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Fifth Annual Choral Directors of Note

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As we close out another year and one in which many school music programs faced far-reaching budget cuts due to a troubled economy we of course want to tip our hats to those educators who battled it out in the trenches. And with the economy apparently improving, the year seems to have ended on a somewhat brighter note. Likewise, Choral Director also wanted to start out 2010 on a positive note, and will do so through the recognition of the following vocal music educators for their perseverance and dedication in our fifth annual Choral Directors of Note feature.

As we honor their accomplishments by sharing their educational goals, proudest achievements, and lessons they’ve learned teaching, we also recognize that they are a representation of the thousands of music educators who have worked tirelessly and with an undying commitment to educate, inspire, and guide their students through the medium of choral music.

COLORADO

Stan ScottStan Scott
Vocal Music Instructor
Central High School
Grand Junction

Years at School: 21
Total Years Teaching: 25
Students in Choral Program: 178

Educational goals: My first goal as a music educator is to teach the students how to sight-read music, both melodically and rhythmically. There is no way to learn about music if the teacher is always having to teach the notes and doesn’t ever get to the musicality of the piece. Secondly, I want to have my students sing a wide variety of musical styles. I want them to appreciate all music. I strive to do a wide variety of historical and cultural music.

Proudest achievement: Seeing students continuing on with their music, whether they are singing in a church choir, at college, or in the professional world has been very rewarding. I also like it when they come back and tell me that they are so far ahead on their sight-reading skills.

Lessons learned: There are so many; it is hard to limit it to just one, but the most important is: you can’t do it all. Do the best that you can with what you have, and keep striving to improve and learn more.

CONNECTICUT

John HarnedJohn Harned
Choral Director
Newtown High School
Sandy Hook

Years at School: 5
Total Years Teaching: 5
Students in Choral Program: 170

Educational goals: My goal is to foster a life-long love of music in my students through positive and lasting experiences in their high school choir, and in outside productions, such as the musicals and the madrigal dinner. Through these performances, I try to give my students the skills to succeed in music, and a sense of personal responsibility for their performance, that will hopefully cause my students to seek out music in their lives after high school.

Proudest achievement: I really, and truly, love my job. Each and every day, I get to work with a great group of kids who make the rough patches of being a choral director worth working through. That makes picking a proudest moment hard to do, but one comes to mind. I had a student call during his freshman year in college thanking me for all that I had helped him with in high school, especially the emphasis I placed on sight reading during his four years. He said because of what he learned in high school he was selected for the top choral group in his college music program. This was the first time I had former student thanking me for what he learned in high school. That put a huge smile on my face knowing that something I believe in so strongly has made a difference in someone else’s life.

Lessons learned: Teenagers are fearless and I have learned that by tapping into that fearlessness, I have been able to bring greatness out of them. There is nothing my students can’t do, as long as they believe in themselves. The more positive I keep things, and the more encouragement I give to my students, the more they are able to achieve. Sometimes, all these kids need is for someone to believe in them and then they begin to believe in themselves. I have learned to guide them along the path, give them the gentle extra push, and then to let them go and see how far they fly. It’s really exciting.

IOWA

Joel Everist Joel Everist
Director of Choral Activities
Mason City High School
Mason City

Years at School: 17
Years teaching: 19
Students in Choral Program: 355

Educational goals: My number one goal is to build community through music education. Today’s society values personal accomplishment, but being in the choir teaches putting the ensemble ahead of the individual. Ensemble musical experiences not only empower people to grow together as a community, but also to learn from one another and themselves as they explore the relationship between the nature and value of music. It is my belief that music contains communicative qualities that liberate and excite the human spirit. Music facilitates student growth in an awareness and appreciation of themselves, exploring their feelings and emotions. The practice and study of choral music enriches the lives of students by providing opportunities for aesthetic experiences for each individual within the ensemble through communal learning.

