By Mike Lawson
Ten choral directors from around the country share their thoughts and experiences from 2016 and what’s ahead for 2017.
Central Middle School
I teach 6th-8th grade choir and general music. 2016 has been a year of learning just like the past 11 years have been. I have realized that when picking music, I need to really step back and ask the question “Am I over programming so I can say look what my students did?” It is kind of a hard pill to swallow realizing that maybe performances weren’t as top notch as they could have been due to the fact that I picked music that was way over the level the singers could handle. The good side of all of this is that I and the singers have all grown and learned. In 2017 I hope to infuse that fire, love, and emotional connection to the music. Even more I hope my room becomes a safe haven for any student and that they can truly be them in my classroom without fear of being judged! A tip I have learned in teaching music is to really have the end in mind and then chunk out what sections to work on from there and how it’s all going to work.
When I moved here in 2013 the college community choir had just been disbanded. I sang and accompanied community choirs for eight years before this and couldn’t believe I had the opportunity to start a new one. We have a core group of fourteen enthusiastic singers. Eight of us went to sing the second half of Handel’s Messiah at Carnegie Hall with 200 others over Thanksgiving. What an experience! If you asked me three years ago our choir would be so active, I wouldn’t have believed it. My next endeavor is creating a youth community choir. We started a home school choir at our music store and had a pretty good “trial” fall season. After two successful Christmas concerts more students and parents wanted to join us. One thing learned from both programs is don’t be afraid to start small. Running the “business” side of things is important, we have a treasurer and also work with the local Music Club (part of the National Federation of Music Clubs). I send out letters once a year to local businesses asking for money and we usually get just enough back to cover music and venue rentals. The contacts and friends made in the choir and in the community has been priceless. The experiences gained of working with everyone in the area also makes the effort worthwhile.
Music Director – Angelus
Mt. Vernon Senior High School Fine Arts Academy
Mt. Vernon, Indiana
Angelus is dedicated to the performance of sacred music of varied religious traditions and historical periods and is comprised of seven young women from the Mt. Vernon Senior High School Fine Arts Academy. Created in 2008, the members of Angelus have now performed ten tours performing over eighty-five concerts in sixteen states. Their repertoire ranges from medieval chant and polyphony to the American Sacred Harp tradition as well as contemporary American and Irish works. In April of 2016 the ensemble made their Lincoln Center debut as part of a DCINY performance of Christopher Tin’s “Calling All Dawns” at David Geffen Hall. Creating a concert tour for a high school vocal ensemble can be a challenge. Let’s face it, as a visiting high school choir, it’s tough to get arrested much less find an audience. This is especially true if that ensemble specializes in early music. However, June 2016 found Angelus on tour to Ohio, Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont. Setting up a tour requires doing your homework and lots of emails. The repertoire we sing typically limits us to churches and among those, churches that would enjoy and understand what we do. The entire venture is funded through concert receipts and CD sales. The members are treated as semi-professionals and incur no expenses. June 2017 will find Angelus performing in Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Choir Director and Organist
First United Methodist Church
In addition to being a school music teacher, I am the choir director/organist at a church, working with a choir of 15-20. At the beginning of the 2016, I had an idea, which I waited to share until the right moment. “For our Christmas Cantata this year, we are going to do Handel’s Messiah.” Having performed this several times, I knew that this was going to be a challenge with this group. When I mentioned it to my choir members, I was met with faces of fear and disbelief. Can we really do this? At the end of the summer, we began rehearsals, devoting half of normal choir time to learning the choral movements. It was difficult. Members began to miss rehearsals, and some dropped out altogether. Yet, a faithful core continued to work hard through all of the text and melismas. A few more volunteers showed up. Suddenly, there was hope again. I went to talk to the finance chair at our church about the possibility of hiring instrumentalists to accompany the choir. Without hesitation, she said, “Yes. We will make it work.” For our performance, we had a string quartet from the local university play with us! The choir performed with confidence and the soloists with passion. Was I crazy to think that we could do this with mostly volunteers? Possibly. But I had a vision, and through the hard work of many wonderful people, that vision came true. I am hoping that this brings confidence to my choir members, so that we can continue to grow as musicians and learn more challenging music as we enter 2017.
Music Education PhD Candidate
The University of Southern Mississippi
In January, if you had told me that I would be living in Mississippi by July, I would have laughed for days. I was the choral director at a school in Charleston, South Carolina, and considered it to be the greatest job I’ve ever had. By March, my husband and I made the decision to pursue our doctoral degrees. The day I broke the news to the choirs was the hardest day at work I’ve ever had. I thought the kids would hate me and never forgive me for the selfish decision I was essentially making. As soon as the words, “I will not be here next year,” left my mouth, the room was silent. I then told them that we were both accepted to doctoral programs. One of my basses started clapping, others chimed in saying they were proud of me, that it was awesome we were furthering our education. My tears of anxiety and despair turned into gratitude. I didn’t realize I had students who believed in me. It was hard to see my students go on without me with all of our fall traditions. What I am learning is that those students will always be a part of my life. While there are some aspects of their social media lives that I wish I could avoid, I love keeping in touch with them, watching them continue to grow during their high school years. In 2017, I am looking forward to another semester of learning, but also looking forward to the day when I can return to the classroom to work with students every day. I know this is the field where I belong!
