2013 Choral Directors of Note

January 21, 2013

Choral Director’s eighth annual “Choral Directors of Note” features 13 exemplary directors who were selected by CD staff from nominations and recommendations submitted by readers, music educators, choral directors, administrators and staff, industry colleagues, and music students over the past year. This report serves to recognize these outstanding vocal music educators, who represent a slice of some of the vibrant, impactful, and thriving people and programs in vocal music education today.

This edition of the “Choral Directors of Note” focuses on these directors’ proudest moments, the impact they hope to have on their students’ lives, and advice for educators just entering the field of vocal music education. Hopefully the wealth of information shared herein will prove inspirational, informative, or even educational. As Travis Rogers of Napa High School in California reminds us, “Never, ever think you know or have all of the answers – there is so much to learn and do to keep a successful vocal music education program maintained and growing!”

California

Travis Rogers
Napa High School
Napa
Years at current school: 33
Total years teaching: 34
Number of students in vocal music program: 385

What is your proudest moment as a music educator? 

The proudest moments are watching students come from no prior formal choral experience into a knowledge of the skills it takes to sing at a high level of excellence and watching the magic happen when individual singers learn to work together to create, produce, and perform a beautiful sound!

How do you hope to make a difference in students’ lives? 

I aim to make a difference by instilling the life-long skills and character traits of respect, hard work, team building, great vocal technique, and, ultimately, beauty through the excellent singing of great choral music. Individual singers have their second “family” in choir as we all grow and learn together and create skills, character traits, friends, and memories that last a lifetime.

What advice would you give to new teachers entering the field of vocal music education? 

Go to as many festivals of choral music as you possibly can, observe great choral teachers/directors, and get mentors you can go to for advice and assistance. Never, ever think you know or have all of the answers – there is so much to learn and do to keep a successful vocal music education program maintained and growing!

Massachusetts

Michael Driscoll
Brookline High School
Brookline
Years at current school: 10
Total years teaching: 10
Number of students in vocal music program: 110

What is your proudest moment as a music educator?

I’ve had many proud moments, but here is my most recent one: One of my high school choirs was scheduled to perform some holiday selections for a community event at a venue where we had never sung before. I had another event I had to attend that was scheduled to end in plenty of time for me to get to our performance. Unfortunately, the first event ended 90 minutes late and by the time I was able to leave, the call time for my performance had already passed! Knowing that most of my students check Facebook far more often than email, I dashed off a quick Facebook message to the group’s Facebook page telling them to hold on and that I’d be there soon. By this time I was now stuck in rush hour traffic and was delayed further. I finally arrived at the performance venue one minute late for the performance. I ran in the door – to the sound of singing! They had positioned themselves on an unfamiliar stage, warmed up as a group and started the performance without me! As someone who emphasizes teamwork and musical independence, I was tremendously proud of them!

How do you hope to make a difference in students’ lives?

I hope that the supportive community environment we establish in my classes allows my students to feel comfortable pushing their comfort zones and that this will help build their confidence in other areas of their lives. Also, many of my students are in choir all four years of their high school careers and have noted that choir becomes their “home away from home.” The choir room becomes a familiar place where they can “chill” with like-minded peers – something I think is much needed in the high-stakes pressures of high school life today. Finally, I hope to give my students the tools and experiences that will feed and grow their passion for music, and enable them to become independent, lifelong musicians and enthusiastic supporters of the arts.

What advice would you give to new teachers entering the field of vocal music education?

Always ask yourself “why?” I’ve found that many young (and old!) teachers tend to teach the way they were taught without asking themselves why they are teaching that way. Why did you choose that set of warm-up exercises? Why did you do them in that order? Why did you choose those particular vowels? Why did you choose that piece? If your only answer is “because I like it” or “because that’s how my teacher did it,” then you need to consider what you are doing more carefully. Be able to give a clear pedagogical justification for everything you do. And finally, continually strive to improve your own musicianship.

Michigan

Pamela Pierson
West Ottawa High School
Holland
Years at current school: 11
Total years teaching: 37
Number of students in vocal music program: 180

What is your proudest moment as a music educator? 

I believe the most important things that happen in the choral classroom are the connections that are made between the music, the people you sing it with, and the audience. My proudest moment as a music educator is a collection of moments that occur when the singers take complete ownership of themselves as musicians and react to music making with a sense of inner awareness of themselves, the other singers, and the music they are singing. To experience their investment in the process creates powerful moments of overwhelming emotion and gives great meaning to my musical life.

