Gavin Tabone is not your standard choir teacher and Barton Hills Choir is not your typical elementary school chorus. His approach to teaching is different, his students are his “bandmates,” and while his repertoire is largely the great classic rock songbook, he’s not exactly a bumbling Dewey Finn from the School of Rock movie. This lifelong musician has taken his infectious love of music and instilled in in his students in a way that’s kept younger siblings eagerly following in older siblings path to joining choir, and he’s made it a hip and exciting class students clamor to participate in with him. Tabone is using some traditional methods to teach harmony parts, while writing arrangements to rock songs that have students sometimes singing otherwise instrumental parts, pairing his students with professional bands, local bands, and putting them to work performing at major festivals like SXSW Music and Media Festival and the stage at the festival for Austin City Limits. His students performed “The Wall” with Pink Floyd founder Roger Waters during his Austin, TX performance of the epic rock opera. They produce professional quality videos of their arrangements and share them on their “bartonhillschoir” YouTube channel. Their video for David Bowie’s “Heroes” is a must-see, though their most recent addition was Bowie’s classic “Space Oddity.” Tabone is a fan of rock music, and it shows in his approach to teaching and how he actively engages his eager students in this exciting choral program. Their website is filled with information on performances, collaborations, while their Facebook page has over 2,300 likes. Not bad for an elementary school choir.
CD recently sat down to catch up with this super-busy choral teacher to learn more.
Did you grow up in school music programs?
No. I started taking piano lessons when I was either four or five, classical lessons. I lived in England until I was eight, moved to Cincinnati, lived there for two years. We moved to Paris, then moved back to Cincinnati, and I was there from sixth grade on. In England, my mom had me take piano lessons. I was classically trained, but my dad — he liked to play the “Boogie-Woogie” — so he taught me all these left-hand boogie-woogie patterns. And I remember we would sit at the piano and either I would play the boogie-woogie baseline and he would just improvise up top or we would trade off. He taught me at an early age how to improvise.
So in Cincinnati, were you part of the school music programs?
I went to a small private Catholic school called Summit Country Day. I was lucky I had an amazing music teacher, Bruce Bowdon, whom I am still friends with today and who is probably one of my biggest influences. From third grade all the way to eighth grade he had a choir, but it wasn’t a very traditional choir. We did a bunch of pop tunes and oldies. And it was more like a sing-along kind of thing rather than standing with a sheet music and a more traditional choir. And he also wrote a lot of his own stuff, played piano like a rock pianist, and definitely had a big impact on me.
I applied to a bunch of different schools, and I got accepted at Vanderbilt Blair School of Music as a composition major. I switched over to what’s called “musical arts”, which was kind of a combination of theory and music history, and got my degree. That’s where I met my wife. I graduated from Vandy in ‘96 and from ‘96 to ‘97 I was a full-time TA at the Blair School of Music. So a TA’d for about five professors there at the music school. And that’s when I first got my taste of teaching. I was teaching at study halls and every now and then I would do a lecture, and I also taught at the W.O. Smith Music School. I knew that I had a love for teaching music.
So at what point did you decide you were going to teach elementary music?
We moved to Austin, Texas, and I had major foot surgery. After three months on crutches, I wanted to get outside so I took a job as an outreach supervisor for parks and recreation. One of the parks was adjacent to Palm Elementary School. Their principal informed me that their music teacher was leaving. I didn’t have my teaching certificate, so they put me on an emergency certification program. I started in January 2000, midyear and I was at Palm for about nine and a half years, then I moved to Barton Hills in 2009.
What did Palm’s choir program look like when you took over?
It was more of a traditional choir. They would do two shows a year, maybe three or four songs at a concert. They did Broadway stuff, stuff from textbooks, Sound of Music and Annie medleys. Some traditional, some sacred stuff. After about a year or two, I decided I would start doing this like my teacher in my Cincinnati school did. He just did whatever songs that he liked. If it was something he was passionate about, he made us passionate about it.
But from the beginning, I treated the choir like it was a rock band. I was really concerned about sound, the sound equipment, lighting, staging, gigs. We never turned down a gig. In 2003, I started to write tunes for the choir, and that’s what got Palm School choir recognition. We released a CD in 2003, and one of the parents of a choir member had some media connections, sent out a press release, and we played at this place called Ruta Maya Coffee Shop. Every news agency in town came, it was ten kids, me on keys, plus I recruited local Austin musicians to play. This is the blueprint for how I do it today. Set up a gig, get musicians together, rehearse with the kids.