Saint Bernard School
On December 13th, 2016, Saint Bernard School Concert Choir was honored to host Wreaths Across America. We are in our third year performing for this amazing organization, whose motto is “Remember, Honor, Teach.” Their goal is to place a wreath on every grave in Arlington National Cemetery, although they do much more. I was nervous about the timing. We performed our Christmas concert the night before. The day before we performed for an autism awareness benefit. Would my students feel prepared, with our limited rehearsal time? Would their voices be strained? All that was forgotten when the vehicles up to our parking lot. Our choir of 90 seized the energy from the audience and used it to perform our few works beautifully. Even though we were not in a concert hall, and our music was simple in arrangement, this performance means the most. Being able to participate in such an amazing organization and share music with the volunteers will always be something we cherish as a school. Choir directors who would like to check out this amazing organization can find them at wreathsacrossamerica.org.
Dr. James Davidson
Visiting Assistant Professor of Music
Interim Director of Choral Activities
Drury University, Springfield, MO
2016 was one of the most challenging, yet rewarding years of my teaching career. I was hired to my first university teaching position after teaching in public schools for eight years. I felt so blessed to be hired to an institution close to my family, with a long choral tradition. About the fifth week of the semester, the university announced it would cut a number of positions. As the “last guy in,” I knew I would be the “first guy out.” I spent the remainder of the year as a lame-duck conductor, trying to do excellent work, balance a job search, and attempting to be a supportive husband to my wife who was expecting our first child. I was given the chorale, a large ensemble of approximately 90 singers. We had a great year of concerts, culminating with a performance of Carmina Burana with our wind symphony. Heading home on the last day of the semester to accept another job offer, I got the call. Some influential people had been at my concerts, heard the work that we had done, and decided to retain me. Moral of the story: regardless how bleak the situation, do your best work, and trust that sometimes things have a way of working out in the end. The experiences of last year make me appreciate every second that I have working with my choirs, collaborating with my colleagues, and representing my institution. I cannot wait for 2017 to see where we will go from here.
K4 Vocal Music
Holy Family Catholic School
Grand Junction, Colorado
I recently put on my 2nd annual Christmas Program, which incorporated grades K-8 at the private Catholic school where I teach vocal music. Being a new teacher to the school I had big shoes to fill, high expectations and all that. Last year’s program was pretty darn good, but this year I wanted it to be even better. I worked hard to create an entire experience for the audience, a fun and emotional program that they would remember. It went off without a hitch and after the performance I received a lot of happy faces and very complimentary remarks. But there was one that kept coming up over and over again: that the students actually watched me and reacted to my conducting. I know that sounds like a little thing, but to this audience at least it was HUGE. Something they had never seen before! In my classroom, as in yours no doubt, the expectation is to always watch your director. So it came as a surprise to me that the kids watching me was a surprise to them! It was a great way to close out 2016, and in 2017 I’m resolved to continue working with these kiddos to model ideal performance behavior like this. I already have a spring program in the works!
Director of Vocal Music
Bryan City Schools
In 2016, our district opened a new 6-12 facility with matching state funds. Instead of sharing rooms, the band, chorus, and orchestra each have a dedicated rehearsal space. Seven new Wenger ensemble rooms were installed in the new music wing. As a result, I have been able to develop student section leaders who can help lead sectional rehearsals in my high school choruses. There are no longer three huge trash cans in my shared room to collect rainwater from the ceiling leaks! Enrollment in Solo and Ensemble has nearly doubled! We are not moving between the middle and high school buildings; so I have the time to teach a sixth grade choir. The choral music program now services an additional 40 students! Scheduling flexibility in this new facility has also permitted us to separate middle school choruses by gender. In 2017, I’m hoping to better leverage this facility to create innovative and enriching performance and rehearsal opportunities for my choral students in grades six through twelve. I’m looking to increase student enrollment to a point where a second choir director can be brought into the district. Hopefully, 2017 will be the first year where a full 6-12 vocal music concert can be produced where all 350 choral students can make music together!
West Milton, Ohio
I tried something different this year as far as programming goes. We are a small high school with less than 500 and I am very proud of the fact that my show choir kids are in many activities- marching band, cross country, football, cheer and soccer. I programmed a fall concert for the last week of October. It fell at a perfect time in our MS and HS athletic schedule and it gave us plenty of time to focus on the November musical. Once these two events were over I decided to still teach some winter pieces that we would record and publish for our community sent via social media! We made a cute backdrop in the room and classes each performed a song that a senior student compiled into a super cute 10-minute video concert. It’s a first for our program and we are going to do it again in March for MIOSM and then of course do a live May concert.