How do you hope to make a difference in students’ lives?

I hope to make a difference in students’ lives by helping them to understand what they are capable of achieving as they are becoming adults. I hope to allow them to practice being self-assured, purposeful, and intentional in their behavior. I hope to allow them to find the meaningfulness and joy of giving and how important it is. I hope to give them a space and place where they can be themselves and discover who they are. Through the practice of being a musician, I hope to enhance their spiritual connection to life and help them in their journey to find meaning in life.

What advice would you give to new teachers entering the field of vocal music education?

Always be mindful that your education is a lifelong endeavor and that teaching is a humbling experience. Don’t ever expect it to become routine or predictable – the best moments sometimes come when you least expect it and always involve experiencing emotion on a deep level. There is nothing so profound to me as when singers learn to live in the moment and feel/experience the connection between themselves, the music, each other, and their community.

I try to remember that the kids come first. I always try to remember that I am there for kids; the kids are not there for me.

Sometimes, the most important things that happen in your classroom have nothing directly to do with singing, but singing is the vehicle through which they happen. Look for those things and embrace them.

Life is a journey – make sure that you enjoy your time with the kids. “Work” for me is when the kids are gone and I have to do all the other tasks that support what goes on in the classroom.

Spend the large amount of time it takes to find high quality literature that meets the kids’ needs and that you both can engage with on a deep level. It needs to be meaningful to the kids to be high quality, engaging, and connecting.

Reach out and network with others in your choral community, your school community and any other context that might involve what is happening in your classroom.

Minnesota

Dan LeJeune
The Blake School
Hopkins
Years at current school: 14
Total years teaching: 27
Number of students in vocal music program: 185

What is your proudest moment as a music educator?

I have brought my school choirs to perform for ten professional conferences since 1995 and I am proud of each of these special concerts. Each time it has been a thrill to see the students’ growth in preparation for those events. As a guest conductor, directing the 2009 OAKE National Honor Choir at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. remains a highlight for me.

How do you hope to make a difference in students’ lives?

My goal is to unlock the voice in every student so that he or she can experience the beauty of the human voice no matter what the inherent skill level is within the individual. I work to create experiences that connect singers to each other and to the people of the world by exploring the rich tapestry of music sung by cultures in all regions of the Earth. Long after they leave my room, I hope my students will value singing so that they feel empowered to use their voices for a lifetime.

What advice would you give to new teachers entering the field of vocal music education?

I would advise new teachers that the way to thrive in the profession is by enjoying each day with your students. Celebrate the little things and don’t allow yourself to lose sight of the wonderful privilege it is to make music with children every day. Stay current with technology and always be searching for new materials and resources to enhance your curriculum.

Missouri

Paula Martin
Oakville Senior High School
St. Louis
Years at current school: 20
Total years teaching: 30
Number of students in vocal music program: 300

What is your proudest moment as a music educator? 

The times I am most proud of my students are those times when they are all working together in rehearsal and I can see in their eyes that they “get it”! I can see that they are understanding, perhaps for the very first time, that excellent choral singing is more than singing for pleasure. Singing with excellence as a member of a fine choral ensemble is synergy at its best. It’s one of life’s most exquisite experiences. Those moments come and go in rehearsal and in performance, but it’s those moments that inspire me as a teacher to come back and teach another day. There is nothing better this side of heaven.

How do you hope to make a difference in students’ lives?

I hope that the lives of my students are changed for the better because of the experiences that they had in one or more of the choirs at Oakville High School. I hope that their experiences in daily rehearsal, as well as their experiences on stage, help to mold them to become the very best person that they are capable of becoming.

What advice would you give to new teachers entering the field of vocal music education? 

Just keep swimming! The hours go by slowly at times, the day may seem four days long, a week may seem like a month, but almost every time May roles around, I think, “Where did the time go?” As a director of high school choirs for almost 30 years, I can say with certainty, there is no better tool to reach young people than choral music. Just keep swimming!

New Mexico

Marilyn Barnes
Santa Fe High School
Santa Fe
Years at current school: 6
Total years teaching: 30
Number of students in vocal music program: 145

What is your proudest moment as a music educator? 

