Great Characters build Great Choirs

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By Matt Parish

One of the hardest working directors in Texas teaches out of the very same room she grew up learning to sing in at her hometown school of Arlington High. Dinah Menger, director of the Arlington High Colt Choirs for the past 17 years, has transformed the culture of the school into an enthusiastically pro-music community by aggressively recruiting students into the choir as a lifestyle choice – “great characters build great choirs,” she says.

Today, her program is one of the best in the nation, representing the school at the American Chorale Directors Association Convention in Miami in 2007 and currently preparing for a star turn at Carnegie Hall as part of the esteemed National High School Choral Festival in the spring of 2013. Meanwhile, Menger keeps herself highly involved in the choral scene at large with important positions like her recent time as chairperson of the Texas vocal Prescribed Music List Committee.

Her choirs are renowned for their passion, their skill, and their sheer emotional force, blowing away audiences and judges alike, but Menger is just as likely to highlight the personal triumphs for her students – everything from discovering new literature to graduating safe and on time. “And we really have this reputation,” she says. “‘Oh, Mrs. Menger gets all up in your personal business.’ Yup, we sure do.” It’s resulted in one of the most loyal bases of students around and one of the proudest traditions in the country.

Choral Director recently spoke with Menger from her home in Texas about the upcoming year, cultivating a dedicated base of student singers, and the path she’s taken to arrive as the captain of the Colt Choirs.

Choral Director: Did you start out your vocal career in education?

Dinah Menger: I was heavily involved in my high school growing up, which is where I’m currently teaching. I got really disenchanted when I started out at college, I went for two years and then dropped out. I started working full-time at a bank, but the entire time, I was heavily involved in rock ‘n’ roll disco band. Now, we’re talking about the ‘70s and ‘80s when I was thin and slinky and played a really neat cowbell and tambourine. But I made my own living every weekend, so I was always involved in that.

I got married and when my husband went to the University of Arizona for his second degree, I moved out there with him. I was going to work full-time and helping him get through his master’s in performance. On a lark, I went into school with him and auditioned with some arias that I had kept up and running, and I ended up with a full scholarship to Band-Aid up and finish my bachelor’s in music education. That changed my life.

The man who was responsible for that was Dr. Maurice Skonas. He had just come from Pacific Lutheran University to the University of Arizona, and he single-handedly changed my life. Arizona’s music department was catered to masters and doctoral students at that time, but he saw something in me and called me his “golden voice.” He put me in charge of lots of sectionals where I was teaching master’s and graduate students for the a capella choir.

Dinah Menger with 2012 Texas All State Men’s Choir Conductor, Matt Oltman. Photo Credit: Jennifer Dingler

CD: What finally brought you back to Texas?

DM: We had our first child in Arizona and then decided that we wanted her to know her family and we decided to move back to Arlington. I was working at a private school in the area with a good friend of mine when I received a call from the principal at the junior high at Arlington High School. He said, “I’ve heard about you from the councilor here. If you want these two broken choir programs, they’re yours.” In my first year there, which was in 1995, I taught junior high and then would gather my things and go over to Arlington High, where I had 60 students.

CD: What was that choir director like there back when you were a student? 

DM: What my choir director had done for me – I just loved him a lot. My choir director was Dr. Dan Rask, who is now at Clemson University. He was phenomenal. I graduate in 1977 from AHS and he stayed there until about 1982, when he left to pursue more lofty collegiate positions.

CD: So when you got back, the program was in a bit of disrepair. What are some things that you set about doing to grow the choirs?

DM: I knew for it to be my program, I had to have 150 students by the second year. So I found 90 students as fast as I could and in fact it went up to 210 that second year. I would just walk the halls and say to kids, “Smile! you are gorgeous! I’m going to put you in a tux and make you a star.” Before they knew what hit them, I would take them to the councilor and they were in choir. I opened the choir room door during lunch. I walked around. I was involved with everything. I just made it the cool place to be, because I was young enough to do that at the time. Now I have two beautiful young assistants to do that work. I’m 53 now and you reach an age where it just seems weird to go out in the hall and do that. [laughs] I really try to keep the people around me – I’ve got three full-time voice teachers who are phenomenal and two young, vibrant, on-fire assistants, so I just try to keep the youth around us. I don’t want to ever stop recruiting and trying new things.

