As music educators know, teaching music and conducting a choir involves a great deal more than just showing up with an arm full of sheet music. It goes beyond long working hours, effective pedagogy, and classroom management. In the bigger picture, music educators must also maintain the frontlines of another unceasing battle: advocacy. Even though running school music programs is most certainly a full-time occupation, for those in this field, the challenge of maintaining relevancy and respect for their discipline, as seen by others, is one that must be met head on with full force and an ever-changing arsenal of facts, anecdotes, and, of course, visible and audible evidence.
Gaye Klopack runs the vocal music department at Chicago’s Jones College Prep and spends what small amount of spare time she has advocating for music education and her program. Choral Director recently caught up with Klopack to talk about her strategy for fighting the good fight teaching young people the art of singing and raising awareness and respect for the importance of music education.
Choral Director: How did you come to this profession?
Gaye Klopack: I didn’t exactly choose to become a choral conductor. I believe it came out of my love of singing and participating in singing ensembles. As a student, I was lucky to work under some very special conductors. In high school, I studied private voice and was in the auditioned group of the All-City High School Chorus where I was fortunate to perform under the baton of Seiji Ozawa and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I continued to perform in college as a voice major in music education and then went on to receive my master’s degree in Vocal Pedagogy. While getting my B.A., I was allowed to use the college choir to practice my skills during conducting class. It was then that I developed a real appreciation for what it takes to inspire good group singing. It was also at that time that I realized how important it was to have a sense of humor and keep things light. Having a sense of humor keeps the choir relaxed and comfortable, allowing the members to perform at their best.
CD: When did you begin teaching?
GK: I began teaching in 1997 as a substitute teacher. It taught me how to be creative and think in the moment. I came to my teaching career rather late in life compared to most. I stayed home with my three children until the last one began school. In fact it took me 320 credit hours to finish my B.A. because of all the stops and starts between children. As a result, I also have many college credits in art education and dance education. My well-rounded arts education has come in handy when integrating other areas of the arts in my classroom activities.
CD: Would you talk about your first experiences as an educator?
GK: I began teaching a general music program at Peterson Elementary, a school that had a well-established music program. This was the only school in which I’ve taught that had an established program. I was fortunate because the previous music teacher in that school became the new librarian. Whenever I had a question, she was there. Of course I focused on singing but also taught recorder ensemble, Orff instruments and some percussion, as well as dance. While at Peterson, I won my first Oppenheimer Family Grant to teach the history of jazz. I was performing at that time as a vocal jazz ensemble member in a professional group. They came in and worked with the students as part of my grant. My students performed a “history of jazz” program, which included our vocal group, our jazz pianist, and a tap dance routine.
CD: What kind of impact do you think the Oppenheimer had on your teaching skills?
GK: It was fabulous. It was such a great experience for those kids. First of all, we exposed them to a true American art form, jazz. I continue to do that with my students now. There’s just not enough jazz education out there. I just had a student who got an internship at the Chicago Jazz Institute, and she got to sing with the band on the Millennium Park Stage. It’s a big deal here in Chicago; Frank Geary designed it. She was the first vocalist to be chosen, and she was on stage sing jazz to thousands of people.
CD: What experiences have been pivotal for you as a music educator?
GK: I’ve had many pivotal experiences, but the one freshest in my memory is an experience I had last spring. We were invited to do a joint concert with the Northeastern Illinois University Choir and Orchestra in a performance of Randall Thompson’s “Frostiana.” Since we worked exclusively on those pieces for quite a while, there wasn’t much time to put together any other repertoire for our own concert. We chose to present the “Frostiana” with piano at our own school choral concert. That piece has parts that contain SSA, TTBB, and SATB settings. I was a bit concerned that some of the younger viewers in the audience might not be able to be quiet enough to last through the very slow and mostly serene SSA piece, “Come In.” However, when the girls sang, their performance was so exquisitely beautiful; you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium. It was spellbinding. Even pianissimo sections and their ending consonants were heard perfectly. I’ve enjoyed watching the video taped performance many times and it was probably the first time watching us perform that no corrections were necessary. I realized at that moment that we had reached the sound I’d been looking for. The students had attained another musical level that we must continue to maintain.