Between 150 and 200. The school is about 375 kids, kindergarten through six.
Is choir mandatory?
No, and you don’t have to try out. Anyone that wants to be in choir can be in choir. It’s weird how it breaks down throughout the year. If you’re a sixth grader, you have choir stuff to do pretty much the entire year, but the other grade levels, you have a month on and a couple of months off. Usually, a year starts with fifth and sixth graders prepping for the Austin City Limits festival, and that’s pretty much August and September. Then we have our other gigs this year, the last week in September and the first week in October. Then I work with the third and fourth graders, and they do a Halloween show at the end of October, and it’s songs such as “Love Potion No. 9” and “Charlie Brown,” “Rockin’ Robin,” oldies. Then in November, I get back together with the fifth and sixth graders and they do a show with the high school glee club at Austin High. And what’s cool about that is we do our tunes. So it’s cool to see the high schoolers singing the solos for our songs! And then at the end of November, we always sing at the local tree lighting, that’s third, fourth, and fifth grades. And then in the middle of December, we work with a jazz pianist named David Benoit. He does a Charlie Brown Christmas concert at One World Theater, and it’s sixth graders.
When I take a song for the choir to do, there are certain things of the checklist I go through. One, why I like the melody and do I think the melody is going to be singable? It has to be a singable melody for the kids, a good shape. Number two, the song has to have a good form. I like intros, I like bridges, I like tags, I like little things where kids can…what I call “mouth solos”.
For the intro to “Touch of Gray” — Bob Weir does the rhythm guitar part — I was thinking that would be a good part for the kids to do. We only do alto and soprano, but whenever I can have a two-part section of the song, I want that, and especially if it’s not just the harmony but a melody and a counter melody. I really like doing that. So I was like, “Well, the intro can have the altos doing the doo-doo-do-do while the sopranos do that Hammond B3 organ part up high.” And usually when I have an idea like that, I’ll bring a few kids into my room and I’ll kind of test it out, and if it works, then we proceed.
It sounds like the students are not joining your choir, they’re joining your band in some respects.
Definitely. It is a band, and especially when I’m working with those older kids, this choir starts halfway through second grade, and if you go online you’ll see second third-grade show, or third fourth-grade show, or fourth-grade-only show. But the travelling choir and the recording choir are kind of like — they are the fifth and sixth graders — mainly the sixth graders. And by the time they leave me in sixth grade, it’s funny to see them in the studio. I’m like, “Okay, grab the cans.” They know what cans are. They know how to put the headphones on with the one ear off so they could hear themselves, and they know how to tell me how to change the mix of their headphones.
I assume you sit and rehearse these kids with the keyboard, but do you always use a combo band with them?
Most of them. Now, for the cafeteria shows with the younger kids, like third, fourth graders and second, third graders, sometimes it’ll be me on the keyboard and my drummer will just play a snare drum. You have to understand that the repertoire for the younger kids doesn’t change that much, “Help Me Rhonda,” “Daydream Believer,” “Love Potion No. 9,” all those tunes, those are kind of the tunes that gets you into the choir fold, and then as you get older in fifth and sixth grade, that’s when all the crazy stuff starts getting throwing at you.
Your Christmas show is fairly traditional, in terms of repertoire.
For the tree lighting, we do the same three songs every year. We have two school musicals we do every year. We did The Nutcracker in the winter, and then we do this show called Bugs in the spring, which I have completely Rocky Horror Picture Show’ed. The way that we do Bugs is not like how any other school does it. I have tweaked it over the years. It’s like a crowd participation show. There’s a lot of yelling in a good way. If you look at our version of Bugs, then the Bugs Musical in any other school, ours is very different.
When these kids leave this program, when they leave you in the sixth grade, what is it you they’ve learned?
Whether they continue band, choir, orchestra, or go into musical theater, or continue to love to sing in the car, maybe one day pick up a guitar and start accompanying themselves and maybe start a little band. Whatever happens, I just want to make sure they just have that love for music in their life forever.
Learn more at bartonhillschoir.org