Hitting a high note

Jayne E. Plantz-Hing of Johnstown didn’t find out about her son’s appearance on “The Voice” until three days before it happened.

On Nov. 26, 24 members of the Starbucks Chorus of Seattle, led by James Hing, performed on NBC’s music competition show, backing up the top eight contestants on the traditional hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Due to restrictions from NBC, the members of the chorus were barred from mentioning the performance right away. But Hing, a Seattle resident who left Johnstown more than 20 years ago, dropped plenty of hints to his mother in the weeks leading up to the show.

“He would say, ‘If you think my appearance at Carnegie Hall was something, there’s something coming even better,'” Plantz-Hing said recently from her home in Johnstown. “And he kept everybody in suspense, everybody, and then he’d add a little bit every couple days. So I would say to him, ‘Come on, you can tell your mother; you know I won’t tell.’ And he goes, ‘Ma, you forget what you had for dinner; you’re liable to let it out.'”

Hing, 45, has sung three times at Carnegie Hall, twice with the Turtle Creek Chorale of Dallas for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s Sing For the Cure event. In 2002 he performed at the Sydney Opera House in Australia with the 600-member International Cultural Arts Festival Choir.

But for Hing, being on “The Voice” was his biggest accomplishment yet.

“It’s never been as big as ‘The Voice’ – that’s huge. They get 15 million viewers a show,” Hing said from Seattle. “We’ve tripled the amount of people on our Facebook page – in one day we had 5,000 page views, when we announced we were going to be on ‘The Voice,’ which is big, coming from 100 page views a day on average to 5,000. And we’ve gotten requests from around the country, people asking, ‘How can I start a chorus in our town?’ or, ‘How can I be part of your chorus?’ That’s harder if they’re not in the Seattle area, but hopefully we’ll see other choruses pop up in other major cities.”

The Starbucks Chorus, which today consists of about 35 Starbucks employees, debuted at 1997’s Great Figgy Pudding Street Corner Caroling Competition, where it still performs annually. Hing became director seven years ago, when he joined Starbucks as global sourcing manager for retail technology.

“When we went to ‘The Voice,’ we had several people, including CeeLo Green’s stand-in, ask us, ‘Are you really a chorus? Do you guys really sing?” Hing said. “Yes, we’re really a chorus; yes, we really sing; yes, we really all have day jobs at Starbucks.”

The chorus does more than just sing. Since forming, it has raised more than $350,000 for Seattle’s Pike Market Senior Center & Food Bank.

“The best part is, it doesn’t go to administrative costs – it goes directly to the bottom line, directly to feeding people,” Hing said. “‘The Voice’ gave us a national platform to actually promote that mission.”

Last year, the chorus became part of Starbucks’ holiday marketing campaign, undertaking a New York City media tour that ended with an appearance on “Good Morning America.” For this year’s campaign, Starbucks’ public relations department sent the chorus to New York City and Los Angeles, which led to its appearance on “The Voice.”

“The public relations department said, ‘Hey, we have this idea; we’re thinking of maybe going to New York and Los Angeles,’ and of course I’m fine with all of it – any opportunity to sing and promote our music and mission is key,” Hing said. “And then that turned into, ‘We might be able to get you on ‘The Voice.’ It’s also linked – Starbucks is a sponsor on ‘The Voice,’ and because we could sing really well, our PR and marketing department put it together.”

In addition to preforming on the show, the chorus also recorded “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” along with the finalists at Capitol Studios, for a free iTunes release.

“As you can imagine – we had 24 people that went, and it blew everybody’s mind,” Hing said. “Did that really happen? We couldn’t believe we were there, especially watching the replay again. While we were there I was so excited I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin.”

Hing’s appearance on “The Voice” is the latest achievement in a musical career that has spanned 25 years. He showed an interest in music at a young age, before he ever picked up an instrument.

“We could have car seats in the middle of the front seat, and it was a convertible and I had the top down,” Plantz-Hing said. “And I liked rock ‘n’ roll music, and he would tap his foot – he was 2. I can see it just as clear as day. He would tap his foot to the music. So I thought, this can’t be right, and I would change the channel; he’d do it again.”

Plantz-Hing’s mother played organ and piano, which had a strong influence on the young Hing. He was soon playing his grandmother’s piano, along with any other keyboard he could get his hands on. Piano is still Hing’s primary instrument, although he also plays trombone, baritone saxophone and other wind instruments.

“He would always tinker, wherever we were, with a piano,” Plantz-Hing said. “And I mean sit there for a long time for a little kid.”

He began taking formal piano lessons with his first-grade teacher at Pleasant Avenue Elementary School, Paul Cuttica, who also cast him as The Gingerbread Boy in a school production. Former Northville High School music and drama teacher Helen Russell and Jane Ginter-Valik, a former choir director at Hing’s church, Christ Lutheran (now Grace Lutheran), would also make an impact on Hing’s budding musical career, he said.

Hing’s first professional gig as a musician came at age 15, when he became the organist at the Sacred Heart Church in Tribes Hill.

“That lasted a couple of years; then he learned to drive,” Plantz-Hing said. “I’d say he was there two or three years, because he could – we used to take him down, which was a pain in the neck, but he loved it.”

A few years later, he became the organist at Christ Lutheran, as well as choir director. He graduated high school in 1986, and left Johnstown for good in 1988, first attending the University of North Dakota, where he studied aviation and later changed his major to banking.

Hing eventually ended up in Dallas, where he was a member of the Turtle Creek Chorale. Before his job at Starbucks, he relocated to Seattle to work for Washington Mutual.

He continues to serve as the music and choir director at the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Renton, Wash. In addition to directing the Starbucks Chorus, he is a member of the Seattle Men’s Chorus, as well as Artistic Director of Choral Sounds Northwest in Burien, Wash.

“We’re just busting with pride, but everybody knows that,” Plantz-Hing said. “We’re very happy for him, because he’s worked hard; he’s worked very hard for all his credits. … He was flying higher than a kite, it was such an experience. He would call – we’re very close – and he would call and he would say, ‘I’m telling ya, Ma, the paparazzi’s following us around.'”