehearsals, and travel to festivals and competitions.”
Last year, Vocal Motion performed at the Lokahi Festival in Honolulu. This school year, Ainuu plans to enter it in California’s Anaheim Heritage Festival and Columbia College Jazz Festival. Recent performances include a September 11 tribute, and shows at schools and football games.
Whether onstage or in class, students practice what their choir teachers preach. Intermediate choir class teaches students the basics of music reading, vocal technique, music history, focused listening, choreography and staging. High school choir covers the same areas at a higher level. In one class, Ainuu informally introduced more challenging techniques and repertoire, normally reserved for advanced choir classes.
One of Ainuu’s goals is to formally add an advanced high school choir class as a training ground for Vocal Motion. She’d also like to add another Vocal Motion-type group. “With all the interest and the tremendous talent at KHIS, there’s no reason we couldn’t have two advanced choirs and two top-performing groups,” Ainuu said. “We need scaffolding to prep kids for more advanced training. I’m trying to build in levels so that students can work through a progressive program and qualify for Vocal Motion.”
Tweaking the choir program and ensuring stability with more supports resonates with students. “What I like best is that I get to express myself the way I want, which is through music,” said senior Amelia Faleta, Vocal Motion choir president. This year, she’s enrolled in Vocal Motion and high school choir classes.
Photo: Vocal Motion performs in 2015. Photo credit: Siana Burgess.
Laie resident Ainuu attributes the quick success of her program to four reasons: genuinely caring about her students, encouraging an environment that’s clean and tidy with supportive behavior toward fellow classmates, having high expectations of herself and the students, and letting them choose the music for their classes. “Involving them in the process creates buy-in on their end, so they’re open to learning,” she said.
As focused and ambitious as Ainuu is, “Nothing should be more important than how a human being is doing,” she stated. “I try really hard to notice and understand each student, and make them feel loved and appreciated.”
“I like that we can do any style and genre, and highlight every person in the group,” said Vocal Motion student Samuel Workman. “It’s a fun dynamic when we make good music together.” However, “what’s most challenging is that you’re working with some of the best talent in the school, which can also mean the biggest personalities, so there can be some drama and lack of focus. But if you can harness that in the right way, like we have, it’s awesome.”
Students have begun migrating to the choir classrooms — their safe havens of expression and acceptance — during recesses and breaks. This indicates to Ainuu that she’s moving closer to her goal.
“I’m a big proponent of keeping the big goal in mind and meeting students wherever they are,” she said. “If they become appreciative audience members, start their own band, just enjoy listening to music in the car, or become music therapists, Broadway stars or the next Beyonce, I want them to love and appreciate music.”