LAS CRUCES — More than 300 elementary and middle school students from around the state gathered this weekend at New Mexico State University for the New Mexico American Choral Director's Association All-State Elementary and Youth choir festival.

From the more than 400 San Juan County students who auditioned, 60 -- most of them from the Farmington Municipal School District -- were chosen to be a part of this year's choir.

The students represented Northeast, McKinley, Mesa Verde, McCormick and Esperanza elementary schools, as well as Mesa View, Hermosa, Tibbetts and Heights middle schools. Several ninth graders from Piedra Vista and Bloomfield high schools were also among those selected.

To get to All-State, students work with their school's music teacher to submit an audition tape to a panel of judges, which chooses the students who will be part of the choir. The selection process is highly competitive, and those selected work with their school's music teacher to learn the pieces and prepare for the January concert.

The students then travel by bus to NMSU, where two professional guest conductors work with the separate elementary and middle-school choirs over the course of four days, preparing them for the choir concert on the final day.

This year, the students performed selections ranging from traditional Irish folk songs to African and Calypso pieces. At times, they were accompanied by professional musicians playing steel drum, bongo and French horn.

While high-school All-State choirs and festivals are common throughout the United States, this is not the case at the elementary and middle-school levels.

"There are very few elementary and youth All-State festivals in the United States," said Diane Schutz, the New Mexico association's president. "It's very rare, so we're lucky to have this here in New Mexico."

Venezuelan-born Christian Grases was this year's elementary choir conductor.

"What a joy it is to see that this state is healthy and is singing," Grases told the audience prior to the concert. "All-State teaches these kids how to work hard, and how to work as one unit. They become part of a team that is greater than they could ever be on their own."

Petra Lyon is the choir and drama teacher at Hermosa Middle School, and for the past six years has also served as the Farmington school district's liaison with the association.

"I am always so inspired when I come home from All-State," said Lyon. "The fact that some of these kids can start with All-State in the fourth grade and go all the way through 12th grade is pretty amazing. It's wonderful that New Mexico has this for these grade levels, because All-State is such a meaningful experience for these kids√Čone they'll never forget."

Lyon credits the large percentage of Farmington participants who participated in this year's festival to the school district's support of music programs. Many districts do not have full-time music teachers as part of the curriculum, she said.

"We are fortunate that the district takes care of most of the expenses, and we're fortunate to have teachers who are willing to help children learn the music and travel with them to the festival," she said. "Students in other districts are not as fortunate, and have to hold fundraisers. It's harder for them to attend."

In fact, no Albuquerque public schools were represented this year.

Dallin James has been a part of the All-State Youth Choir for three consecutive years. James, a Piedra Vista High School 9th grader, is thinking about majoring in music when he attends college, and may make a career out of music.

"Each year at All-State is a different experience," he said. "The directors are there to uplift you, and every one of them is amazing. You learn so much from each of them."

James takes private voice lessons from Rebecca Knack, who is the music teacher at Esperanza Elementary. Five of Knack's students were selected for the All-State choir this year, and Knack accompanied them to the festival.

"I think it's such a powerful experience to see so many kids making music at this level," she said. "The music is challenging, and they've had to work really hard and learn to focus. As a teacher, it's a really positive thing to see their faces light up when they hear, for the first time, 100 of the best singers in the state singing together for the first time. It just goes to show what kids can do."