As a result of the latest economic downturn, schools all over the country have felt the pinch. Budgets have been slashed, teachers laid off, and some have had to eliminate programs all together, particularly music programs and the arts. However, some music programs continue to thrive, despite the difficult environment nationwide.
One of those is the choral program at John Burroughs High School in Burbank, Calif. At the helm of that program is choral director Brendan Jennings, whose several maxims include, “If it’s not growing, it’s decaying,” and, “Go big or go home.”
As Choral Director found out in a recent conversation with Brendan Jennings, his choirs do go big, so big as to be one of the inspirations for the hit television show “Glee.” That recognition landed Brendan and his advanced show choir, Powerhouse, a performance on the “Oprah Winfrey Show.” Brendan began his choral pursuits as a student at John Burroughs High School. Now he shares his passion with his alma mater and the next generation of singers.
Choral Director: Why did you choose to become a choral director?
Brendan Jennings: I became a choral director because I had an incredible experience as a student in the choral program at John Burroughs High School. In addition to amazing teachers and team experiences, I also had the chance to become a leader within the group, which gave me the inkling that I might enjoy becoming a teacher. When the opportunity presented itself to become an assistant at Burroughs, I jumped at it. Six years, a degree, and a teaching credential later, I took over the program that influenced my life.
CD: What were the things that inspired you to take the path you did?
BJ: Winning show choir nationals in my freshman year at Burroughs, being the California State Honor Choir in 2000 with Rodney Eichenberger, singing Verdi’s “Requiem” while a student at the University of Southern California, directing the men’s show choir at Burroughs while in college, working for one year as an assistant to a real estate broker in Los Angeles, and surviving my first year as a classroom teacher.
CD: A real estate broker’s assistant, how did that job inspire you to become a music educator?
BJ: What I learned from that experience was how tense and angry people get about their money. Dealing with adults was extremely taxing and stressful. Adults hold grudges; they have less of a capacity for trust. Kids haven’t hardened in that way yet. There was no joy in working with adults. I was very ready to go back to working with kids.
CD: Where was your first teaching job?
BJ: My first and only, official teaching position has been at John Burroughs High School.
CD: When did you begin teaching?
BJ: I began teaching in high school really as a section leader and ultimately student president of the advanced choir. I continued to teach as I founded an a cappella group in college and built it up over four years. While in college, I worked as an assistant choreographer and men’s choir director at Burroughs. The experience of getting 40 teenage boys to listen to me, most of who I had just been in high school with, was the best lesson in classroom management I ever could have had.
CD: Being a student leader in school must have been good teacher training for you?
BJ: It was, but I didn’t know it at the time. It was good to learn how to get in front of a group of students and hold their attention. It also taught me that you’re not always their friend. You have to be a leader.
CD: Can you talk a bit about the accomplishments of your choirs?
BJ: In competition, all of the Burroughs ensembles are consistently among the top in the country in their divisions. Powerhouse won large national invitationals in 2007, 2008, and 2009. Sound Sensations, the advanced women’s group, was undefeated in their 2010 season. All of the show choirs at Burroughs also perform as concert choirs studying music of every historical period. Works by Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Lauridsen, Rutter, and Whitacre are routinely performed. In the fall of 2006, Powerhouse performed the Mozart Requiem in several concerts collaborating with the Center Stage Opera of Los Angeles. In the winter of 2008, Powerhouse performed Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms as part of the Burroughs Holiday Spectacular.
More recently, Burroughs has been credited as one of the inspirations for the hit television show “Glee.” Powerhouse, the advanced choir, was featured on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” opposite the cast of “Glee.” Since then, students from Burroughs have had some wonderful performance opportunities: in concert with Foreigner at the Gibson Ampitheater, for a Konami press conference at the Los Angeles Convention Center during the E3 gaming expo, and for the Direct Seller’s Association 100 Year Anniversary Gala in San Francisco.
CD: How did your program inspire the creators of “Glee”? How did they know about your choirs?
