Nora Krainis: Seizing Opportunity

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noraWith a little creativity and planning, there are virtually limitless collaborative opportunities for young singers. At North Yarmouth Academy, located some 10 miles south of Portland, Maine, choral director Nora Krainis has embraced this concept, involving her music students in everything from barbershop to show choir, from bluegrass to performances alongside symphony orchestras. Krainis, who also teaches drama and coaches volleyball at the pre-K-12 prep school, summarizes her inclusive philosophy with this quote from the bio on her faculty web page: “The woods would be very quiet if no birds sang there but those who sang best.”  Krainis has support from her school in her performance endeavors, as the North Yarmouth Academy (NYA) encourages student participation in an array of disciplines in order to encourage a comprehensive and well-rounded educational experience. To wit, more than 70 percent of the NYA students are involved in either instrumental or choral music.

One notable example of this cross-discipline approach made headlines earlier this year when Krainis’ volleyball team surprised their opponents by singing the national anthem in what was described as “perfect” three-part harmony. “[Krainis] believes that singing together creates bonds between people unlike any other activity,” noted Jack Hardy, NYA’s director of athletics, in an article on examiner.com (goo.gl/NuALKs).

However, working in a wide array of genres, with groups of varying sizes, and with students of different levels of experience does require a fair amount of technical consideration from the vocal instructor.

Choral Director recently caught up with Nora Krainis to discuss her approach to working across choral genres, keeping her numbers up in the face of significant academic scheduling pressure, and building a supportive, creative atmosphere in which her students can thrive.

Choral Director: You have a fair amount of variety in the ensembles and the types of genres that you cover with your students. What’s your approach to technique as far as working with such different material?

Nora Krainis: No matter what we are doing, the kids need to sing in a way that’s healthy. They need to have a solid platform, which includes things like breathing and support. They need to articulate in a way that it’s appropriate for the genre. I do teach diction and articulation, but you have to mold that. That’s the top of the pyramid in terms of what’s important, and we work towards the top of the pyramid to mold the sound in a way that suits the genre.

It’s like baking a cake: the basic ingredients are the same (flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, eggs, milk). In choral music those ingredients are posture, breathing, support, physical connection, resonance, and articulation. The different flavors are the spices, the chocolate, and the icing, which correlates in music to the interpretation, dynamics, accompaniment, changes in articulation, and sometimes resonance. The flavors are the genres. So the basics stay the same, and we tweak the flavors.

We work on learning the basic vowels and how to blend those together. We voice the kids in rows and they will listen for blend. I have them stand and sing a line, and I will have everybody listen. Then, I will move the students around to find the best blend. And the kids also learn to listen for exactly when the blend is the best. So everybody is participating in making that decision, too. That’s actually color, I guess, but I’m working on vowels and blend at the same time.

The foundation, the platform, the breathing, and the posture – that has to be the key, and then we work on the vowels. Even though your vowels are going to be different when you do world music from gospel music or country music, the students need to learn the basics, and then how to tweak what they’re doing as appropriate for the genre.

A lot of it is about communication with the audience. We really work on interpretation no matter what the genre. And we cover a lot of genres. For show choir, we were doing Disney or pop material, and for varsity singers we’re doing a lot of ‘60s and ‘70s, even ‘80s material. The breathing is still the same, we have to blend all of those vowels, and the diction is just a little bit different depending on the song.

CD: You have also placed an emphasis on involving your vocal students with a variety of instrumental ensembles. What’s your approach to those sorts of projects?

NK: We have a bluegrass group at our school, which I helped to start. I don’t teach it this year, but I’m a bluegrass musician and singer. And so I often work with the singers in the bluegrass band, and that’s whole different way to sing. But I will have the same kids singing the bluegrass music as singing some classical piece and they will be able to know how the diction needs to be adjusted.

We collaborated with the Maine Youth Orchestra, and a few years before that, we had soloist and who sang with the orchestra. They never had done that before, and that was a great opportunity to sing classical repertoire and learn to really project their voices. We love to collaborate with other choirs, too. We have done joint concerts like the Make-a-Wish Foundation benefit concert, where we have different choirs come in and then we sing one big number all together that everyone has learned. We’ve also gone to the ACDA festival and other high school festivals, where we will all sing for each other. It’s not necessarily a competition, just a chance to be sharing our music. I’m always looking forward to what my students can learn from listening to other choirs.