CD: How did you end up in your current position at Jones College Prep?
GK: After I left my first teaching job, I was the choral director at two other schools before arriving in my present job at Jones College Prep. In each instance, I had walked into a school that had no program. Though difficult, it also allowed me to create whatever I envisioned. Jones College Prep became a selected enrollment school in 1998, and I arrived the following year. I began with six general music classes. The students learned a mix of music appreciation, music theory and, of course, singing technique. Since we could not meet together as an auditioned choir, I taught a few of the same songs to each group separately so that on the day of the concert, we could perform as one large choir. It was a bit scary, but that’s how we started. The following year, I was allowed to have one class that consisted of selected students from those six classes. We had no music library so I began teaching rounds and invested in a few pieces that consisted of verse and refrain. Later, I asked some of the students to sing the verse as a solo. Not all the solos were brilliant, but the experience of singing a solo for many of my beginning students was invaluable because it made them feel special.
CD: Because you built your program from the ground up, you were able to shape it as you see fit, but at the same time, everything is on your shoulders. What are the most challenging aspects of that process?
GK: Well, like you said, you get to envision what you want, but then the tough part is how do I get it. I still struggle with that. I’ve had to invent things. The first classroom that I walked into had one chair in the corner and an empty soda can on the floor that was it. The focus at Jones Prep is academic, and music is not considered academic. I’m trying to change that. We know that our kids are doing better on their AP and History exams because of the music history that I’ve taught. But, no one gets it here or anywhere across the country. I have a drawer full of advocacy papers; I collect them. I just had a meeting with our congressman and an arts advocacy group. The congressman told us that it’s not going to get better for at least six years, and that if we want to connect funding to the arts, we will have to connect it to a job.
CD: Let’s focus on your current program for a moment. How many performing ensembles do you teach?
GK: Currently I have three non-auditioned beginning choirs that feed the auditioned advanced concert choir, and each group has approximately fifty students. I teach an AP Music Theory class with nine students in the class, and I also conduct an eight-member vocal jazz ensemble that meets once a week after school. My background as a singer is classically grounded, but I have had extensive training as a jazz vocalist, and I ask many of my students to cross techniques as well. I teach private voice lessons to 10-12 students during the school week. My private voice program is not part of the school curriculum. However, we have had many successes since I started working with serious students. Since I am the sole member of the vocal music department, I try to cover as many genres as possible with my choir students. We perform classic choral repertoire in many languages, such as 20th century music, spirituals, gospel, jazz, and opera. Occasionally, I’ll choreograph a piece with movement that could be considered out of the box.
CD: What accomplishments by your ensembles have made you most proud?
GK: Because of my vocal program, my students have developed an interest in opera. I have written curriculum for the Lyric Opera of Chicago and my students have attended many Lyric Opera productions as members of the Teen Opera Circle. I have been awarded seven Oppenheimer Family Foundation grants that have helped me to produce, direct, and perform with my students and a few of our faculty members in a multi-generational performance of opera scenes at Jones. It has become an annual event for the past seven years, connecting Jones students, faculty, and alumni through performance. We’ve also developed a relationship with WFMT radio. My concert choir has performed an hour-long program of opera scenes and choruses on their show, Introductions, highlighting the best in pre-collegiate musicians.
In June of 2009, I received my biggest honor to date. One of my private voice students, who also sang in the Jones chorus, won second place, Level 1, in the national YoungARTS contest. From that contest, he was selected as a Presidential Scholar in the Arts in Classical Voice. He and I were honored in Washington D.C., where he sang at the Kennedy Center. I was honored as a Distinguished Teacher in 2009 by the Department of Education. My vocal jazz ensemble has performed at Lincoln Center in New York City and one of the members was a Grammy Baldwin ensemble winner performing during Grammy week in Los Angeles. Each year, we have been awarded consecutive superior ratings in the Women’s and Mixed Chorus categories in the Chicago Public Schools Solo, Ensemble, and Choral Festivals. We do not participate in state competitions as often, but channel our efforts into meeting with choirs from other states. Sometimes they come to Chicago, yet recently, we traveled to Canada to meet and work with members of the Amabile Choir.
