As we all know, being a music educator requires a great amount of patience, logistical wizardry, a sense of humor, and an infectious passion for music that can be relayed to students. There are those teachers who fearlessly face these demands every day, and then there are those who embrace these challenges with a sense of excitement.
Choral director Bill Liberatore is one who is not afraid to seek out challenges and explore new possibilities for his students. To do this, Bill has reached out and gained the support of his local Palo Alto, Calif. community. His choirs perform at local churches, senior centers, and local holiday events. The Gunn High School choral program has not only grown in numbers, but has gained recognition locally and even internationally. Bill likes to think big. He believes in giving his students experiences and opportunities of a lifetime such as singing under the dome of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London or performing at the Spanish Synagogue in Prague. Choral Director caught up with Bill to chat about his Gunn High School choral program and what motivates him to reach higher and want more.
Choral Director: What is your musical background? What inspired you to pursue a career in music education?
Bill Liberatore: When I was a sophomore in college I transferred to San Jose State University. Charlene Archibeque was the choral director there, and she introduced me to the thrill of great choral music and the excitement of teaching. Charlene was a master teacher of teachers and inspired many of her singers to become teachers themselves.
CD: Obviously you were one of those she inspired. How long have you been the choral director at Gunn High School?
BL: I started my career in 1986 and have been at Gunn High School since the fall of 1989. I was actually hired at Gunn as the band director, not the choir director, even though my background was choral. I had just done three years as a band director at another school, and I somehow managed to grab the job.
CD: Since taking the helm what have you brought to the program that wasn’t there before?
BL: I started my position as choral director with a total of 14 girls. Now I have 140 students. It was very exciting in those early years because there was nowhere to go but up. A lot of different things have contributed to the growth. I think putting out a quality product is the first thing you have to do when you want to build numbers. My small girls’ choir that first year got unanimous superiors at CMEA and a gold rating at a festival during their first trip.
CD: Your program has successfully grown in numbers. What are your own personal highlights of your ensembles’ accomplishments?
BL: I think the things I am most proud of are the connections we have made in the Palo Alto community. We are a group that sings for many community organizations, and over the holidays we are giving concerts almost daily for senior citizens, church groups, and all kinds of events. My favorite yearly event is a musical starring not only our choir students, but a huge number of teachers and staff. It’s a great tradition at Gunn, and it really pulls the Palo Alto community together.
I am very proud that we have sung in so many places around the world. We have performed at Saint Paul’s in London; we have sung mass at the Vatican, we have sung in churches in New York, Prague, and Vienna. I am very proud of those performances and all the work we put into them. We have also received lots of unanimous superiors at festivals and received awards at Heritage Festivals, but it is really the connections to the community and the traveling that I am most proud of.
CD: Why is traveling so important for choral programs?
BL: I think trips build community and really inspire the kids to work harder as we move towards the end of each year. Some of my favorite tours have been to England, Australia, Italy, Prague, and Vienna. I also love any chance to take the choir to New York City.
CD: What motivates you year after year to travel these long distances with your students? It is a tremendous amount of work.
BL: I see it as something that fuels my whole program. Touring motivates everyone, especially me, to work for a higher level of quality. The stakes are much higher. It brings us together as a community to raise all of that money for the students who are unable to afford to go on a trip. It also brings us together when we are traveling; we become more of a group. When I was in school choir, I found those experiences life-changing. One of my high school teachers brought our chamber choir to Mexico City and Oaxaca. I also went on choir trips in college. I just love to travel; I love the energy it brings. I’m an adrenaline junkie. What’s more of an adrenaline rush than putting 100 teenagers on a plane to Prague?
CD: How do you go about planning a tour?
BL: I work with Kingsway International when I am planning to travel outside the country, and I work with Heritage Festivals when I am doing something in the U.S. I absolutely adore both companies. If you go with an established company you can trust, you are going to have a great trip.
CD: Europe can be quite the costly destination. How do you raise funds?
BL: We don’t sell cookie dough you can’t get a choir to Rome by selling cookie dough. We do a lot o singing to raise funds. Last week we sang for the Palo Alto Kiwanis, and they paid us $500 bucks. Once a year, we put on a big, lavish show, charge a very high ticket price, and make a huge profit. We also receive many donations.
Palo Alto has many families who can afford to send their students on trips, but quite a few cannot. We raise all the funds we can and distribute them to the families who cannot afford the full cost. It is a little tricky to sort through all of that and to figure out how to allocate the funds, but it always works out. We work really hard to make sure that every singer who wants to go on the tour gets to go on the tour.
CD: That inclusiveness can be a positive message to convey to students. Do they absorb that and how do they react?
BL: The whole community is supportive of it. I think that’s why I’ve been able to do it over and over again. I’m lucky to be in a place where people have a lot of resources not everyone does, but many do. The ones who do don’t mind paying the full price. They don’t mind that I use the money from our local performances, Christmas caroling, and donations to give to the people who need it. The parents who can help don’t mind helping because they appreciate the experience their child is getting by making it possible for every student to travel, their child is singing in a 100-person choir, rather than a 24-person choir of unbalanced voices. The parents are a large factor in this. I have a great relationship with the parents. Many of them travel with us as chaperones, and we just have a great time. Some of the parents have been doing these trips with me for years, even after their children have graduated. They still want to be a part of it. But, I know that every community is not like that.
CD: The economy and the school budget cuts in California have not impacted your program?
BL: I don’t get that much money for my program to start with. What they give me is such a minimal fraction of what it takes to run a program. I spend 10 months out of the year hustling money. It’s fine I accept that as part of what you do when you work in the arts, whether it’s at a high school or a community theatre. That’s the nature and history of the arts. I don’t see it as a negative thing. I find it exciting to plan big things that are challenging.
CD: What are some of the tougher, not so fun challenges you have had to face as a music educator?
BL: I think one of the most challenging things is to get used to the fact that these programs are ever evolving. Just when you think you have a great crop of tenors and basses, you turn around and everyone has graduated or left, and you have to take a deep breath, go back in there and do it again and again. There is no relying on your past accomplishments. Every year is a new challenge.
This year was really tough. We came back from our tour of Prague and Vienna and most of the senior boys dropped out. They decided that they had gotten all they were going to get out of choir. That had never happened to me. It was hard, but what is so wonderful is the energy and enthusiasm that has come with the new blood. My new guys are so fantastic and enthusiastic, and it has turned into one of my favorite school years ever. But it was hard those first few weeks. You just have to be willing to keep looking forward and connecting with the choir that is in front of you at that moment.
CD: What have you found to be the most rewarding aspect of your job?
BL: I like giving my students opportunities that many of them will not have again traveling with a performing group, singing in some of the most amazing churches in the world, experiencing the thrill of choral music that they would have never connected with if it were not for choir.