About 60 choir students couldn't wait to warm up their vocal chords when their Round Lake Middle School teacher entered the room ready to conduct.
Grabbing their songbooks and taking their seats, the seventh- and eighth-graders listened intently to directions. The sopranos in the packed classroom complied when they were told to sit straight and look tall.
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"I need that 'O' to be fat," said the animated teacher, Javier Diaz, who quickly received what he wanted from the students during the warm-up just before the school's 2013-14 academic year ended. "That's the 'O' that I'm looking for."
Diaz's enthusiasm for choir clearly has captured the pupils in the school for grades six through eight. The numbers indicate he's doing something right, because the program has grown from eight to 90 students since he was hired in 2010.
"I think the kids feed off my passion for the music," said Diaz, 34, of Lake in the Hills. "Every time I'm conducting, they could see that everything that I'm talking about is coming straight from my heart. I'm not the guy that can lie, because you could tell I'm lying. I put everything on my shoulder, and it is what it is."
Some choir students said Diaz has created a class that was their favorite part of the day. The pupils said his enthusiasm and leadership are among the qualities that make him an effective teacher.
"I really love that we can come to choir and there's not really cliques," said Abby Hernandez, who spoke about the class before graduating from eighth grade.
"Everyone is like a big family. And Mr. Diaz really pushes us to do our best and he believes in us. He's very supportive and he's always there. Even when it doesn't include choir stuff, he'll listen if you have a problem. He really is just a supportive teacher."
Diaz, who grew up in Algonquin, said he became interested in choir in middle school. After graduating from Algonquin's Jacobs High School, he went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in music education.
While at Millikin University in Decatur, his singing went to another level. Diaz said he became part of the flagship University Choir and learned much under conductor Brad Holmes, who remains in that position.
The University Choir is known for domestic and international tours, including Ireland, the United Kingdom, China and Haiti. Diaz said he traveled with the choir to England and appeared on ABC's "Good Morning, America" while on an East Coast tour.
Diaz attended graduate school at University of Illinois, where he didn't have to pay tuition because he co-taught a conducting class and assisted in research.
He eventually wound up at Elgin Area School District U-46's Larkin High School. He taught daily choir classes with 40 to 50 students.
But Diaz, an 11-year instructor, found himself out of work after the 2009-10 academic season. That's when U-46 -- facing unpaid bills from the state and a structural deficit of about $40 million -- laid off 732 teachers and about 300 other employees.
Round Lake Area Unit District 116 hired Diaz for Round Lake Middle School as a full-time general music teacher for 2010-11, with a stipend to direct the choir. He said the single choir with eight students was an after-school program that gathered for an hour twice a week when he started.
While the number of pupils was low, Diaz said, he had a vision for the program and pursued it to the point where choir is now among his full-time job duties for two classes that is part of the academic curriculum.
Student recruitment and support from District 116 administrators and faculty were paramount, he said. Diaz also credited volunteer piano player Annette McLane's work with the choir program.
"I knew I had to start from the bottom," Diaz said. "I knew I couldn't start from the top. So I really, really hit those sixth-graders. I would go to the elementary schools and kind of talk up the program, get them interested when they came in. And now it's just blossomed."
Jeff Prickett, who was Round Lake Middle School's principal through the 2013-14 academic season, said Diaz's ability to build relationships with students was a significant factor in the choir program's rise.
"Just his passion for music and love of kids and seeing them really want to excel in music has driven that program and has grown that program," said Prickett, who will be a Crystal Lake Elementary District 47 middle school principal in 2014-15.
Diaz said he takes into account District 116's demographics in encouraging middle school students to get involved in choir and work hard once they are in the program.
Roughly two-thirds of the district's 7,000 students are from low-income families. About 70 percent of the student body is Hispanic.
"I just think it's extremely important because, for them, my main goal is to show them that anything is possible if you try," Diaz said. "We can create amazing things, and they need to know that. They need to know that as long as they keep working hard, they can get there and go. It doesn't have to be music. But I can show them what they can do just with the music aspect."