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Bringing hope to youth culture

The corridor echoes with music and laughter. It's another day at EXCEL School of Performing Arts, with sounds pumping from the dance studio and hallways full of musicians, vocalists, dancers and drama students. The atmosphere is alive, but it's different to your customary enthusiasm that accompanies doing what you love, these students are excited about who they are.

Energetic and dynamic, EXCEL is cutting a distinctive track. With outstanding resources, a national tour opportunity and a holistic approach to study and people, EXCEL's unique combination is impacting the lives of hundreds of New Zealanders.

Every year one hundred new students come to EXCEL armed with expectant hearts and a desire to feed and grow their talent in the performing arts. The limited intake ensures maximum technical, spiritual and personal development of each of the students. Applications and auditions for the 2003 intake are currently underway and there are numbers of young people nationwide, excited at the possibility of training at EXCEL next year.

Operating from premises in Auckland, EXCEL offers NZQA accredited courses in music, vocals, dance, drama, sound and lighting. Each course is specifically designed to compliment and extend students in both their Major and Minor areas of training.

Music and Vocal students are provided with individual tuition to ensure skills are developed to a point of excellence. They study contemporary, rock and jazz styles of music, with the opportunity to study band arrangement or vocal harmony, as well as Sequencing and MIDI, and song writing. Music and Vocal students are offered the chance to write, record and produce their own songs in EXCEL's recording studio, a highlight for many.

Dance students not only receive tuition in American jazz, ballet, funk, hip hop and cultural dance, they also study nutrition, physiology, choreography and fitness.

Drama students are encouraged to excel with study in voice technique, acting for television and productions, improvisation, drama scripting and video production.

Sound and Lighting students are given a complete overview of sound production, with an in-depth look at all aspects of a sound system, as well as studio recording experience. They also receive full training in large road-show lighting rigs, right through to effective use of smaller lamps.

EXCEL tutors are the best musicians and teachers New Zealand has to offer and read as a Who's Who list in the music and performing arts scenes. All are currently active in their industry making them sharp, professional and exceptional at what they do.

The school boasts excellent facilities, including recording, dance, drama and video production studios, MIDI and sequencing work stations, a band practice room and an auditorium with a stage, sound desk and full lighting rig. The training and resources EXCEL offers, combined with its heart and vision to see young people succeed, is the reason so many graduates are making names for themselves, both nationally and internationally.

This year alone, EXCEL graduates have performed at music festivals 'Parachute 2002' and 'Big Day Out'. Six past students have recently signed to record labels, "Parachute Music" and America's "Hydrogen", and all are looking to tour the States next year.

'Jireh' is the performance group that made a guest appearance as the supporting act on "Showstoppers"; half of them are graduates of EXCEL. 'Jireh' has since completed an international tour in Australia and America, and are looking to base themselves in Sydney next year.

Achievements of this sort are the ultimate in performing arts. However, launching into results such as these often proves a feat in itself, as 'experience' remains the cyclic unattainable. EXCEL is the only institution in New Zealand that gives first year graduates the opportunity to be selected for a second performance-touring year. Recognising the unique value of tour experience, Vincent Harder of 'Jireh' labelled it a chance of a lifetime. "Not many theatre or performing companies accept people with as little experience and knowledge as I had at the time."

Gavin Kerr was the drummer in EXCEL's 1999 tour team. Upon leaving EXCEL Gavin joined New Zealand rock band 'Wash', which has recently signed to American record label, Hydrogen. "WASH has been touring the country for the past two years and I've been using my knowledge that I gained from EXCEL in my training and tour experience."

The students selected to tour each year, visit a number of centres throughout New Zealand, performing in theatres, high schools, churches, tertiary institutions and malls. In fifteen weeks, this year's touring team has entertained over 65,000 people with dance, drama and song. Each programme displays positive and up-building messages in areas such as forgiveness, trust, dealing with the unexpected and surviving challenges of life.

The driving force behind every EXCEL tour in the past ten years is to incite hope and enthusiasm in today's youth culture. This refreshing and effective way of addressing young people does not go unnoticed. In response to this year's 'Acceptance' programme for high schools, Brendan Kelly, Deputy Principal of Paraparaumu College was pleased to see such an important issue covered by the team. "The Deans made a point of seeing me afterwards to pass on their appreciation that EXCEL brought up an issue they deal with every day."

The most dynamic tour programme is the full-scale theatre event, held in local theatres at the end of each week EXCEL is in town. It uses powerful drama, charged dance and accomplished renditions of contemporary songs, enhanced with elaborate stage sets and vivid lighting. This year's theatre concert 'Survivor', looked at circumstances involving identity, career, relationships and the concept of eternity. Theses topics are relevant and hard hitting for all ages, making an impact in full-house theatres throughout the country.

With such an unusual approach to performance, EXCEL is receiving overwhelming feedback. Emails are pouring in from young people all over the country who have been challenged, encouraged and inspired by what they have seen. "Hey, well I went to the Survivor performance and they're terrific!!! Everyone who I know that went liked it as well, and you really showed what you wanted it to mean!" - Samantha Fellows, Hamilton.

Addressing this diverse range of people is no small task, especially dealing with such significant and often tender topics. However, one thing to be sure of, is that no matter what age, culture or faith, there is a timeless need for vibrancy and hope in life. And so EXCEL proceeds to offer an alternative perspective, that there is indeed more to life than pressure, pace and aimless confusion.