BJ: The show’s creator, Ryan Murphy, was doing research and watched over 1,000 show choir videos on YouTube. Apparently, he found our video, and we figured very prominently. I’m not quite sure exactly how much we inspired the show. But, now it’s been said by Oprah, so I guess it’s true! Incidentally, they shot some of the interior scenes for the pilot episode at our school.
CD: I was on your choirs’ Web site and watched videos of their performances, including the clip from “Oprah,” in which your students perform Madonna’s “Vogue” and are clad in costumes reminiscent of Dangerous Liaisons. These are highly produced, stylized productions with elaborate costumes, makeup, and choreography they have the production values of a Broadway show. Is this evidence of your signature on the program or were the choral productions like this when you were a student at Burroughs?
BJ: They have always been elaborate. However, over the past few years, I have had great a collaborative relationship with our artistic director and chorographer, Jennifer Oundjian, which has helped the program to continue to grow to a point where the budget supports the more extravagant things that we want to do. So, the shows have become larger and more elaborate due to our increase in funds.
CD: Where does the funding come from?
BJ: The funding doesn’t come from the school, the city, or the state. The kids are responsible for paying a certain amount of costs. When we have a sleep-away camp for the weekend or any trip, the student pays the cost. Students purchase the costumes and they are theirs to keep at the end of a show. Depending on which choir they are in, the costs are generally $1,200-$3,000 for the school year. Families can pay for the year all at once, or they can do a payment plan. Then there are families who want to do fundraising to offset the cost. We do a lot of fundraising. For students who are fundraising and are still falling short, we have scholarship programs. We also have anonymous donors. We know people are struggling, and sometimes students can’t afford to go on a trip. Over the last three or four years, when a student is unable to go with us, at the last minute a sponsor will come through. All of the students get to go, and the whole team is together. We have never had a kid not participate because of money. We always make it work.
CD: What do you attribute the success of your program to?
BJ: I believe that our program is successful because of the team of parents and staff who are totally dedicated to these kids. The program has been growing for over 30 year, and we constantly strive to improve our practices. We have several sayings that we live by: “If it’s not growing, its decaying.” and ‘Go big or go home.’
CD: How do you respond to critics who might say this trend of going big, with performances becoming extravagant, pop-themed productions, stepping away from a more traditional choral repertoire and reserved approach, takes away from the academic values of a high school choral program?
BJ: I would say that you can have your cake and eat it too. If you’re willing to put in the time and energy, you can achieve the lofty academic goals of training your students as musicians, which I feel I do, and give them a broad experience in terms of repertoire we perform everything from Mozart to Eric Whitacre and everything in between. Then there is the pop music, which kids connect with on a whole different level. Due to our location and the history of the program, it has just developed that way.
I like to call our program a hybrid program. We work on both the classical and show music. The balance of the education allows my students to become great musicians, but also great performers. This breadth of experience is very valuable in shaping the future of each student. The students always want to top what they did the year before, and that gives them something to work for. It has raised it to a high level. Doing any activity, whether sports or music, with an extreme amount of excellence is a lesson for the students. My students work very hard, and they know how to reach a higher level. They won’t accept mediocrity, and they will gravitate towards things that are truly excellent. We are not the best choir singing Mozart because you can’t be the best at all genres. You have to focus on one thing, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t do and try everything. I have had kids join the program because they wanted to be in the show choir, and then they end up connecting to the classical music.
CD: Do you have new ideas and shows in the works for the coming school year?
BJ: Absolutely. We are in the process of getting everything together for the coming year. We have four major concerts, a holiday show, and I have to pick all of my classical music. Soon we will begin our costume design sessions. I travel during the summer and try to squeeze in as much relaxation as I can, but I’m always working. Even when I’m traveling, I’m on the phone trying to lay the foundation for the coming year. I like to say that being a choral director is my job and my hobby. That way, I don’t feel badly about not getting paid for most of the work that I do.