By KAYLA PONGRAC
Our Town Correspondent
Twenty-five Cambria Heights High School students had the opportunity of a lifetime March 16 when they joined legendary classic rock band Foreigner on stage at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena in Johnstown.
The students sang back-up vocals during the performance of Foreigner’s 1984 chart-topping hit, “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
Meanwhile, their music director, Michael Kokus, stood backstage feeling like a proud parent.
“It was a great moment,” Kokus said. “I’m so invested in those kids, and it was almost like I was living vicariously through them.”
When the song concluded, lead singer Kelly Hansen said: “Come on, people, make some noise for this beautiful choir that’s with us tonight. They are the Vocal X Cambria Heights High School choir from Patton, Pennsylvania. Come on; give it to ‘em; make some noise.”
Hansen encouraged choir members to “raise their hands up” as the thousands of Foreigner fans in the arena that evening shouted and applauded.
Before the students walked off stage, Hansen told the crowd to take a good look at them.
“I want you to see how beautiful your future looks,” he said. “That’s it right there, everybody.”
For the past few years, Foreigner has partnered with the Grammy Foundation to fund high school music programs across the country. The band is concerned that music is being removed from school curriculums. So, their tour stops usually involve working with local radio stations to host a contest among high school choirs to — you guessed it — sing “I Want to Know What Love Is” live on stage.
“I applaud Foreigner for their efforts to lead the charge and say, ‘Music is something that matters,’” Kokus said.
“Music is for every child. Musical talent exists on a spectrum just like mathematical talent and talent for the English language. Music is not a dispensable part of a child’s education.”
A few weeks prior to the concert, Kokus’ co-workers at Cambria Heights told him about the contest that Foreigner was bringing to Johnstown, and he couldn’t pass up the chance to get his students involved. He went online, found an arrangement for the band’s hit “Cold as Ice” and then sent his students home with an assignment that Friday afternoon: return to school on Monday having learned and practiced the music.
“I basically said, ‘Listen, here’s what the contest is about. Here’s the music. You guys are going to show me how great your work ethic is this weekend, and then we’re going to be in good shape.’”
The ninth- through 12th-graders involved in the contest represented Cambria Heights’ acapella group, Vocal X, as well as the school’s rock band, Synergy.
Kokus was pleased to find that they returned to school prepared to record the audio for the contest.
In addition to Cambria Heights, five local school districts participated in the contest made possible by Forever Broadcasting: Conemaugh Township High School, Dubois Central Catholic High School, Greater Johnstown High School, Westmont High School and Windber High School.
Public voting took place online March 5-9, and Kokus and his students were informed that they won the morning of March 10.
“There was lots of shouting when they heard they won,” Kokus said with a laugh. “They were just thrilled about it, and very pumped.”
Also “pumped”: the students’ parents.
“Classic rock is a big deal in this area,” Kokus said. “At times I couldn’t tell who was more excited, my students or their parents.”
After Kokus received confirmation that his choir had won, he received a call from Foreigner’s manager.
“He explained how everything was going to play out,” Kokus said. “While it wasn’t very difficult musically to execute, the stress of it was that there wasn’t going to be a practice with the band, so it had to be right the first time.”
And right the first time it was.
“It couldn’t have gone better,” Kokus said of his students’ performance. “They did their thing. They did everything without a hitch.”
Kokus mentioned that he was humbled by the support that he and his students received from school administrators.
“We had some administrators go (to the concert) with us, and it was really touching to see that level of professional respect that they gave to us,” he said. “That was pretty big. I appreciated that very much.”
Kokus said that he’s proud to say that the music program at Cambria Heights is indeed well-supported.
“We have exceptional support,” he said. “The administrative and community support that we have is tremendous.”
Hansen and his fellow bandmates didn’t just invite the choir on stage to sing a song and then send them on their way; in addition to performing, Foreigner tasked the choir to sell Foreigner CDs and raffle tickets as possible that evening.
“The kids broke off into groups of five and with a chaperone’s help, they sold as many Foreigner CDs as they could,” Kokus said. “They even sold tickets to raffle off a signed guitar at the end of the show. In exchange for our time and efforts, we received $500 to sustain our music program.”
Kokus plans to use the donation to specifically assist the 25 students who were involved in the performance.
“Maybe we will use it to purchase new musical equipment or for transportation to a show,” he said.
In Kokus’ 11 years spent working for Cambria Heights, he said he has never had an opportunity quite like the one he was granted, courtesy of Foreigner.
“This was pretty unique,” he said. “The nature of the (music) business doesn’t involve bands sticking around long enough to do this sort of philanthropic work. If members of the band were reading this article, I would say thank you for leading the charge to keep music in schools and humbling yourselves by inviting high school students to the stage with you.
“We have to think about the next generation of music, and these kids need to be inspired. Foreigner is in the right place to inspire kids, and they’re not taking that position for granted. Every student benefits from music and for some, it’s a completely integral part of their high school experience.”
He thanked the school and community for the ongoing support.
“I just want to thank the Cambria Heights community, school district and administration for the support,” he said. “We have so many people in our area who realize that music matters.”
The experience meant a lot not only to Kokus, but also to his students.
“They thanked me for giving them the opportunity,” he said, “because that was an opportunity to expose my kids to a perspective I couldn’t have created for them in a classroom environment. And they’re still talking about the concert, still wearing their Foreigner T-shirts to school.”