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MINNEAPOLIS -- Kathy Lara settles her third grade choir students into their seats at Windom Dual Spanish Immersion School in Minneapolis.

Today she relinquishes the warm up to a special guest, Gerardo Cardeñas, who takes the students through their scales.

"The first time they were in awe, total awe with him," Lara said. "The second time they were like, 'Oh, yay, Gerardo is here,' and I noticed this time they were all running up and giving him hugs."

Lara's students have a connection withCardeñas on several fronts. They speak a common language, Spanish, and through music, they are learning about the culture of Mexico.

The collaboration comes through a program calledCantaré sponsored by VocalEssence, a professional Twin Cities choir under the direction of Phillip Brunelle.

"When Phillip Brunelle decided I was working with elementary, I was very happy because it was just the kind of students I like to have," said Cardeñas.

He's taught young students for twenty years at his school in Mexico. Last year he was recruited by Brunelle to travel to Minnesota for this year'sCantaré program.

"We have a variety of engagement program," explained Kimberly Meisten of VocalEssence.

In addition to Cantaré , VocalEssence sponsors a program called "Witness," which highlights contributions to fine arts by African Americans, and commissions new work by African American composers.

Both programs offer collaborations with students from elementary through college age.

Meisten says VocalEssence sees these programs as critical to its survival. She says there are thirty percent fewer music teachers than there were just ten years ago.

"That's just really disturbing. That's going to impact our audiences and it's going to impact the number of singers who can sing in our choir," Meisten said.

There's no sign of that in Lara's classroom, where students have been working hard on the piecesCardeñas wrote with them and for them.

"The first time he came, we were thinking about what the song should be about," said third grader Anna Benjamin. "Someone suggested being lost in the woods."

The students collaborated withCardeñas on two songs, which they performed in concert with VocalEssence in May.

"It's a challenge," Lara said. "It stretched us all the way around."

Because she teaches at an immersion school, Lara knows her students are a good fit for Cantaré . It's allowed her to deepen the curriculum this year, and give students an experience that's all-too rare for cash-strapped schools.

"It would be wonderful if we could get people in all the time," said Lara. "That's what we want, that's what we really need, but we don't have the monies to do it, soCantaré has given us this opportunity."

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