Proudest achievement: The MCHS concert choir has performed at Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, and the U.S. State Department for vice-president Gore at a reception for the prime minister of Japan. Additionally, the ensemble was featured in Dr. James Jordan’s new textbook The School Choral Program from GIA Publications and has been named a “Grammy Signature School.”

Lessons learned: Choir must involve musical connections between intellect and feelings. Just as an unexamined life is not worth living, a choral experience that does not impart various ways of knowing has no value. Music is one of the most powerful aspects of the arts because it deals so directly and publicly with our emotions. Self-reflection, inspired by the study of choral literature, opens the hearts and minds of students as they create and experience art, rather than simply singing notes on the page. Most students know they enjoy music, but they do not know why. Most students know music touches them emotionally and intellectually, but are not sure how, or what to do when this happens. Exploring these issues in choir enables the students to form answers to these questions and grow artistically as they are challenged to actively engage their feelings and think reflectively. Music must be connected to the lives of my students in order for them to understand their musical experiences.

MARYLAND

Jessica ParsleyJessica Parsley
Director of Choirs
Middletown High School
Middletown

Years at School: 3
Total Years Teaching: 7
Students in Choral Program: 70

Educational goals: My goals as a music educator are to open students’ minds to different types of music, to give them the skills and tools to read and appreciate music on their own, and to provide quality aesthetic musical experiences for students. My goal as an educator is to inspire students to want to learn, improve, and grow.

Proudest achievement: My proudest achievement as a teacher is to see my students succeed. As a high school choir teacher, I am blessed to see their growth in maturity and musical ability over the span of several years. Watching their growth as students, musicians, and people, and knowing that I helped in this growth, is my greatest achievement.

Lessons learned: The most important lesson that I have learned about teaching since becoming a music teacher is that all students can succeed. The difficult task for the teacher is to find the best ways to motivate them to want to do so. Once they are motivated, I have found that they will continue to amaze me with their abilities.

MICHIGAN

Kenneth WestermanKenneth Westerman
Choral Director
Pioneer High School
Ann Arbor

Years at School: 29
Total Years Teaching: 35
Students in Choral Program: 152

Educational goals: My goal is to give students a place to sing and the experiences they need to improve. Everyone can sing. It is good for everyone to sing.

Proudest achievement: There isn’t one. The many students who have come into my classes with statements like: “I can’t sing,” “I sound like a cow,” “I don’t know why I signed up,” “I can’t sing at all,” or, “I didn’t sign up freshman year because my middle school teacher kicked me out and warned me I wouldn’t last a week in your class.” All of those students and many more with similar stories sang the rest of their years in school and continue to sing as adults in church choirs, community choruses, and barbershop groups. Those students are my “proudest moments.” What made me happiest as a youngster, and continue to be most fulfilling, were moments when I found I could do something I didn’t think I could.

Lessons learned: I have learned that teaching students real skills whether it has to do with music, singing, learning, or life is the most important thing for me.

MINNESOTA

Martha Helen SchmidtMartha Helen Schmidt
Choral Director
Burnsville Senior High School
Burnsville

Years at School: 9
Total Years Teaching: 18
Students in program: 230

Educational goals: In our often frenzied lives, it behooves us to connect to the beauty in life, to allow it to nurture our souls and help us transcend to a place where the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Such a gift is music, and offering students an opportunity to experience this beauty, even at a subconscious level, is my privilege and ultimate goal as an educator. My desire for all students is that they find beauty and joy in music and the Fine Arts throughout their lives.

Proudest achievement: I could talk about having my compositions performed at major music conventions and in some of the great cathedrals in Europe, or what a thrill it is to have students from my program sing for All-State Choirs. But true to my goals as an educator, one of my proudest moments would be the reaction my students had to singing at the Normandy American Cemetery in France. As touching as the performance was musically, it was the sense of history and sacrifice that moved many to tears, overcome by the enormity of the experience in that hallowed space. In newspaper interviews upon our return home, again and again students identified the time they spent at Normandy as the highlight of their trip, over singing at both Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and participating in a service at Mont Saint Michel. This speaks volumes about the maturity of the students, and their world view.

