Center Grove Director Chris Pratt Gets Back to Where It All Began
This summer, between working 9-to-5 at his graduate program and serving as president of his district’s Teachers’ Association, Chris Pratt has been busy planning the seasons of Center Grove High School’s nine different choral ensembles. His students have bolted for family vacations, summer jobs, and camps while Pratt begins studying new choreography, plowing through hours of new music, and mapping out a packed calendar of performances and competitions. Time off has been tough to come by, but he wouldn’t want it any other way.
For the last ten years, Pratt has held what many young choral fanatics might consider a dream job – returning to his hometown high school program. Pratt grew up at Center Grove singing in the show choir and was offered the director position just one year out of college, in 2002. He’d just won the Outstanding Teacher of the Year award his first year as a teacher in Danville, Ind. By the time he finishes up his Master’s degree in Education at Indiana University this summer and works toward becoming a qualified principal, he’ll have capped off an incredibly successful start to an inspiring career.
But taking over a program already proven to be successful, especially so early in a teacher’s career, can pose its own challenges. Pratt met them head-on. After a short time, he’d grown the program and worked his way into the good graces of the district as a genuinely talented, carefully resourceful, and highly respected educator.
Choral Director recently spoke with Pratt about his continued success with the program and how he keeps things running smoothly year after year with tight budgets, an ever-evolving cast of students and, of course, returning from that pesky summer break.
Choral Director: Your show choirs receive a lot of attention, but the whole program is extensive. How do you manage to run nine different ensembles?
Chris Pratt: I run the program with an assistant director named Jennifer Dice. We team teach one choir, usually our freshman choir, which ranges in size from 50 to 70 students, and that traditionally is a non-auditioned choir. I also direct four of my own choirs and Jennifer directs three of her own choirs, with a piano class as well.
CP: I do Sound System [varsity mixed show choir] and I also do our varsity concert group, the CG Singers. The other competitive mixed group is called Surround Sound, which is a 32 to 36-voice mixed JV concert show choir. Part of the year they do show choir repertoire and part of the year they do concert music. Then I do an all-female choir called the Choralaires. On Jen’s side, she teaches the Debtones, the competitive varsity women, and she does JV show/concert group called the Accents, and we team teach Descants and Gents, which is our freshman choir. Jennifer also has a mixed kind of intermediate group called the Counterpoints that usually has around 50. In all, from a programmatic standpoint, we have four competitive choirs and five non-competitive choirs. Jennifer and I have worked together for the last five years.
CD: What was it like getting re-acclimated from a director’s position to the same high school choir program you grew up in?
CP: I never really left. In college, I started choreographing for the Debtones, the women’s group, back in 1998, and actually choreographed the group through 2003, even after I became the director. So I was always kind of around – I knew the kids and I knew the parents. And I think when I graduated the program, people had always said “Wouldn’t it be great – maybe you can come back and be the director?”
CD: Was it stressful to maintain the success of the program?
CP: When I first came on, there were parents who thought I was too young, who thought I didn’t have the capacity for it because of my age. I was 23. That was hard. That’s something that you really can’t fight against. You can only do your best to show your product and you can only do your best to, over a period of time, show people that you actually do have that capacity. My second year at Center Grove, I took them to the Showstoppers International Show choir competition and we won in New York City. Every year for seven years, we competed at Showstoppers and we won. Those were against groups from all over the country, so that helped critics to think, “Well, I guess he really does know what he’s doing.”
The other challenge was how to take a successful program like the one Judy Meeks, who was the founding director, had built and not only help it to become even more successful but make it your own program. I sought out professional development from mentors that I thought were really great choir directors – not necessarily show choir directors, but people who were good at creating choral tone and other technique aspects. I sought them out and had them in and tried to learn as much as I could from them through different clinics and that kind of thing. I’ve always thought that, at least for musicians, the mentor concept is kind of key and helps people become even better.
CD: You brought them in to speak with the kids?
CP: Yeah, people I respected and who I wanted to learn from. To this day, if I’m in certain areas, I just think, “Gosh, I’d like to know how Ron Hellems – a great choral director who’s now retired – how he might handle this. Or Michael Hayden, who does great things with choral music, would handle this.” So I’ve sought out those people, and I still do.
CD: Are these people that you had contact with or some connection with ahead of time?
CP: In high school, I knew that I either wanted to be a choir director or a lawyer. So my sophomore year, I started going up to people that I thought did great things in choral music. I introduced myself to directors who I respected – how their groups sang or I was impressed with what they were doing.
So that was when I started building those relationships, while I was in high school. And then obviously I kept up on them in college. I’ve worked for many of the directors doing choreography or clinics or whatever the case may be just to gain some experience. I was fortunate because there were a lot of people who were open to this interesting kid who had wanted to do show choir since he was twelve.
CP: You know, we talk about it. When I have a clinician like Ron Hellems come in, I tell the students, “I’ll never forget the first time I met him.” I tell them where I met him and how old I was. Or my choreographer, Andy Haines, who is out of Columbus, Ohio. I went up to him my senior year and said, “I want you to be my choreographer when I get my group.” He laughed and said, “Oh yeah, I’ll be retired then.” Five years later, I call up and say, “Okay, I’ve got my group and I want you to be my choreographer. How do we do this?”
CD: It must be great for the students to see the effectiveness of taking personal initiative like that! Where there other specific changes you were trying to make with the program when you first started at Center Grove?
