Downbeat returns with cheery holiday season and qualifies to Varsity Vocals quarterfinals


Sally Zhu

Four Downbeat members sing towards the audience during their Santana Row “Spirit of the Row” performance. Downbeat, an upper school performance ensemble of 13 students, qualified for Varsity Vocals quarterfinals in November.

by Katelyn Zhao, Assistant Sports Editor

Lights dim in the Rothschild Performing Arts Center theater and as the opening line of “Twelve Days of Christmas” rings out in the air, students, either dressed in shimmering gold a-line dresses or velvet blue button up shirts, all with scarves wrapped around their necks, belt out the lyrics and dance around the stage from one formation to the next. Once they strike their ending pose, a wild cheer goes up in the air and applause ensues. 

Big Assembly Day (BAD) marked Downbeat’s return to in person shows at the upper school after last year’s plethora of online performances. A few weeks earlier in mid November, the acapella ensemble qualified for the Varsity Vocals International Championship of High School A cappella (ICHSA) Western region quarterfinals. 

As a smaller ensemble of 13 members, Downbeat attends ICHSA because of its status as an all acapella competition designed for smaller choirs unlike most other opportunities in the music education world, according to upper school vocal music teacher Jennifer Sandusky. Previously, Downbeat participated during the 2018-2019 school year as well as the 2019-2020 school year when they progressed to the semifinals, but the performance was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The group recorded and submitted the songs “Landslide” by Stevie Nicks and arranged by Daniel Wu (12), Lucy Feng (11) and upper school music coach Paul Woodruff along with a  jazzy version of “Deck the Halls” for their audition in the fall. 

Downbeat member Shayla He (10) stresses the importance of attention to the song itself and its lyrics and balancing that thoughtfully with singing it.

“‘Landslide’ is a song that [is about] the people around us,” Shayla said. “It’s about how when everything goes down, we tell the people around us to guide and help us. When we’re singing it, we have to show a lot of angst. It’s not just about the vocal technique but also about showing emotion through our voices and also through our movements in the choreography.”

After confirming that they would be advancing to the quarterfinals, the ensemble started preparing two new songs for the competition, which will be held in Burbank on Feb. 25: “All For Us” arranged by Hirsh Sisodia, Eliot Min, Carly Tiras and Eric Tarlin and “Walking on Sunshine” composed by Kimberley Rew and arranged by Woodruff and film score composer Matthew Hodge.

Through extensive preparation and time spent polishing the songs, Downbeat refined their group harmony. Sandusky explains the incentive for entering the group in the competition.

“It’s a great opportunity for the kids to work on so many musicianship skills, and, at the same time, we get adjudicated feedback from four professional judges,” Sandusky said. “It gives the kids the opportunity to hear themselves and hear choirs from other schools and to get a chance to interact with high school students from other schools and compete with them.”

Since the last time Downbeat met in person prior to remote learning, the ensemble is now made up of entirely new members except for Anoushka Khatri (12) from the 2019-2020 school year. From the start of the year, Sandusky and Director of Performing Arts Laura Lang-Ree focused on developing the collective group sound and blending their individual talents in order to create a cohesive performance.

“I think the biggest thing is, and this applies to anybody who sings in any ensemble anywhere across the country, [that] we all spent a year and a half singing in the privacy of our homes and recording ourselves,” Sandusky said. “The number one skill that everybody had to learn was how to sing together in real time again. It’s the number one skill we teach in choir, and we couldn’t teach it for 18 months. It was like a new group building itself again.”

The annual holiday tour on Dec. 3, when students spent the day visiting various spots in the bay while spreading holiday cheer through performance, came as a success after a long day of singing. Downbeat visited homeless shelter GLIDE Memorial Church in San Francisco, the Valle Monte Christmas Market in San Jose and the Forum Assisted living community. The core of the tour, community service, also served as a new bonding aspect for the students. 

“We are accustomed to our final performance of that long day being not one of our best, but they did really well,” Sandusky said. “[Their] last performance was better than all the ones earlier in the day. With any group of young singers, you get to the end of the day, and their voices and bodies are tired, but they really kept their stamina going all the way through.”

Former Camerata and Bel Canto member Anthony Zhao (11) joined Downbeat this year as a tenor to meet new people and broaden his performance skills to include dance. After entertaining the upper school crowd on BAD, Anthony reflects on the pressures and rewards of performing for his peers.

“[When] we’re performing at GLIDE, [it’s] for people who [we] don’t know, so there’s less pressure to do well,” Anthony said. “Once you perform in front of people that you do know, they have expectations [because] they know you as a person. While you may receive more support from them, at the same time, the stakes are higher, so I think that puts a lot of pressure on some of the members, [but] we certainly made the crowd laugh a lot.”