I wanted to grow the choir. My first job was to keep me there full-time. My second job was to make sure that parents knew that we weren’t just a choir program – we were a place to grow character. The parents see that it’s not just about teaching them music – that’s the vehicle in which we grow character. That’s what we work on. Great characters build great choirs, it’s not great singers who build great choirs. We need great characters, so we really work on kids. And we have this reputation – “Oh, Mrs. Menger gets all up in your personal business.” Yup, we sure do. We stay in their business and keep right in the middle of their grades and if I hear about a kid who is smoking pot or something, we immediately call the parents in and bust them right then and there. It’s very hands on.

CD: Is there something you consider a musical signature of your choirs?

DM: Yes. I’m just going to tell you what other people say. It’s going to sound really egotistical, but it’s not. When Colt Corral stands up and sings, it is a tangible experience. It is heady and heartfelt and tangible. It’s not just the voice. It’s the heart, the mind, the ectoplasm, the neutrons – it’s everything. My kids do not just sing. They want the audience to be breathing with them. Eric Whitacre said that – it’s not just the song, you want the audiences breathing with you. So that’s what we work on. We talk a lot about the emotions behind it – why did the composer write it? Why did the composer set it in this way? What are you going to bring to it from your history? When you heard it the first time, what did it make you do? And how are we going to make the audience feel the same way? Why are you crying and what are you going to do to make the audience want to weep right alongside you?

CD: You seem to have a lot of company there in Texas – there are plenty of great choirs in the vicinity.

DM: There’s a lot of competition here in the Dallas area and Texas choirs are just ridiculous. I have a lot of friends who are these beast choir directors with beast choirs, so it’s really something to be competitive here. I think our choir is pretty amazing. I don’t have a problem with that and I don’t think it’s egotistical – I think it’s true.

CD: Do you take that approach with every group?

DM: Yeah, I do. We’re fierce with our ninth graders because they’re going to have to be able survive at that pace if they’re going to be on the varsity choir in two years. So we come in with full force.  I call out the ones that don’t get it, who don’t just want to immediately give their whole mind to it.

CD: When do you actually get into the technique of singing?

DM: From the minute they open their mouths, we start with technique. Warm-ups begin with technique. Solfége begins with technique, with vowel blend and vowel shape. Where does that tone come from? Are we going to use a deep Romantic sound? Are we going to use a purer Renaissance tone? How are we going to attack it? Is it going to be a lengthy, dark, linear vowel shape that needs to last from beat one to seven? How are we going to articulate?

It might start out kind of raw but once they keep doing it, they’ll get it. Our own warm-ups deal with funny, weird ways to start working on choral diction, where they’re doing things because they’re fun not because of technique. Then, once we develop and nurture their desire to want to do it, then we talk to them about just learning that technique. “This is breath from the diaphragm. This is not starting from placement ten but placement two. Let’s work on this for awhile. Let’s make hideous vowels. Show me why it was hideous.” It’s just more getting them to do in their eyes what feels good and what feels right, then going on to the technical terms.

CD: When you compare it with the one that you participated in there as a student, what do you think has changed the most?

DM: In my 17 years at Arlington High, I’ve noticed a huge difference in the kids. I’m alarmed at the brokenness that comes into our choir room at a physical level – parents who don’t parent anymore. They just kick their kids out of the house. We’re taking them in. The president of my choir this year – his parents decided they didn’t like what he was doing so they kicked him out of the house and he’s been living with my voice teacher and her husband. They’ve literally gotten his graduation pictures and all of his graduation announcements sent out, made sure he went to Credit Recovery and got a class taken care of that he’d failed in his sophomore year and had to retake.

School starts at 7:30, and there’s already kids at the door when we arrive in the morning. We normally leave around 7 at night on nights we’re not rehearsing and there are still kids there, the same ones that were there in the morning. And we have to kick them out or drive them home. It would not surprise me to know that the story I’m telling happens in every other schoolroom across the country.

