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The Baton Pass

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In a relay race, one runner from each team sprints around a track carrying a baton, which gets passed from teammate to teammate, as each runner takes his or her turn. The baton pass is a highly coordinated maneuver designed to minimize the loss of time during the transition between runners. Similarly, when a highly accomplished choral director retires from the program he or she has spent decades building, the transition should be approached in such a way so as to minimize the seam in the students’ education and the loss of any momentum a program might have.

Back in January of this year, Choral Director recognized Martha Banghart, the long time director of North Harford High School choirs in Pylesville, Maryland, in our “Choral Directors of Note” feature for her extraordinary accomplishments in music education. After more than a quarter-century at North Harford, 2009 was Marty’s last, as she has made the tough decision to retire from teaching high school. She’ll continue teaching private lessons to some of her former students, and will also continue directing the Deer Creek Chorale, an inter-generational choir she founded in 2007. Taking the reins of the program is Angela Jones, who was previously the choral director at a middle school just down the road. Angie has been in the district for over a decade, during which time there were frequent collaborations between the middle and high school choirs and their directors. Choral Director caught up with the two educators, outgoing and incoming, to gain some insight into how they approach the challenges of the transition process.

“I actually was planning to retire in 2004,” admits Marty Banghart. Renovations were about to begin at the high school, which would have meant moving from her regular classroom. “Then at the last minute, I decided to endure being in a portable classroom for four years and giving concerts in Pennslyvannia because I had great students and I was not quite ready to retire. Then every year after, people were guessing, and of course each class of students begged me to wait until they had graduated. Jackie Haas, the superintendent who had facilitated our groups going to China and Carnegie Hall, died on December 30 of last year, and she was my same age, so I decided not to wait any longer. I told my principal confidentionally in December and my students in April. Behind the scenes, I was working on convincing the feeder middle school teacher, Angie Jones, to interview [for the position].”

Banghart continues, “Angie and I have been good friends and colleagues for 13 years. We have attended ACDA conferences together, worked on joint projects, discussed our philosophies of what makes an effective director and performance, shared repertoire, done exchanges, observed each other and the list goes on. In the back of my mind, I always hoped she would take over for me. In 1982 when I was 33 and had taught at North Harford Middle School for ten years, I was offered the job at the high school. I took it even though it was in terrible shape just 15 girls in the choir, that was it. I brought my eighth-grade choir with me and after two years of teaching Health, plus two choirs and a guitar lab, I had built the program up sufficiently so that I could be teaching music full-time. Now I am leaving Angie seven choirs, the best music library in the state, and a highly respected choral program. I will continue to help her in anyway she might want but I think she is truly ready for the new challenges that await her.”

While the task of taking over a program from such an entrenched and popular figure as Marty Banghart would be daunting for any choral director, Angela Jones has several points in her favor. First, and perhaps most importantly, having taught in the system for nearly a decade, Angie has already directed many of the students in the program. “I taught in the feeder school for the last eight years and I know the kids, which makes it a lot easier. Basically, I’ve sent her the kids. It is definitely helpful that I already know the community and some of the families involved. If anyone has to replace her, and she’s been teaching at the school for almost 30 years, at least I’m not a brand new person for the students.”

In addition, because the two teachers have collaborated frequently, Angie has a pretty good idea of what to expect from the high school choirs. “Marty and I already had a good working relationship,” she notes, “wherein I would take my students over to the high school and she would bring her kids over to my school. That helped the younger kids know what to expect when they arrived at high school. That also made it so that I knew what to expect, as well, and how to prepare my students to send them over to her. Especially in a situation like this, where you are taking over for someone who has been in the system for so many years and it’s like an era is ending, it’s very important to be doing things like that so that you know what’s already going on. Luckily, we have a very similar philosophy of high expectations of our students, reading music, and being good musicians, and all of that stuff. Over the summer, we met together with the choral officers, and it was great because I felt like, ‘Oh! These are my kids; they’re just a little older now.’ It gave me a good idea of what they’ve done in the past and a few things that I want to tweak in the future.”

Another factor that should help ease the transition process is Angie’s networking experience: she recently finished serving as the president of the Maryland Choral Directors Association. “I’ve made some wonderful contacts through that position. I have quite a few friends who are awesome high school choir directors in Maryland, and they have already offered wonderful support and have offered to come work with my kids or do whatever I needed, if I want some help. That’s wonderful going in, and I’m not afraid to ask for help, either. I think as a teacher, you are always learning; and if you aren’t, then you probably need to retire. I’ll always work to better myself as an educator and as a choral director, so yes, I am lucky that I have wonderful support on that front.”