Numerous letters received from secondary school Principals, church Pastors and Mall Management, all confirm that EXCEL is onto something good. Encompassing the general impression nationwide, David Lawson of Riccarton Baptist Church in Christchurch, enthuses "We were encouraged and challenged by the message the team communicated through music, dance and drama. They are incredibly gifted, well trained and well rehearsed. They're a credit to the preparation and leadership given by EXCEL School of Performing Arts."

Tour teams are moving advertisements for what EXCEL stands for. As they project zeal for life and a heart for people, the team conduct themselves in passionate humility, doing what they do because they love it and because they love God. Cara Graham, one of this year's tour dancers, found it really clicked for her when people saw something different in their performances. "We love getting out there and doing what we're good at and what we enjoy, but ultimately we're using a talent we believe God has given us and the greatest fulfilment is when our performances reach people in a powerful way that moves something inside them."

This type of attitude is certainly a reflection of EXCEL's vision. The staff all have a heart for young people and the desire is to see them change and grow into an acceptance of who they are, confident as individuals. Being a Christian based school, EXCEL believes that people are important, being uniquely created by God, and so aim to encourage students to develop as a whole person, emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually. This holistic approach is producing young adults who face life's possibilities, motivated and enthusiastic.

Young peoples lives are radically changing at the school and John Knight bears witness to this, previously a teacher and a church Pastor, he is now EXCEL's Course Director. "One young man was recently saying how being at EXCEL has put him in a place where God has helped him overcome his addictions and he is now moving into the IMPACT world tours. He is becoming passionate about God's workings in his life and he is not afraid to tell other people about it." John went on to say how another young man who had a problem with drugs before coming to EXCEL, feels that over this year of training, "God has been cleaning him up for a new year and a fresh start."

People are drawn to train at EXCEL from Bluff through to Kaitaia, from all walks of life. The multicultural and faith dynamics contribute to the x-factor of the school. Young people are exposed to the unusual and unfamiliar backgrounds of others, which only develops greater understanding and acceptance of those different to the standard norms of each individual.

Right from the outset, Jeff Todd founder and Principal of EXCEL, was aware of the breakdown occurring in society; his concern was the lack of any moral guidelines, which leave so many people feeling used and confused. "While not wishing to over simplify the solution, I had experienced first-hand, the awesome change that takes place in a person's life when they become disciplined and apply that to a point of excellence in a chosen area of ability."

More than academic achievement, Mr Todd recognised the desperate need in young people for direction and purpose. Caleb Taiala was at EXCEL in 1996 and '97 and since leaving EXCEL has worked as a Constable in the New Zealand Police. "EXCEL played a part in assisting me to find who I was as a person and to build on those positive aspects of my life." He recently shifted roles to being a Youth Worker for Attitude, which equips young people with life sills and insights necessary to build meaningful lives. "The things I discovered during my time at EXCEL have been invaluable and a step in the right direction to where I am today."

And so the inception of EXCEL marked the beginning of an institution that promotes and develops excellence in the Performing Arts, while also providing for the emotional, mental and spiritual needs of young people.

The issue of forgiveness is a major in any relationship and one that often goes unaddressed. While society plays the avoidance and denial card, people are realising that running away to forget things that have hurt them, is not the answer to making the pain stop. At EXCEL there is very solid teaching on relationships, not just the physical side, but on inside levels - those levels where unforgiveness resides and low self-esteem runs rampant.

As the course director, John Knight works closely with the first year students and has seen many of them deal with the tough things in life, "As I've seen young people deal with forgiveness and self-esteem issues, I've seen them grow. There's a light put back in the eyes of students who have come to understand that God's desire is for goodness in relationships and it's never too late with God to make that happen." It's the newness and fresh beginnings that are taught and counselled at EXCEL, which gives the hope that young people in particular, so desperately need.

Along with personal development, EXCEL recognises the basic need for an understanding of New Zealand's native language and culture. In the compulsory subject, Maori Culture, students are taught bi-culturalism, Maori values, the Treaty of Waitangi, marae protocol and the relationship between Christianity and Maoridom. This subject encourages and develops healthy race relations between Maori, Polynesian and Pakeha students; and with increased interest from European, Asian, Norwegian and American countries, advancing the knowledge and understanding of Maori is deemed essential.

As a Christian based school, EXCEL recognises the importance of establishing and growing students in the Christian faith. Most people who attend EXCEL are Christians or have had some level of Christian input at some stage of their life, whether by family, friends or culture. However, there are always a number of students who aren't Christians, but are open to training at a Christian based school; mostly they have seen a tour team perform in the past and want to train as the team must have, keen to make some good friends and have a good time. An introductory look at the basic teachings of the Christian faith is taught through the Christian Foundations subject and deeper issues of the faith are taught through the Apologetics paper, which stretches students intellectually.

Additional classes seal the course, further contributing to student development. Small Groups create a networking and support system between students and assigned mentors, Discussion Groups develop and teach interpersonal skills, Choir and Sport add to the overall enjoyment of the course, and various elective subjects are offered to complete a rounded appreciation and understanding of themselves and their talent.

Through EXCEL's first year training course, hundreds of young people have been brought to a level of performance excellence and healthy personal development. Through EXCEL's national tour performances, thousands of people have been entertained, inspired and challenged in those areas most significant in life.

EXCEL is a place of fresh beginnings, training in excellence and lifelong friendships. Ia'Sinta Siua'ana of Canterbury, summarises by saying, "EXCEL helped me to develop and grow, both personally and spiritually. It helped me discover my potential and to hold fast to my dreams and aspirations, making them a reality. EXCEL School of Performing Arts is a door of opportunity, for you to reach your goals and to live your dreams."

Any further enquiries regarding EXCEL or auditions, contact the school office, on 09 827 7327, or check-out the website