CD: What’s the philosophy behind trying to present those opportunities for your students?

NK:The students can only benefit from those kinds of things, so I try to do them whenever possible. We don’t participate in competitions much in our school – I would much rather take the students on tour to sing for other people. Whenever we can, we go to local places like, say, assisted living facilities or just somewhere where we can make people happy by singing, or somewhere where we can hear other groups sing. I don’t love the competition part, but being adjudicated has its place and is important. Still, I think sharing can be even more powerful and you don’t have to have that competitive element hanging over your head.

We’ve even taken a bluegrass band down to bars in Portland. Yes, they’re bars, but we just make sure to carefully explain to the kids why we’re there – to focus on performing and then listening to the other performers. And the adults love to hear our kids.

We just grab those opportunities whenever they come up. We sent the bluegrass band to China for an International Youth Peace and Culture festival where there were 11 countries represented. Everyone shared their music or dance or whatever it was they did and the kids all got to know each other. We spent a week there and then we played in two places in Beijing. Those kids are never going to forget those experiences, and those opportunities will help form their love for music and keep them involved in it.

CD: For educators who might be looking to seek out these kinds of opportunities, what advice would you have?

NK:Talk to people, meet people. If there is a local music venue or even a music store that gives lessons, maybe there is an opportunity to collaborate. You have to look for opportunities – they’re not necessarily going to be put in your laps. Then you just have to weigh them and only do the ones you can do without burning your own candle at both ends. All those extras do take more time and effort than the regular classroom experience. As a teacher, you need to make sure that you are refilling your inner supply with whatever works for you.

 CD: What about as far as preparing your students for those collaborative opportunities?

NK: It depends on the collaboration, but we just include it as part of our curriculum. If we’re doing something with another school, I’ll send out the music to them and then teach my kids the music, and we’ll have a joint rehearsal an hour before the show, or something like that. We hosted a collaborative event with an orchestra, and we let them have several rehearsals in our space, where our students were able to practice with them.

When we were preparing to go to China with the bluegrass band, we took them to local venues and had them perform. We held some house concerts just to get them comfortable being in front of people, introducing their songs, and figuring out how they were going to move from one song to another. But you’re helping change these kids lives. The music is changing their lives. Through this experience, they become almost like your own children.

CD: What are some of the goals that you’re trying to accomplish in your classroom?

NK: I feel like I have so many emphases, but we really try to educate the whole person. It’s all tied in together at our school: athletics, the arts, and academics all go hand-in-hand. We’re trying to graduate kids who are well-rounded. So, for instance, I also coach volleyball and our volleyball team sings the national anthem before their home games – in three-part harmony!

I want my kids to come out of my program feeling confident. I want them to feel like if they pick up a piece of music, they will be able to read it. I want them to feel like if they hear a group singing or performing, that they can analyze that music and that sound and think critically about it. I want them to recognize the difference between just singing a song and really telling a story, because if you’re not telling a story and you don’t move the audience, then you’ve really wasted your time. Your audience has to feel what you’re doing, and therefore you have to feel it and you have to connect your body to the sound. 

This is our outlet. Music is a means of expression for feelings. Sports are an outlet, too, as are other activities, like drama. But it’s a different kind of emotional outlet when you sing, and especially when you sing with a big group. Even our varsity singers, which are a group of just 16 kids – when you work together on a piece and perform it, you have a bond with those kids that is not like anything else. We’re creating a sense of family.

When these kids go off to college, they’re confident enough to audition for their college a cappella groups. And I’ve had so many of my students go on to sing in those types of groups at Smith, Colorado College, Colgate, Middlebury, Harvard. And that opens up a family they can join when they get to college – to be able to go right in the gate and they have the confidence to do that. They know how to do the different voice techniques for when you’re doing a cappella. I’m sure it hasn’t hurt that there have been shows like The Sing-Off.

CD: Speaking of The Sing-Off, there has been a lot of exposure for choral and vocal music from a variety of television shows – much of them in a competitive atmosphere or talent show format. What’s your perspective on that whole phenomenon and how it has impacted school choral programs?

NK: Well I feel like the whole Glee thing really got kids interested in show choir. We had a show choir before Glee, and then when that came out, it doubled our numbers. In fact, this is the first year in about 10 or 12 years that we have not had a show choir.