I know that I kept one boy in school and because he loved to sing, he stayed and earned his high school diploma. Many of my college students are having music careers. Now, in this sixth year at Santa Fe High School I am starting to see several high school students head off to college to study music ed or vocal performance. It is very exciting. I hope that all of my singers are learning to love singing and will take that with them through out their lives.

How do you hope to make a difference in students’ lives? 

Through music, many students’ lives can be touched. Many of my singers are filling the local community college choir and almost all are still singing. Singing is a life-long skill, and you can enhance your life always through music. My little sister didn’t want the precariousness of a music career, so she became a chemical engineer but still plays and sings at church and accompanies many local groups on the piano. She was my first piano student when I was 18 and she was eight. Wow! That brings me back. One thing I wish we could get going is a young people’s group of singers in every local town. Many of my singers aren’t very interested in joining a choir where the mean age is well over 60. How could we make that happen?

What advice would you give to new teachers entering the field of vocal music education? 

The first year is the hardest. Don’t give up and know that you are helping children. When I am stretching and making the singers imitate goofy sounds and bouncing around the choir room, I think, “Who could have a better job?” This is much better than sitting in front of a computer all day.

New York

Alan Shapiro
Edward R. Murrow High School
Brooklyn
Years at current school: 8
Total years teaching: 26
Number of students in vocal music program: 275

What is your proudest moment as a music educator?

I feel proud whenever, through the choral classes I teach, students come to love a musical work in a style they may have seen as very different from what they had known before. It’s always personally gratifying when, for instance, I hear them in the hallway after class singing a great work by Palestrina or Mozart, or a jazz standard, or a Broadway classic. The educator and poet Eli Siegel, who came to the philosophic principles upon which the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method is based, explained that, “The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it.” My proudest moments as a music educator are when I’ve been able to encourage my students, through music, to see the whole world more coherently, as friendlier and more interesting than they had seen before.

How do you hope to make a difference in students’ lives?

I hope my students come to see that respecting and trying to be fair to notes, chords, words, the meaning of a song, their fellow choristers, and the people they will perform for – all things that stand for the world they’re hoping to like – takes care of them, and is the most truly selfish thing they can do!

I also hope that my students realize that they have more in common with other people than they had ever realized before. To reach these goals, I try to show my students through everything we study – including vocal and choral technique, repertoire, musicianship – that their own everyday questions are related to the music we’re singing and to the structure of music as such.

What advice would you give to new teachers entering the field of vocal music education?

Be proud of the job you’re trying to do and the knowledge and experience you already have, but we should all have the honest humility to know there is always more for us to learn. Of course, new and experienced teachers alike should continue studying vocal pedagogy, developing their own vocal skills and musicianship, and learning about the wealth of music around the world and throughout music history. But the most important thing is to try to bring to the classroom a vivid, exciting sense of how music and life comment on and explain each other. And the most powerful means to do that is through studying the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method (www.AestheticRealism.org).

As an undergraduate and graduate music student, I was pursuing a career as a jazz pianist, composer and arranger, and hadn’t planned on going into music education. It was because of what I learned about the relation of art and life through Aesthetic Realism that I saw I could use the subject I love most to have a good effect on other people. This is why I decided to become a teacher. Now, more than 25 years later, I’m so grateful I did! I would tell all those entering the profession: you’re going to have days where things don’t go so well, rehearsals where something you planned carefully just doesn’t seem to work. You’re going to make mistakes—and not only in your first year! Remember that we have the job of trying to understand the people we teach, and people have rich, complex lives; our students are affected by much more than just our classes, and more than we have any idea of.

Ohio

Beth Vaughn
Arcadia Local Schools
Arcadia
Years at current school: 8
Total years teaching: 11
Number of students in vocal music program: 35

What is your proudest moment as a music educator? 

In my first year as choral director at Arcadia, the high school choir received a Superior (I) rating at district and state adjudicated events. I also enjoy seeing my students “get it” and making music.

How do you hope to make a difference in students’ lives? 

I hope that I can help them become better people – more self-confident, cooperative, responsible, creative, open-minded, self-expressive, and positive. I also hope that they leave high school with a life-long appreciation of music.

What advice would you give to new teachers entering the field of vocal music education? 

Your most important job as an educator is showing your students not how much you know, but how much you care. There will be some rough patches, but you need to enjoy what you are doing.

