How a small Ohio choir in dire financial straits climbed the podium at the World Choir Games.
By Matt Parish
For one week in July this year, the entire international choral world centered on an event in the United States – the World Choir Games in Cincinnati, Ohio. A gathering of thousands of singers from around the world, the event features competition in dozens of categories and countless musical styles in performances that last all day long and spill out into the lobbies and streets of the city. Many of the world’s most talented students and educators were in attendance and more than a handful of unforgettable performances graced the stage at US Bank Arena.
One of the best success stories from the Games, though, was that of hometown underdog Little Miami Select Women’s Chorale, who overcame years of budget cuts and a failing school financial system to score an unexpected silver medal in the “Youth Choirs for Equal Voices” category. Just two years ago, the school was placed in the state’s care after being designated a fiscal emergency (one of seven such districts in the state) after years operating with no money. Vital arts, music, and gym classes were cut completely throughout many of the elementary schools in the district.
The district’s sole choir instructor, Sarah Baker, didn’t let that deter her. Through old fashioned hard work and determination, this native of rural Ohio kept her students on task and prepared for one of the biggest stages in the choral world.
Baker overcame challenges like getting kids to competitions without busses, planning a high school program with no feeder system, and orchestrating a full calendar of fundraising events throughout the year to get the choir to that esteemed place in the final standings. No easy feat. Now the choir has been selected to perform at the Ohio Music Education Association Professional Conference this winter in Columbus and, beyond that, has been automatically granted a spot in the 2014 World Choir Games in Latvia, both of which present their own comprehensive set of challenges.
For now, though, Choral Director wanted to check in with this uniquely accomplished director to talk about the different ways she’s managed, with extremely limited resources, to get such incredible results.
Sarah Baker: I was so excited! It was really awesome for me and the girls in the ensemble to see just how important it is – all the stuff that they do. I don’t think they’ve ever been received by an audience quite like that. I mean our girls have been received with standing ovations and cheers before, but this was – we felt like rock stars.
CD: You’ve found yourself in a fairly unique and challenging position. What’s the situation like in the Little Miami School District?
SB: There have been nine failed levies since I started here 12 years ago. They finally passed a levy last November, but by then the district was declared insolvent and the state had taken over. So now we have a state appointed board that our school board has to work in conjunction with to get approval with for anything. The state has control of all the money in our district. They cut all the primary music classes – from K-5 or 6, there was no music. No elementary music, art, or physical education. So a lot of teachers were cut or were moved into other positions. It’s been quite an adjustment. We have an excellent band program in middle school and that band director’s program was slashed a lot. They went down to bare bones – intermediate band and junior high band. He had a wonderful jazz band program and they cut all that. We had a 7th and 8th grade choir in our program up until three years ago, which I taught my first two years here. For 2012-2013, there are no junior high choirs at all.
CD: So you’re basically at the end of your high school students who have known training. It’s time to see what it’s like with no choral feeder program.
SB: Right. A lot of students are coming to us now who have never had any music training at all. It’s probably been four or five years since they’ve had any real study of music of any kind in elementary school. My students in the auditioned choir usually have a different mindset when they come in – they do more things like singing in church or in local choirs like the Cincinnati Children’s Choir and that kind of thing. But when you get students to come into the other choirs that have never been in a choir before, you have to start from scratch. They couldn’t even tell you what a staff was.
CD: Are there any funding issues with what you do with your choirs throughout the day?
SB: I basically get no funding from the school. I used to have $3,000 -5,000 a year in the budget, which was wonderful. I could buy music, tune my pianos, and buy other little things to help out, but I haven’t had that for years. The students have to pay a $10 fee to be in the choir and that’s how I tune pianos and purchase music.
CD: So then do you have to raise a significant amount of money through fundraising?
SB: I find that we make the most money when I take our select choirs out in public and we perform everywhere that we possibly can. People just give us donations. We did 13 performances in December alone. When my women’s chorale was nominated for the Champion’s Division in the Choir Games, we had to raise $3,000 by December. No funding from the school was available, so we went out and sang at concert after concert. We got anywhere between $100 and $200 for every little concert that we’d do.
CD: Where were you performing?
