All eyes in the room are focused on Maria Belva’s hands, held motionless in midair. She drops one slightly, raises and drops it again, marking the timing of beats: one, two, three. When her hand marks the next measure, three voices – two soprano, one alto – begin to sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

At the end of the opening chorus, the nine other girls standing in a semicircle before Belva begin to sing the first verse, call, and response, with the first three singers: “I was singing with my sisters/ I was singing with my friends/ and we all can sing together/ because the circle never ends.

Members of the Horizon Voices high school-age choral group Concord join hands and sing in a circle during a rehearsal at the Episcopal Church of Saint Mary in Falmouth on April 12. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Belva’s hands move through the air, signaling entrances and cutoffs while sublime interwoven harmonies fill the rehearsal room. The lyrics of the verse are the foundation of this choral group: the ever-deepening bond that develops through the love of music and of making it together.

“The thing that I stress immediately is that we’re an ensemble,” said Belva, who has directed youth choirs for 27 years. “Every voice is important, and together we create something much bigger than just individual voices.”

This group of high school girls is the oldest of Belva’s four youth choirs, and many of the girls have been singing together for seven years now, since the program, Horizon Voices, started.


During the school year, the choral groups meet once a week in the Community Hall at the Episcopal Church of Saint Mary in Falmouth to rehearse. They have concerts a few times a year – and next year this group, called Concord, will travel to Spain to perform with other youth choirs.

Maria Belva talks to members of the Concord choral group while rehearsing the song “You Don’t Own Me,” the 1963 song recorded by Lesley Gore that stresses female independence. Belva encouraged the singers to adopt the defiant tone of the song, which was written during a time when women did not have many rights. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Riley Small, a Falmouth High School senior, has been in Belva’s choirs since fifth grade.

“We all love singing. We all have a passion for it,” she said. “You come together with the same group of people – and when you do it for so long, you build more and more bonds.”

The girls grow close not just to one another but to their teachers.

“The bond that Maria can make with a girl in one day is amazing,” Riley said. “We’re all her kids – it’s amazing.”

Maria Belva puts a pearl necklace on Eliza Denecker before a performance of the Horizon Voices choral group at the Freeport Performing Arts Center on May 14. Belva buys the high school seniors in the group pearl necklaces because it is the last time they sing with the group. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Belva got her master’s degree in choral conducting from the University of Maine and directed a youth choral group in New Hampshire for 20 years before moving to Portland seven years ago.


Belva works with the girls on far more than vocal technique and musicianship. She instills confidence and builds strength.

At one rehearsal while the girls are working on the song “You Don’t Own Me,” Belva stops to tell them about the impact the song had back when Lesley Gore first recorded it in 1963.

Maria Belva directs the Concord choral group during a performance at the Freeport Performing Arts Center on May 14. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

She points out the lyrics: “I’m free and I love to be free/ to live my life the way that I want/ to say and do whatever I please.”

“You have to understand the emotion behind the writing of that song when it was written, in the ’60s, when women had very few rights,” she said. “I want you to channel that kind of passion and determination. You have to be kind of defiant.”

The group launches into the song again, more forcefully, after absorbing Belva’s suggestions and energy.

Context and constant encouragement help motivate the girls to elevate the songs into cohesive works of art.

But the glue that keeps this circle unbroken is the teacher.

Maria Belva hugs Riley Small during a break in a Horizon Voices rehearsal. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“I think because of the love Maria has for us – and we all know that – we don’t want to disappoint Maria,” Riley says. “I would never want to disappoint Maria. I love her so much.”

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