Oregon

Mark Steighner
Hood River Valley High School
Hood River
Years at current school: 27
Total years teaching: 34
Number of students in vocal music program: 140

What is your proudest moment as a music educator? 

Over the years, I’ve taken over 400 students to the U.K., premiered many new works, and I’m proud that perhaps I persuaded students not to accept a limited view of their potential. I’ve tried to tailor our program around the needs and strengths of the students and offered as many creative opportunities as possible.

How do you hope to make a difference in students’ lives? 

I hope to demonstrate the lifelong values of commitment, passion, and creativity; to give them an inkling of the vast and incredibly deep world of choral music; to give them the tools to recognize quality in art and in life.

What advice would you give to new teachers entering the field of vocal music education? 

Three things: First, commit to excellence from the start, and keep learning: bring in the experts, masters, and the successful educators and ruthlessly steal their secrets! Next, accept that building or maintaining a program demands dedication and absurd amounts of time, and it will never be a 9-5 job. Finally, try not to entirely define yourself “as your job” and continue to cultivate interests and relationships that are not bound to the role of choral music educator.

Pennsylvania

Debra A. Kline-Smith
Warwick High School
Lititz
Years at current school: 26
Total years teaching: 31
Number of students in vocal music program: 150+

What is your proudest moment as a music educator? 

There have been so many proud moments that I find it hard to narrow it down to just one. Most recently, after our Holiday Program, a young student from the 6th grade came up to me filled with joy and enthusiasm. She exclaimed that she had only three more years until she could be here with me at the high school. She has been attending our concerts and musicals for years. Obviously quite an impression has formed in her mind as to what she has to look forward to in her high school years. For me, this is what is all about! Through music, her life has already been touched. She will grow both musically and through the life experiences she will encounter on the Warwick stage.

How do you hope to make a difference in students’ lives? 

My goal as an educator is to teach the total person. When they leave Warwick, I hope that they will put the same effort into their future careers that they see me put into our music program. My favorite quote, which I live by, states, “Quality – countless, unseen details are often the only difference between mediocre and magnificent.”

What advice would you give to new teachers entering the field of vocal music education?

Give yourself four years to settle into your school. Find yourself first and feel comfortable in your own skin. Until you have those first experiences, the focus will be on you. After your initiation period, only then will you be able to focus on your students. Be patient as you are molding your program and your students’ musical lives!

South Dakota

Rebecca R. Fischer
Piedmont Valley Elementary
Piedmont
Years at current school: 6
Total years teaching: 35
Number of students in vocal music program: 500

What is your proudest moment as a music educator? 

There are so many. Here’s the most recent: I asked my second grade students what it would feel like to be an “Olympic singer.” One little boy responded, “I would stand tall and proud and clear my mind of everything but the music!” He was so passionate and profound that I knew that I had chosen the right career!

How do you hope to make a difference in students’ lives?

I hope to give them the lifelong joy of singing, playing, creating, and consuming great music.

What advice would you give to new teachers entering the field of vocal music education?

Take your work seriously, but not yourself. Remember that the students are there to be filled with the joy of music. They are not necessarily there to become an extension of your life. Do the best you can with the tools that make you comfortable. Plan, plan, plan, and have fun!

Virginia

Dr. Don Krudop
The Visual & Performing Arts Academy at Salem High School
Virginia Beach
Years at current school: 24
Total years teaching: 37
Number of students in vocal music program: 125

What is your proudest moment as a music educator?

I’ve had so many that I’m not sure I could narrow them down to just one. Among those would be: having my ensembles perform at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, at the White House and National Cathedral, at Westminster Abbey (London) and Yorkminster (York), and at state and division music education conferences; being named Virginia’s “Outstanding Music Educator” and Salem High School’s “Teacher of the Year”; watching former students become outstanding musicians and music educators; providing my ensembles with challenging repertoire and seeing them rise to the occasion with successful mastery of the works; and perhaps the best “moment” of all is having earned the nickname of “Papa K.” Knowing that I’ve had a positive impact on students’ lives is a significant part of why I love teaching!

How do you hope to make a difference in students’ lives?