Another of what I call the “this is what it’s all about” moments happened recently in one of my choirs. A particular alto auditioned for a solo. She did so well that she earned the right to sing it in a concert, and did a fantastic job at the performance. It was such a proud moment for her and her family, fellow choir members and certainly myself, knowing through all the challenges a person with Down syndrome faces, she helped celebrate joy through music.

Lessons learned: The most valuable lesson I have repeatedly learned since I became a music educator is that the job is often not about the music, but about interpersonal relationships: nurturing them, maintaining them, and developing the fine art of diplomacy when relationships require intervention. A choir truly is a microcosm of our civilization, and it is frequently my job as director to mentor and help guide the members’ lives so they can become good citizens, both of the current ensemble and as contributors to society as a whole. To assist with this, a genuine sense of humor is a must! It can make the classroom a fun place to be, or bring levity to a tense situation.

MISSISSIPPI

David FehrDavid Fehr
Choral Director
Clinton High School
Clinton

Years at School: 18
Total Years Teaching: 30
Students in Choral Program: 275

Educational goals: My goals are to teach sound fundamentals of vocal and dance technique and to help the students grow as musicians and performers. I try to help each student develop his or her natural talent to its fullest. I also encourage each student to be as well-rounded as possible, in academics, athletics, and the arts. I rarely have a rehearsal with everyone there, but it is worth the extra effort by adults to work together so the students can be all they can be.

Proudest achievement: Seeing all of the kids gain true self-confidence. Of course it’s rewarding to have so many students performing at all levels in so many different performance genres, but it’s also just as great to see the alumni who are doctors, lawyers, educators, engineers, and all walks of life, who hopefully will be good supporters of the arts in their lifetime.

Lessons learned: Each day is a new day and a new opportunity to help someone. Being nice means not caring what students might think of me today, but what I can do to help them for their lifetime. You have to be strong to do that. The students figure out who really has been nice to them. They’ll surprise you: we recently had snow in Mississippi and I came out after our fall revue performance to find a snowman for a hood ornament on my truck. It doesn’t get any better than that.

NEBRASKA

Randy HayesRandy Hayes
Choral Director
Chase County Schools
Imperial

Years at School: 27
Total Years Teaching: 27
Students in Program: 171

Educational goals: One of the most important goals that I have determined to work toward is providing aesthetic experiences in choral education for my students. Those experiences can be achieved in a variety of ways and circumstances and I want to enhance those in every way that I can. An aesthetic experience can be enjoyed in the daily rehearsal as well as the public performance; sometimes it is just the well-tuned chord, the difficult passage finally “worked out,” or the heartfelt tears in a student’s eyes when the text of the song has touched his/her heart.

I want my students to truly learn that singing is something they can enjoy for the rest of their lives. With that in mind, sight-reading, fundamentals of music theory, and a cappella singing are important aspects of daily rehearsals. I hope to provide for my students the tools they need to read, sing, and enjoy choral music throughout their lives, not just prepare notes or songs for public performances a few times a year.

Through singing and the expression of song, students can learn more about themselves. There truly is a “song for every emotion” and I hope students can experience individual expression through solo, ensemble, and choir settings. Also, singing is such a blessing for physically handicapped and “special needs” students; they, too, can find wonderful opportunities for self-expression and enjoyment in our choral art.

Proudest achievement: Teaching in a small school setting and in a very rural area, our students do not have the opportunities for musical experiences as those in larger schools and metro areas. I have arranged for my show choir to perform in Branson, Mo., several times and opened for theater shows there. It is a joy to watch those students perform on a “professional” stage with confidence and joy, making a life-long memory in that performance.

Also, last year I was selected by the Nebraska Choral Directors Association as their “Director of the Year.” It was an honor to be recognized by my peers and colleagues!

Lessons learned: It is not about me! Watching a student blossom into a confident, expressive performer is what choral education is about. Helping a student grow from not being able to match pitches into one who can sing a solo at contest and earn the “Best of Class” award at that contest is a thrill!