For a while, it got the students interested and so we could teach really good things while we were working with them. And at the same time, we could teach them to critically think and listen to these different arrangements and pick out the parts that worked and the ones that didn’t. And we could talk about blend and audience – where the hooks are that catch the audience, and how to connect the movement with the sounds through the choreography. So when that window does open through a TV show or whatever and your kids are interested, that’s an opportunity for us to grab them. And once we grab them, we have a chance to keep them interested and involved. Most of the kids that were in that big show choir two or three years ago are still involved in music in some way, but they might decide that they really just want to be in one of the other choral groups we have.

But it does open those doors. And I like to hear them talk about when, say, American Idol is on. They will comment on different voices and relate them to how we talk about identifying bright and dark voices, or buzzy voices, or blended voices. It’s so important to make sure that students have that in their vocabulary so they can listen analytically and tie it into what they know. Overall, the music-based TV shows have opened some windows. It might have opened doors for some teachers, but I would more say it’s like windows.

CD: On another note, what’s your strategy for keeping it fresh year after year?

NK: I talk to the other music teachers around the state all the time – every chance we get. I get involved in the district festivals and the state festivals so that I can have that collaboration, because we feed off of each other. You’re not going to find somebody in your school who is going to feed you like that, who you can learn from. It’s just really important that you talk to other directors and what you’re doing and what’s working for you. Maybe it’s just some little tricks in a rehearsal that they use that you can add to your toolbox. You can’t get stagnant.

And I listen to a lot of music. I’m always thinking about how I can arrange something for my groups if there is something that really captures me, that my kids would really love to sing, or that might be a good fit for their voices.

CD: What’s the biggest challenge that you face with your classes?

NK: Probably the biggest challenge in middle school is that I have all the kids who might not want to be in my classes. I have some kids who want to be there, but there are other kids who just have to take music, and so I get the ones who don’t play an instrument. It’s my challenge to get those kids to love singing so that they will stay, especially those boys who might think it’s not cool. It has to be cool for them to want to do it. I have to make them feel like we’re a team, like a family, and we’re supporting each other and just loving the whole process. We also have to embrace their changing voices. I spend a lot of time thinking about changing voices and working with my boys on that, because I want them to feel comfortable. I don’t want them to stop singing.

CD: Is that an issue in the high school, as well?

NK: In the high school, the biggest challenge is that because we’re a college prep school, kids often feel like if they don’t take chorus, they can have a study hall during that time. And there are a bunch of students who haven’t been in our middle school – they just come in for high school. The challenge is getting those new kids to believe that it’s fun and it’s a good thing to be singing and making music. And that they will actually do better on their SATs and in their classes if they give up that study hall for two days a week and spend time learning music instead.

That’s the biggest challenge, because the ones that have been in the program usually want to stay in the program. But the ones who’re coming in are thinking, “Oh man – I have to make a certain GPA and I have to do well on the SATs, so I need to do this, I need to do that.” I’m not totally sure what the college placement people or advisors are saying, but music really helps them achieve those academic goals.

CD: What’s your strategy with those high school students who might be reluctant to take music because of academic pressure?

NK: I basically use their peers – the ones that I have in my classes who are their friends. When we sing in December, I always have kids who are adding chorus in January, because they’ve had the chance to hear us sing and see how much fun it is. The kids demonstrate that they’re having fun and they tell each other that they’re having fun. Our best tool is to use your current kids to recruit for your program.

CD: And how about in terms of getting everybody feeling comfortable and involved, whether at the middle school or high school?

NK: I think it’s really important to know every kid, to know every voice, and to know what every kid’s voice is doing. And I know that one week it’s going to be doing something different than the next, especially if they’re boys. I really try to make that boy feel like he is valued and belongs and has a place. It’s like a sports team – I teach my boys as if I was coaching. If I want their attention, I will make the timeout sign and a couple of the real leaders, the “captains” of the “teams,” they will call the team timeout, and everybody will be quiet. They respond that way.

I walk among them while they’re singing all the time – if I have to adjust shoulders or adjust breathing or say, “Oh that sounds amazing,” or “Yeah! You’re hitting those notes now, you didn’t have them last week!” And then they feel like a million bucks. If you can get the kids to feel like a million bucks, then they are going to sing and feel that they have a place in your music room.

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