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‘Heart and soul’ of One Voice

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We want to have a positive message and a positive alternative for kids. In the music industry, there’s ‘Sesame Street,’ and then they move to Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus. There’s nothing in the middle, just beat-oriented pop with empty messages. We want something the kids enjoy that is positive and that parents approve of. – Masa Fukuda

SANDY — You might not have heard of Masafumi Fukuda, but maybe you’ve heard his music, which usually comes in the form of the One Voice Children’s Choir.

The choir is Utah’s paler version of New York’s famed PS22 Chorus, featuring 140 children, ages 4 to 18, and Masa — that’s what everyone calls him — is the choir’s conductor, arranger, producer, composer and founder. Together they popped up on the national radar in a big way last year.

The choir's YouTube cover of Disney’s “Let It Go,” with Alex Boye, is closing in on 60 million hits. Then there were national TV appearances on “America’s Got Talent,” with an audition in Hollywood and a quarterfinal performance in New York. Along the way, one of their own, Lexi Walker, an 11-year-old from Sandy, became a star and launched a solo career.

As usual, the choir was in big demand during the holiday season. In December, it performed in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building and members were guest performers for Kurt Bestor’s annual Christmas concert in Abravanel Hall. In late November, it sang with David Archuleta in the Capitol Theater and, for the 11th straight year, performed a concert on FM100.

“This is a miracle choir,” says Masa. “I look back at 2014 and think, 'omigosh, this is unbelievable.'”

For Masa, a 38-year-old native of Japan, the choir was an accident. It began when, as a student at BYU, he submitted an original song to be considered for use at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, held in Utah. To record the song, he used the voices of some 1,600 children he recruited from 69 elementary schools, mostly in Utah Valley.

“It Just Takes Love” wound up being included on the commemorative Olympic CD alongside songs from the Osmonds, SheDaisy, Brooks and Dunn, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Kurt Bestor and Gladys Knight. The song won two Pearl Awards, and Masa, with the backing of some of the children who sang on the recording, performed it on TV and at Olympic-related events.

That might have been the end of it when the Olympics left town, but the children had other ideas.

“They wanted to stay together because of the friendships they had made,” says Masa. “We had performed a lot together, so we decided to do it.”

The choir has maintained a busy schedule since, performing 55 to 70 times a year. It has recorded a number of Christmas and Easter CDs, but it is moving increasingly to YouTube with covers such as “Children Will Listen,” “Into the Woods,” “Happy” and “Glorious.”

The choir has been compared to the PS22 Chorus in New York — the Utah choir tried to arrange a meeting of the two choirs when it was in New York for “America’s Got Talent,” but its TV schedule precluded it. The children in both choirs are passionate, animated and precocious, and many of them are given solo performance spots with the backing of the choir.

There is at least one difference in their musicality: PS22 is largely based on two parts, while One Voice has three parts and sometimes as many as seven or even eight: soprano 1A and 1B, soprano 2A and 2B, alto 1, alto 2, tenor, and occasionally a high soprano.

“People are amazed by the sound and the harmonies,” says former choir president Marc Goldberg. “They say they have a much fuller sound than what you expect from a kids' choir.”

The choir performs a wide variety of music — pop, gospel, classical, Broadway, patriotic — covering everything from Rhianna to Disney to Ellie Goulding.

“It’s not a typical children’s choir,” says Goldberg. “They don’t just sing children’s choir music. The kids like that.”

Masa says there’s a reason for all of the above.

“We want to have a positive message and a positive alternative for kids," he said. "In the music industry, there’s 'Sesame Street,' and then they move to Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus. There’s nothing in the middle, just beat-oriented pop with empty messages. We want something the kids enjoy that is positive and that parents approve of.”

The choir has become so popular among Utah’s musically inclined youths that winning an audition is like trying to buy season tickets for the Green Bay Packers. Auditions are held twice a year, January and August, but the waiting list — now about 250 kids deep — is so long that it can take years to get in: “A lot of kids want in, but not many want out,” says Masa.

In some years three are only six to 10 openings. Once in, children can choose to remain with the choir until they are 18, and only three will turn 18 this year.

“Some parents are putting their kids on the waiting list when they are a year old, so that by the time they’re 4 they can get an audition,” says Fukuda. “I feel so bad for those who have been waiting. I wish we could accommodate all of them.”

A nonprofit organization, One Voice charges choir members $30 a month, which makes it a bargain, especially compared to, say, club soccer (and there is only one practice per week).

“The goal of the choir is to give kids a chance to share their talents with others and make it available at a low cost, or through scholarships if needed,” says Goldberg.

After a dozen years, the choir is stronger than ever, but it has had to weather difficult challenges because of Masa’s visa issues. Despite living in the U.S. on and off for more than 20 years, he has been unable to obtain citizenship. He has been forced to leave the country and return to Japan several times, forcing the choir to survive without him for anywhere from three to nine months.

“I tried to keep the choir moving,” says Goldberg, who was president at the time. “It wasn’t easy. Masa kept in touch by email and kept the songs and practices going. It irritates me that someone who has tried to do things the right way is having such a hard time (getting citizenship).”

As a result of his visa status and the complexity of immigration laws, Masa can’t be compensated by choir, although he can and does benefit financially from it indirectly. He receives a steady stream of calls from musicians looking for children’s voices to augment their recordings: Janice Kapp Perry, the Mormon songwriter, needed a dozen children in the studio. Jenny Oaks Baker needed nine children to accompany her on violin. Sue Krupa needed children to perform on her album. Clive Romney needed children to perform LDS Primary songs on a project. Boye has collaborated with members of One Voice on several recordings.

Since Masa knows the children and their abilities, he is often hired as a producer and arranger on such projects. Masa is also hired as a producer and arranger independent of the children.

“Music is my passion,” says Masa. “And cultivating the next generation and their talents is really my primary motivation.”

Masa works long days and nights to lead the choir while also earning a living: “He works so much, I don’t know when he sleeps,” says Michelle Walters, whose son Tyler sings in the choir.

Actually, he sleeps very little. Masa does most of his writing and arranging between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. in the basement studio of his Sandy home. He goes to bed when everyone else is getting up, and he wakes up at 9 or 10.

“This is my life,” he says. “I can’t afford to get sick. And I don’t.”

This was the life he seems to have been born to have. Raised in Osaka, he was the only son in his family and, as such, was expected by cultural traditions to take over his father’s business. His father, a dentist, could see early on that his son was cut out for something else.

“Ever since I can remember, I was attracted to anything that makes sound,” Masa says.

As a child, he was drawn to the family’s old record player and piano. Before he took music lessons he was creating his own songs at the age of 4. His mother enrolled him in a comprehensive music program that taught him theory, composition, arrangement, keyboard, ensemble, sight reading, productions and recording. By the time he was 12 he knew he wanted to be in production.

“I didn’t want to be a concert pianist; I thrived on the behind-the-scenes stuff,” he says. “I was no showman. I cringe in front of people. I love to be a conductor because I never have to face the audience. I can look at my choir.”

Masa, who joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in his youth, came to Utah as an exchange student at the age of 15, enrolling at Meridian High, a charter school in Provo. After graduation, he served a church mission in Hiroshima and then earned a music degree from BYU. He worked as an in-house arranger for companies that produced scripture-based videos for several years before he stumbled into the business of guiding a children’s choir.

“Masa is the driving force behind the choir,” says choir president Amelia Critchfield. “He is the choir’s heart and soul.”

Says Goldberg: “The kids love Masa and his music, and he loves them. He’s part of the reason the kids are in the choir.”

Email: drob@deseretnews.com