However, even though I’ve experienced the ultimate honor of mentoring a Presidential Scholar, I have to say that my own most important achievement was to mentor a student with an extraordinary vocal talent who had a very difficult time while in high school. With difficulties at home that made his school life impossible to handle, he did not graduate. Continuing to work with him and with the help of his counselor, he completed the course credits he needed. I remember calling him everyday to make sure he was getting help from his tutor. Finally, after he earned enough credits, he was awarded a college scholarship in voice, and went on to a professional school where he was awarded a voice scholarship. He graduated with honors and is now working professionally as a singer.
Many students come back to visit, most of whom are not professional singers, but are business people, research scientists, and engineers. Many have auditioned for community choirs or started their own choirs in their business. The continuation of their music education and passion to sing or conduct their own choirs is definitely one of my greatest achievements.
CD: To what do you attribute your program’s success?
GK: Whenever possible, I network with other student performing groups, conductors, and professional organizations so that my students have the opportunity to observe high quality performances. I have invited performers such as the King Singers from England and international cabaret star, Andrea Marcovicci to perform and give master classes for my students. I’ve also helped to get my most talented students press coverage when they have won a significant award.
I hold memberships in the National and Chicago Chapters of NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing). I think that my background as a teaching artist is definitely an asset. It helps students understand what the conductor wants when it can be demonstrated. I’m a member of the Chicago Jazz Institute and have served on the board of directors for the Chicago Jazz Orchestra. These valuable contacts have brought guest performers to my school and have inspired many students.
CD: What would you say makes your program unique?
GK: Aside from the fact that my choir performs opera choruses and ensembles, I think people are impressed with the mature sound of my choir. I teach my choir vocal technique in the warm up that is not always SATB choral in nature, but suited more for the individual private student. I teach how to develop appoggio, achieve balanced resonance, and know the importance of vocal health. I spend a lot of time on the quality of sound through vowel modification. I work hard on developing head voice in my girls and work on boys’ falsetto voices in order to develop their head voice as well. Pedagogy is my strength. I’m happy to say that my choir sounds the way it does because we work on tone quality. We sing in as many languages as I can get music printed. I am well versed in the usual European languages, but like to challenge myself as well as my students. Sometimes we learn them together, such as the Chinese piece we did last year or the SSA piece we did in Czech. I also try to please my audience when it comes to choosing repertoire for a concert. I try to educate the audience with more serious and historical pieces of music, balancing that with some lighter pieces, too.
CD: Let’s talk about some of the challenges facing music educators today. What’s the first thing that comes to mind on that front?
GK: My first response would be financial, but there is an even greater challenge than the financial needs of a choir program. As a vocal music educator, what we face is the ignorance and misinformation about the art of singing. Students, parents, and those in charge of schools and educational policies believe that singing is only innate talent and not skill. Some people actually believe that kids come into my program already knowing how to sing well. Singing is not regarded as a skill that must be taught. Grant foundations prefer to award grants to instrumental music programs. Since vocal programs are not valued equally, choral program budgets are usually left wanting.
One of the key factors that contributes to the educational crisis in this country is the lack of arts education. All the arts, including the art of singing, teach us how to think creatively and develop important problem solving skills. I think every child should have the opportunity for a well-rounded education and that education must include a quality arts program. The concentration on math and science is warranted and understandable. However, the importance of arts education is highly underrated and has not been treated with the same urgency. It is everyone’s right to enjoy the arts and to enjoy the act of singing. My students know singing is a skill that can become art if studied seriously. In my choir, we take singing very seriously.
CD: Do you have any words of advice for other educators?
GK: Look to your strengths and develop them in yourself and your choir, and network with colleagues in other schools and with professional organizations. The old adage, “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” is really true. Make sure people you know realize what you can do. There are those out there that can help in many other ways than just giving you financial support. There are many conductors out there, like you, who have experienced challenges you may be dealing with and are willing to share their solutions. I’d like to recommend two books for those who are starting out and for anyone looking to be more informed: Teaching Kids to Sing, by Kenneth Phillips, is a valuable resource for teaching good vocal pedagogy to students of any age. The other, Chorus Confidential, by William Dehning, has good sound advice and provides a humorous look at what life is like as a high school choir director.