Our feature interview this month with Will Breytspraak, choral director at Pebblebrook High School and the Cobb County Center for Excellence in the Performing Arts in Mableton, Ga., highlights an important issue within our field: how to provide students with an opportunity to conduct or lead an ensemble. Breytspraak notes, “The best way to learn is often by doing, and hands-on experience can provide insight that might never come from simply being taught.”
Many of our students do not often have the opportunity to stand in front of an ensemble and lead it in their own artistic manner. Breytspraak’s feels the “turning point” in his life, which gave him the incentive to become a choral director, came about only by chance when his teacher was too ill to conduct. Will stepped up to the podium and never looked back. He has taken this life-changing experience and turned it into a formalized method of providing opportunities for his students to conduct. This may encourage a student who might not otherwise be interested in pursuing a career in music to become attracted to conducting and a career in music education.
There is also an intriguing survey of collegiate MENC members on this subject by Martin Bergee or the University of Missouri. Respondents were queried as to the extent of their opportunities to conduct, rehearse, or teach a class while in high school. Unfortunately, only 24.7 percent said that they had the opportunity, sometimes or regularly; leaving 75.3 percent stating this had occurred either rarely or not at all. There are obviously a variety of factors that may lead to this finding, including the size of the program, the amount of classroom time, funding, number of students, and more. But it’s sobering when you consider that the students surveyed are involved with a college music programs and were more likely to have come from good music programs in high school. No doubt the statistics would obviously be even worse for students who didn’t pursue music as a career.
Should a high school music program offer more opportunity for students to lead their ensemble? Is there enough time to allow for this type of opportunity within the choral class? These answers to these questions would need to be determined on a school-by-school basis, but it is certainly not possible for every student to be involved, nor would they necessarily have the interest. However, there is a strong possibility that a gifted junior or senior member could benefit in many ways from a conducting opportunity.
If the current nationwide shortage of qualified music teachers is to be changed, then maybe Will Breytspraak’s approach needs to be replicated more widely. Additionally, providing students with opportunities at an early age would certainly encourage and enhance their musical learning experiences and pique a lifelong interest in and respect for choral music.