The second thing is that our musicianship is hard-driving and is as close to post-collegiate as we can get it. I’m the queen of over-programming.  I just believe in looking at a child and you can hand them an octavo and they say, “What? I can’t do this.” Three months later, they’re saying, “I can do this.”

I believe in exhaustively searching for intense repertoire with intense text that’s going to change them for the better when they’re done with it. I mean not just technique-wise and music-wise, but incredible literature set to music, which can lead them on 30 different paths, you know? It just busts open the door. They could go, “Oh my God, there’s this great song with a text by Charlotte Bronte. Now I’m really into Charlotte Bronte!” So we go into the beauty of beautiful words set to gorgeous music. The last pure thing left is music. I mean, that’s it.

The point is – do your own research and find your own path, find your own voice. That’s the way I raise my own kids and, when they’re mine, I ‘m going to dare them to find their own voice. And I dare them. When they’ve found it, I challenge them to tell my why it’s their own voice. It’s just trying to look into them and not at them. Every great teacher everywhere says the same thing.

CD: Have you seen the choral culture in general change since you’ve taken over?

DM: Yes, I think it’s gotten better. You might throw up when I tell you this but I think it’s gotten better because of the The Sing-Off and The Voice and Glee. I think those things have brought singing into this youth culture and I think if you don’t feed off of that in your own classroom, you’re just dumb. It’s a golden opportunity and you don’t have to advertise. You can just piggyback on that.

Economically, it’s sad. I find that I’m blessed in having the best principal in the world – she really believes in us and I would die for this woman. But not all of my colleagues are that lucky. We’ve got to get smart. Any music program or art program needs to get smart, savvy, and politically ready to articulate and fight for why we need to stay in schools. If all we’re going to do is sit around and gnash our teeth about it, then we get what we get. So we need to become of politically active about fine arts in public schools.

I got tired at AHS seeing the athletic schedules put up in all the teachers’ classrooms. This year, we had a call to arms. All my fine arts colleagues at Arlington High got on board and on September 6 at 6pm, the marching band came over to the football field along with the theatre, orchestra, choir, art, and all the dance kids. We all wore brightly colored t-shirts and we filled the football stands. We had gone to TMEA and had heard Maestro Benjamin Zander and he said, “A world without fine arts is like a stained glass window without color.” So we used that as the theme for our poster. The full enrollment of AHS was 2,770 at the time, and there were 1,617 kids sitting in those bleachers. We made 2,000 posters and we dropped them everywhere. When I would do clinics with other schools I would take them, and now I’ve got all these other schools interested in doing the same thing. Under the photo, we had our entire year’s performance schedule on it.  So it was like a big advertisement.

Later that year, I would see our poster right alongside the sports posters in all the classrooms. That was exciting to me. We’re going to do that every year from here on out.

CD: Looking back here to the present – we’re well into the summer break that always seems to go by so quickly. What do you typically hope to accomplish during summers between school years? 

DM: This is a first for me – I’ve said “no” to every invitation and everything else this summer. I usually do at least three Texas all-state choir camps. This is going to be the summer of really paying attention to my mother and maybe even have some great meals waiting for my husband when he comes home at night. It’ll really freak him out.

CD: You’ve just been selected for the National High School Choral Festival at Carnegie Hall – how is getting involved in that performance changing how your year is shaping up? 

DM: Well, we’ve cancelled our planned trip to Paris for it, which is fine. I used to do Europe trips but I’d never do them during the school year because the school just wouldn’t allow it. I just created the Lone Star Youth Chorale that would go in the summers. We’ve been to Italy and we’ve been to Scotland and Ireland, but our last trip was in 2005. Maybe next summer, I’ll do something under the auspices of the Lone Star Youth Chorale, but we’re devoting our focus and finances to this Carnegie Hall performance this year.

CD: Does the trip mean more music programming on your part as well? 

DM: Well, right now I’m in contact of all my repertoire gods because we get ten minutes for a concert right before we do that Mozart Requiem, so I’m looking for chamber music for my kids that are going. It’s going to be so exciting.

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