SB: We did a show at the Cincinnati Women’s Club, the Cincinnati Country Club, some churches – we were really fortunate that we did a community Christmas concert here in Lebanon where one lady felt so sorry for us that she wrote a $1,000 check the next week. It was amazing. If it hadn’t have been for her and another couple from my church, where the girls performed one Sunday morning, it would have been tough. There was another church up the road from the high school that gave us $1,500. That’s the easiest way for us to make money, but it does take time.
CD: Do you get a lot of volunteer effort?
SB: I have a handful of parents that step forward to do the things like the bake sales and carwashes and those kinds of things. Concerts and stuff, driving kids places. Our high schools haven’t had bussing for two or three years. So when we go to contests or anything like that, we’re always carpooling. When we went to Cincinnati for the Games, my superintendent and the transportation director did provide bussing for us, because it was five solid days of going down and back between here and the city. So we were really grateful that they did that.
SB: People just want to go down to “bare bones” education. “We just need reading, writing, and arithmetic. We don’t need phys-ed. We don’t need music. We don’t need the ‘extra stuff.’” They all call it “extra stuff.” They think because they economy is tough, we just need to cut everything.
CD: Have you seen an effect on the kids since the programs have been cut?
SB: I think the morale is low. They don’t have the outlets they used to have. Several years ago, I also directed the high school musicals and I got to see how excited the kids were to do those kinds of things. Lots of honors students and other kids who didn’t have many opportunities anywhere else had a place there to shine. It was somewhere they could feel valued in what they did.
I think when you work with kids every day and you see the effect that it has on them, then you understand. I really think people would have hollered if they cut all the athletics. They’re not so noisy when they cut K-3 art, music, and phys-ed, but I bet if we didn’t have football on Friday nights, people would be upset. I love sports and I ran cross country and did track and played softball in high school. And I was in the marching band. It isn’t that I’m against athletics, but I think we need to be fair to all the students in what they’re doing.
CD: And like you’re saying, there are large groups who don’t get fulfilled from those sports.
SB: My daughter, who is a junior this year, is a straight A student, and having the outlet of singing in choir is just something she needs. She’d get burnt out throughout the day without that chance to just focus on something like singing. And she’s in my top ensemble, so it’s not like she’s doing easy pieces. They’re very challenging in their own right, but it’s a different kind of challenge.
CD: Have you been able to find some kind of outside support from other organizations with grants or awards?
SB: I’ve applied for grants from people that are OMEA sponsored. Last year, there were a couple of different grants that I applied for like the Glee Give-a-Note Foundation and the Grammy Foundation. We’ve had really bad luck with grants because we don’t have free and reduced lunch programs and things like that. People look at our school district from the outside and they see a district that should be able to finance itself. We’re not an inner city school, we don’t live in an old coal mining town – I mean, it’s just really hard to convince a corporation or a foundation that we need money.
CD: How is the choral social network in your area for helping out?
SB: I have a lot of friends in the area that are choir directors and band directors, and sometimes just having their encouragement to keep going is the best help. Maybe the students don’t realize just how much you’re doing for them right now, but someday they’ll get it. Being reminded of that is great. I’m really good friends with Charles R. Snyder, who directs the All-Ohio State Fair Youth Choir, for which I was on staff full-time for eight years. My college professor from OU – I’ll call these people sometimes just weeping. “What am I gonna do?”
And my husband is probably the most unsung hero in the whole thing. I don’t know how many times I just wanted to quit, but being a musician himself – he’s a brass teacher – he just gets what I do and he knows just how much work and heart and soul you have to put into these things.
CD: And through it all, you and the choir made it to the Games. How was that?
SB: Just to be around people from all the different countries and singing everywhere was incredible. People were singing in the convention hall, singing in the busses, singing on the sidewalks – everywhere you went, there were people singing. And I have girls that would do that in our hallways at school and people would tell them to stop! Why would you do that? It’s so much better than listening to profane language from these other kids yelling at each other and everything. You’re gonna yell at somebody for singing? It was nice to see that freedom and great for the kids to see that.
CD: How did the Games differ from their typical competition?