I hope I’ve made a difference in my students’ lives by giving them the ability to “see beyond the page.” I think it’s vital that music educators encourage their students to understand that the re-creation of the “spots on the page” is not the end product of learning, but just the beginning. It’s only when an ensemble has accurately mastered the notes, rhythms, and words that the joy of creating actual music can begin. The process of building a complete performance must include investigation and discussion of the “message” of the lyrics and the interplay between the music and lyrics imbued by the composer/arranger; in other words, how do those elements work together to create a complete artistic entity? We must also consider the theatrical and visual elements of performance, the use of body language (not necessarily choreography), and facial expression in expressing the message of the song to the audience.

I hope that I’ve also instilled in my students a love and a passion for music, an understanding of both the theory and history of music, and the drive to create excellence in performance; I hope that they have grown to become not only lovers and lifelong practitioners of the art, but passionate, informed, and literate consumers as well.

What advice would you give to new teachers entering the field of vocal music education?

Set the bar high for your students and ensembles. I’ve found that students at every level are capable of achieving amazing heights as long as we, as music educators, are capable of leading them there. I have yet to find one song that students aren’t capable of learning as long as I am capable of teaching it. If 14-year-olds can win gold medals at the Olympics, they can be successful with challenging, high quality repertoire.

Stay active in your art, for both your professional and personal satisfaction. Outside of school, the time I spend each week conducting the Virginia Beach Chorale (www.virginiabeachchorale.org) and the Heritage United Methodist Church Chancel Choir are the times when my musical heart soars.

Keep your passion burning for both music and teaching. The love for your art and your calling has to be evident in your classroom as well as on stage. Success without passion is a difficult, if not impossible, task to accomplish.

Stay away from the photocopier. Composers and arrangers make their living by creating new songs & arrangements for us… every single photocopy of copyrighted music removes a tiny bit of salary from their pocket.

Make friends with the head secretary, head custodian, and the choral director(s) in your feeder school(s).

Keep your administration and guidance counselor(s), involved and “in the loop.” We are our own best friends in advocating for support of our program.

Remember that those people listed above are very possibly not “arts people,” thus they may not understand the challenges and intricacies that are involved in what we do. Invite them into your classroom, especially when you’ve planned a rehearsal that addresses intricacies of technique, for example, something that goes beyond “just singing.” And, of course, always invite them to your concerts and recognize their presence!

West Virginia

Joyce Good-Pitchford
Ravenswood High School
Ravenswood
Years at current school: 39
Total years teaching: 39
Number of students in vocal music program: 82

What is your proudest moment as a music educator?

I could easily say whenever hotel management tells me at the end of an overnight stay for a competition that my choral kids were the best high school students that they had ever had stay with them – that is better than a first place trophy in a choral competition. There are so many proud moments, but if I have to decide on one, it would probably be whenever I see the faces of my singers when they know at the end of a song during a rehearsal that they have just done something musical with their voices. It is always a moment when no one breathes or moves in fear that they will break the spell of the moment.

How do you hope to make a difference in students’ lives?

Of course, I have a goal to open up to each of my students to the wonderful world of music. I want them to go beyond the small boundaries of Ravenswood, W.V., and experience the wealth of choral music, choirs, musicals, performers, and so on that we have available to enjoy and appreciate. If one of them decides to then pursue music as a career, then that is icing on the cake. However, that is not my main goal as a music educator. I sincerely mean the following: my main goal is to equip our young people with the tools they need to succeed in 21st-century America. I want them each to be able to communicate, to be involved with community activities, to make a difference in someone else’s life, to be a team player, a motivator, and a caretaker of other students. I want students to be able to manage their time, to set short and long-term goals, and to contribute to society for allowing them to receive a good education. Every one of these goals can be the result of being in a choral program that cares, and I hope that is what I have been able to develop at this school.

What advice would you give to new teachers entering the field of vocal music education?

First of all, you must be very willing to go beyond the eight-hour work day. I do not care how organized and driven you are – it cannot be accomplished without meeting with students beyond a 50-minute class period. Next, I would adamantly suggest that they receive every ounce of keyboard experience as possible. I know of vocal teachers in surrounding school that are relying on their MP3 players, recorders, YouTube, or hiring accompanists to help teach choral music because of their limited keyboard experience. That is not fair to the students they teach. Finally, you cannot look at being a vocal teacher as a job. I have had a “love affair” with my “occupation” for the past 39-plus years. If my body could stand it, I would still be here 39 years from now. We teach music because we love music and our kids, not because we love the money.

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