Before their duet began, Elena Ruddy and Shannon Dore stood enclosed in the dark space between two curtains at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium.
The Juneau girls were two of the 600 student singers and instrumentalists at the Southeast Alaska Music Festival held here Thursday through Saturday. But the judges had asked them to sing a duet again at what's called a command performance.
"It's really nerve-racking at the beginning," Ruddy said. "It's packed but you can't see anyone. Once the curtain opens, you become blinded, and then your eyes get accustomed. Once you start singing, you forget everyone's there."
For some students, the festival is the fulfillment of nearly a whole school year of music classes. It's also the chance for students from small towns to perform in front of large audiences. It's an opportunity to be judged by professional musicians, who also offer workshops.
"I think it's just a good opportunity because choir doesn't travel much," said Shalom Schrader, an alto in the Juneau Jazz Choir. "It's kind of like a musical powwow."
"Once you perform and you've done well, you just feel so good," Ruddy said.
"I love music because it can be extremely touching," said JDHS senior Travis Vidic, who sings bass in the school's jazz choir. "To be able to share that with people and to feel it yourself - that's my motivation."
After the jazz choir sang four standards Saturday morning, including "A String of Pearls" and "Anything Goes," Alan Gemberling, one of the three adjudicators, spoke to them.
Performers leave the ambiance of a brightly lit stage in the dark auditorium, the applause lingering in their ears, for a cold backstage room lit partly by a harsh, glaring overhead lamp. Now it's truth time, but the adjudicators see themselves as teachers, not judges.
Gemberling, an associate professor at the Lionel Hampton School of Music at the University of Idaho, told choir members they were fun to listen to and watch. As jazz singers, they choreograph gestures and other body movements to the songs.
But, Gemberling said, it was a little too nice, a little too much like a concert choir. He wanted to hear the notes pop. He wanted to hear more freedom.
"I want to hear that kind of rhythmic punch. This is dance music," he told the students.
Gemberling worked the students through one of the songs to show what he meant.
"Does it feel like it takes a little more effort? Sorry. If you want to sell that musical impact stylistically ..." And he left the thought unfinished.
Afterward, alto Erika Rothchild said she learned "you have to flow with it, be one with the music."
The adjudications help because the choir members don't see professional jazz performances, said soprano Lindsay Perkins. Two students in the close-knit group choreograph the pieces and all of the students choose their repertoire from songs offered by Director Alice Tubley.
"I've done seven years of musicals," said tenor Justin McCown, who helps choreograph the choir. "So that kind of helps."
Tubley said the festival offers students instruction from a different perspective. They also have the chance to listen to other musicians and to perform in solos and small ensembles - "so they are in a continual learn, learn, learn mode."
For students at Mount Edgecumbe, a state boarding school in Sitka predominantly for Natives from villages, the festival "is a huge deal," said chaperone Terry Lovett. "They've never taken part in anything like this unless it's in Sitka."
The school sent 14 students, who made up an eight-person concert band and an eight-person concert choir. As in last year's festival, the Mount Edgecumbe band joined with the Metlakatla band to perform as one group. They rehearse together for the first time at the festival.
Forest Kvasnikoff, a Mount Edgecumbe senior from Port Graham on the Kenai Peninsula, has sung bass in church choirs but just recently renewed his interest in the trombone. He's in the school choir and band. He also sang an Italian song, whose title translates as "Don't Leave Me Languishing," solo at the festival.
"It's just a really heart-wrenching kind of song about how a woman left me," Kvasnikoff said.
"The adjudicators were really nice people. I was going in there a little skeptical about how the judging was going to be," he said and paused. "I was scared out of my mind. I do a lot of drama acting, but singing is another realm for me."
Singings ties together stage presence with musical talent, "which is difficult," he said.
But adjudicator Byron McGilvray, a professor emeritus at San Francisco State University, was friendly and showed Kvasnikoff how to put the sound in front of his mouth and not swallow it.
"It wasn't just looking at how you can fix the piece, but how to improve as a musician," Kvasnikoff said.
McGilvray had a lot of praise for the Petersburg Jazz Band after its performance early Saturday morning.
"You have a very, very good sense of style," he told the students, who are directed by Matt Lenhard. McGilvray pointed out that sometimes the students were slow to get in the groove when they hadn't been playing in the piece for a while.
But, he said, "I love that you let the music breathe."
He reminded them that "Mood Indigo" is a ballad originally written to be sung.
"You've got to make this puppy sing like a singer sings," he said. "You've got to let everybody hear that melody."
The band performed well at the well-known Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Idaho this winter. But the Southeast festival "is really important to us because we're playing for our peers and colleagues," Lenhard said.
When Lenhard was an eighth-grader at a summer band camp in Idaho, he was directed by Lynn "Doc" Skinner, one of the adjudicators at this Southeast festival.
"It kind of means something now I have the opportunity for one of my bands to play for someone who was a major influence on me," Lenhard told his charges before they went on stage.
What Jacob Braun, a drummer in the band, took away from the adjudication was "the togetherness of the band."
"We could play together as a band and yet each instrument could be heard," he said.
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.