SB: It’s more relaxed. At the Choir Games, people could take pictures whenever they wanted. They were able to celebrate what the kids were doing, and they’re able to feel the energy more. We get wonderful responses from our OMEA audiences, but sometimes I feel like it needs to be golf claps. [laughs] At the World Choir Games, we felt like people could stand and cheer at the end of the performance and not be afraid of being penalized if they did that. People were really good about it – they’d stay in their seats and take their little snapshots and not do it during an actual song. I didn’t feel like it was distracting at all – I just thought it gave the girls so much positive energy.
The thing that I like about OMEA is that we’re able to get feedback from colleagues. That really helps us build in our learning and our skill. At the World Choir Games, if you wanted to receive feedback from judges, you had to participate in an evaluation session.
My girls were the guest choir for a workshop session and we got to work with a director from Singapore. The girls and I had to dive into learning something in Mandarin, which was really exciting because none of us had ever done something like that before! We really had the opportunity to broaden our horizons with all this multi-cultural music.
CD: Were you notified of the results of the completion soon after your performance?
SB: No. Our performance was the first full day of the games, so we had to wait three more full days before we could find out how we did! They put us on this big stage in US Bank Arena, and they go through every category, every single choir, and announce in front of all those people what your score was and what medal you earned. It was exciting, but I was a nervous wreck that whole day. I don’t think my girls could have sung any better than they did, though. They just sung their heart out. They ranked with all the other international choirs and they should be bursting at the seams with pride. I’m not sure they really understand the caliber of the event, but they don’t need to.
CD: Is there anything with that choir in particular that you try to focus on?
SB: I try to get them to do as many different kinds of pieces as we possibly can. We do everything from renaissance pieces to 20th Century stuff. We do jazz, we do pop, and we do classical. We have pieces written specifically for women’s choirs. There’s nothing but a high expectation for that group. They do pieces that professional women’s choirs and college women’s choirs would do. The level of commitment is very high. A lot of girls aren’t going into music and – not that that’s necessary in college to participate in a choir – but a lot of them won’t and will never have this experience again. So I feel like it’s my job to just take them to the highest level that I possibly can.
CD: Sounds like an ethic that could translate well to the rest of their lives.
SB: I totally credit my parents for it. Growing up on that farm an hour and a half away from any big city, I didn’t have all the opportunities that I might have had if I was closer to a city. But I did have activities like local community theater, church, and 4H clubs, and I never saw two people work harder than my parents. I think they instilled that in me.
One of the stories I told my girls before the Games was about the experience I had with the horses, showing horses in 4H. I didn’t have the $20,000 horse. I didn’t have the private trainer. I didn’t have the best of everything you could possibly have. But what I had was determination. My dad would stand in the middle of the ring when I was too young to ride by myself and he’d say, “We need to practice this, this, and this.” My parents were not horse people and my dad was not a trainer – he had no idea. He asked a lot of questions, though. A lot of questions.
I told the girls, “Do you know how gratifying it was to know how hard I’d worked, especially if I’d go in and win a class, or even place really high in the class, knowing that I was competing against people who maybe had more things and more money?” When you know that you can compete with people, it means a lot. The costs do add up and it would be a lot easier, but if you have something in your heart, you can either sit there and feel sorry for yourself or you can try to make it work. I always tell the kids that I cannot do this unless they want to do this with me. It takes so much of that teamwork. I’ve got a really great crew of singers.
CD: With the next World Choir Games on the horizon (in a location not nearly as convenient for you as Cincinnati), challenges must already be mounting for you again.
SB: The 2014 World Choir Games is in Latvia so we’re going to need to raise close to $2,000 per student to go. With the success that we’ve had and all the challenges on the way to being successful, I want to be sure that we can get that done. So I have a wonderful parent who is being my champion by looking for corporate sponsorship, and that’s something we’re investigating this year. We’re going to work on getting grants and refining that strategy – we need to find a different way to convince people that we need help. I just know that I have to keep pushing because the success these kids will feel is going to carry over to whatever to whatever career they choose. You just have to put your head down and keep working.
At a Glance: Little Miami High School
Location: 3001 East US 22 & 3, Morrow, Ohio
On the Web: www.littlemiamischools.com
Students in the Choral Program: 140
Total enrolled at LMHS: 895