While her familiarity with the students, the blessing of the administration and former teacher, and a strong network of support will doubtless prove useful, there are still some of the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day routine that Angie will have to work out on her own. For example, Angie has some conflicting thoughts on how to approach the first day of school. “I’ve gone back and forth on how to approach the first day of classes. Do I even mention Ms. Banghart or do I just start teaching? I think a lot of this will depend on the kids. The ones who are freshmen, they’ve never had Marty most of them just had me last year, so they’ll have had me for seven years in a row by the time they finish high school. Poor kids!” she says with a laugh.

Along those lines, another factor for the transitioning director to contend with is time management: high school class periods are significantly longer than those in the middle school. “I’m used to teaching for 42 minutes, and now I’ll be teaching for 90 minutes, so I’m just not sure what that’s going to feel like. I think I’m going to love it, but it’s going to take some time to adjust my pacing and know how long to do warm-ups and sight reading and work on the repertoire or theory lessons.”

Angie’s plan going in is to lay down the groundwork on day one. “I’m going to talk at the very beginning about how we’re an awesome choir and we’re going to continue to be an awesome choral program. Whether it is with the middle school kids or the high school, that is my expectation. We are a community that knows we have a high standard of choral music and choral excellence, and it’s going to stay that way. Sure we’re going to do some things a little differently from how they’ve been done in the past, and I’m going to need my students to have an open mind. I know that I can’t be Marty, because I’m not her. And I don’t want to be her; I want to be Angie Jones and still be an awesome teacher and have a high standard and an excellent program. I’m thinking that people will understand that you don’t teach the same way in your 13th year as you do in your 38th.”

As Angie sees it, maintaining some consistency will help smooth the transition. “The key is to not go in and change everything,” she says. “But at the same time, there are things that I have to instill based on my own morals and my own ways of doing things. For instance, students were talking about extra credit at the officer meeting, and I said, ‘Sorry, I don’t give extra credit.’ The students started to complain, ‘Well Ms. Banghart–!’ So I had to interrupt, saying, ‘Ms. Jones does not give extra credit.’ I’ve said that from day one because I can’t change what I think professionally as a teacher. To me a grading system is how you earn your grade, and that’s it. On the other hand, I’m not going to require my students to write a 20-page term paper, like Marty did, because I think that turns a lot of kids away from the choir. There are going to be some slight differences like that, but I’m not going to make a big deal about those things.”

Because most of the choral students in the high school already know her and are familiar with her teaching style, Angie is hoping she might not have to make drastic changes in her teaching approach. On the other hand, she acknowledges that a style of teaching that is successful with middle school children might not work with older students. Admits Angie, “After 12 years of working with them, I so know middle school kids right now. I’m right at their level and I know exactly what to expect and the drama and all of that. But there’s a question of how I’m supposed to act around high schoolers. I remember when I told my students I was switching to the high school, one of them said, ‘Ms. Jones, if you do that warm-up, those high school kids are totally going to make fun of you!’

“I understand I’ll have to act a little bit differently like a grown up. That part is going to be different. I had such a good rapport with my students, and now that part is just an unknown. But I look forward to the challenge, and I know I’m not going to be burned out by doing the same thing over and over, so it will really stimulate me. Then of course, there’s also learning the school all over. Yes, I know the students, but I don’t know the staff and learning everyone’s name again and not knowing where the mail box is or where the copy room is it’s really like being a new teacher all over again.”

Marty Banghart has some thoughts on how to successfully interact with high school students. “Treat the students as adults,” counsels Banghart. “Do not pander to them or treat them like children. Hold high expectations and document everything. Make the student accountable for everything that happens in and outside of the classroom from coming to class prepared to home study. Make every minute of rehearsal meaningful and important. And probably most important, be an enthusiastic and passionate role model and mix inspiration with humor to hook the kids on what you are teaching.”

For choral directors, success begins with helping students build a solid foundation in music literacy. Says Banghart, “Developing musicianship skills should be a teacher’s first priority. From sight reading to ear training, recognition of music vocabulary and knowing the historical context and meaning of each piece performed… to me those things will make for an independent and inspired chorister.”

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