Just because a school is “small” is no excuse for mediocrity! The expectation of superior performance comes from the director and the students will feed on that expectation! In our school, the “varsity starters” on the volleyball, football, basketball, wrestling, and track teams are also my leaders. They participate in everything in our school so I need to bless that fact and work with them because they want to succeed. I have to be willing to take the “crumbs” of their time/schedules and help them make “memorable cookies” in aesthetic experiences.

NORTH DAKOTA

Rebecca RaberRebecca Raber
Choral Director
Shanley High School
Fargo

Years at School: 8
Total Years Teaching: 15
Students in Music Program: 156

Educational goals: My goal is to help students realize beauty in the world and within themselves through choral singing and creating art on a daily basis. Singing in choirs is so important because you are part of something that’s bigger than just “yourself.” You are sacrificing and working with others toward a common goal, ideal, design, and purpose.

Proudest achievement: My daily rehearsals. I absolutely love rehearsing. There are so many elements of rehearsal that reflect life. The whole process of working together each and every day to learn, correct, and perfect the music is very gratifying. Rehearsing in a productive and positive manner reflects our life-long journey to learn, correct and perfect ourselves!

Lessons learned: There are so many, and more and more every day! First of all, students are capable of truly amazing things if they are provided a “vision” to follow. Second, strive for excellence in all that you do. And third, trust.

OKLAHOMA

Tony GonzalezTony Gonzalez
Choral Director
Norman North High School
Norman

Years at School: 12
Total Years Teaching: 29
Students in Music Program: 200

Educational goals: My goals as an educator are to continue to develop my skills as a teacher and musician and to be sensitive to my students’ needs and understanding.

Proudest achievement: The appearances of my choirs at the ACDA National Conventions rank among my proudest achievements for my students. Being selected as the National Federation of High Schools “Outstanding Music Educator” is among my proudest personal achievements.

Lessons learned: Never underestimate the power of young people’s hearts and minds. They are capable of an enormous depth of emotion and expression.

OREGON

Donna KaganDonna Kagan
Music Director
Stafford Primary School

Years at School: 10
Total Teaching Years: 26
Students in Music Program: 202

Educational goals: While I have many goals as an educator, my main focus is to teach children how to love music and to instill in them a life long passion for the arts so that they carry that passion, love, and respect for music throughout their lives.

Proudest achievement: There have been some very wonderful but humbling achievements over the years. Being awarded the Patty Veemer Music Educator of the Year from the Portland Symphony last year, or watching my choir sing with the Metropolitan Youth Symphony last Christmas are two of them.

However, the one thing that stands out in my mind as being the most rewarding and proudest achievement was when I attended a music festival about four years ago. I bumped into a former student of mine who is now a music teacher. She was so warm and enthusiastic about her work with young children and clearly loved her teaching position. I was amazed when she said I had started that love and interest, years back in first grade. She shared that it was music and choir class that got her through some of the harder more challenging times in primary school and she lived for Tuesdays and Thursdays, which were the choir days.

When I heard that she wanted to pass the same love of music onto children that I had given to her, I was moved to tears. She had been a particularly quiet little girl with a pretty voice, who slowly blossomed out of her cocoon and became a strong leader in fifth grade. Her parents felt that choir, music, drama club, et cetera, had a lot to do with building her confidence and opening a path for her future as a music teacher. This was one of my proudest achievements and it was a conversation I’ll never forget!

Lessons learned: I guess the most important thing I’ve learned is to never underestimate a child’s capability. Children can do almost anything you ask them to do, if it is taught slowly, clearly, and with enthusiasm. I have been blown away at some of the things my students have been able to accomplish over the years, and even more so at what they do on their own or in small groups. So often younger siblings in school will ask if they can learn a recorder piece or a song in two-part harmony that I am teaching to older grades. I am always surprised and delighted at their capabilities and pride in striving for a higher goal.

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