CP: I wanted kids at all levels of choir to feel like they had a place they could come to and have an identity. So we did small stuff like renaming the ensembles that might have been called something like “Mixed Concert Choir” – something very general and vague – to give those groups of kids an identity and something to latch onto. And then we try to focus on each of the ensembles and hone in on their unique goals so that, every day, the work we do fits into that goal: “What are we going to do today to improve our technique and performance?”
CD: Did it feel like that when you were a student there?
CP: The ability then to have multiple groups doing multiple kinds of performances was really limited. I mean, when she retired, Judy was 64 and how she did two competitive show choirs I’ll never know. She was there nearly every night at 64, so whenever I’m tired, I think “How in the world did she do that?”
I also was very close to her. She died in 2005 and, the year before, she gave me probably my highest compliment, which was, “You’ve taken this program to something I could have never imagined.” Coming from the person who exposed me to all this, I thought that was the ultimate.
CD: How’s your program managing with its budget?
CP: It’s been a real challenge. For the actual choral department, outside of the salaries paid for Jennifer Dice, a full-time accompanist and myself, it’s completely supported by parents’ funds. We have about a $200,000 budget. Half of that comes from fees that students pay for and that provides things like costuming for the show choirs’ choreography, for all the choirs’ arrangements and that kind of thing. The only money we receive from the district is a $200 “materials” account. That has to be spent on consumables, so I could buy a stapler – no, sorry, I could by staples for a stapler. That’s what that $200 has to be used for.
So in the way of instructional support, they do pay for our salaries and benefits, but past that there’s really no financial support for the choral program directly from the district. I’ve had people say, “I don’t believe you.” [laughs] Well, I wish that were the case. I wish we in fact did have the financial support that many in surrounding communities think we have, but it is $200.
CP: Yeah, I would say that in spite of that lack of funding, we’ve been able to expand what the ensembles do. Like, next year we’re planning a trip to Europe to perform at the Olympics. Those are things that obviously we will be responsible for fundraising. They’re huge endeavors. Besides being a choral director, I’m also a fundraiser and an administrator. It’s running a small school within a school when you consider all the administrative aspects. So yeah, it’s been a challenge with the budget cuts because at one point, Jennifer was on a reduction-enforced list and I dealt with that not only as choral director but also our association president. That was a hard year, very stressful and I probably also became an emotional eater. [laughs]
With budgets from around the state, because of lack of funding for public education, it’s been a real balancing act. We’ve had to plan very conservatively as far as fee structures because obviously, throughout all of this, our parents were also hit with people losing jobs and reduction in pay and benefits. We haven’t planned on long trips to Orlando and New York for the last couple of years and have done things a little more local. I think the farthest we’ve gone is Branson, Mo. to compete in a FAME regional contest. The idea is just making sure kids have a great experience on a national stage for less money.
CD: So now we’re approaching one more new year – the next step in that process. What’s it like getting things back up in operation each season? Have you developed a routine to make sure everyone is ready to hit the ground running once the school year starts?
CP: Yeah, typically when the school year comes to a close, I’ve started to think of music for next year’s group. I do a lot of listening in the summer and have searched on YouTube to see different pieces performed by other choirs and that kind of thing. We have a camp for our show choir, Sound System, at the end of July, and that leads into the whole back to school season.
CD: When do you typically have the entire program picked out?
CP: For me it’s always evolving. There are songs I said I was going to go ahead with several weeks ago and I’ve already changed my mind on a couple of those. There are certain pieces that I want to do with the group and those are the staples that we start with. Once I start working with the students, some of them come a little bit later once we’ve seen what the strength of the group is.
CP: I always have. If they have a song and they want me to hear it, I always encourage them to give it to me because, especially for show choir, I don’t always know the newest hip thing out there right away. I always give them my disclaimer that it doesn’t mean we’ll actually do it, but I am interested in hearing what’s out there.
CD: What about the process about bringing in the newer students for the other groups?
CP: We have student leadership positions called “company managers” and they work with both Jennifer and I to organize new member meetings and that kind of thing. They’re the ones who drive that. So before the camp, they’ll hold a picnic and try to make sure all the newer kids coming into the group feel like they know somebody and are familiar with the people that are returning to the group.
CD: So a lot of the success of that falls directly on your student leadership.
CP: Right. I really look to them to kind of facilitate that whole process, doing the legwork before rehearsal starts. I think that’s genuine and kids want to hang out with each other. It’s just a really great thing for those student leaders and also a great thing for the group overall to get to know each other as early as possible.
CD: How long are the kids away from choir before the beginning of camp?
CP: Their last performance is at graduation, where they sing “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Then, it’s nearly a two-month break.
CD: Are the challenges getting people back into it again after that?
CP: Every single year. [laughs] I have yet to experience where you come back and everyone’s saying, “Here we are, ready to go.” I’ve tried it a few different ways, like meeting throughout the summer once every couple weeks, but then I don’t think they really feel like they have a break. And it’s difficult because you’re always missing three or four people because of family vacations and all that stuff. It just becomes a juggling act. This way they get a nice break and you have to deal with the acclimation issue no matter when you come back.
CD: It can be an exciting time either way, right?
CP: It’s kind of like a reset button. It’s fun to anticipate the strengths and weaknesses of a new group and it’s never the same. That’s kind of one of those things that I think I like most about it – just when you kind of get comfortable with one group, it’s time to start over again.
At a Glance: Center Grove High School Choirs
Location: 2717 S. Morgantown Rd., Greenwood, IN
On the Web: www.centergrovechoirs.org
Students in the CGHS Choral Program: 350
Students Enrolled at CGHS: 2,550
- Sound System
- CG Singers
- Surround Sound
National Titles for Mixed Show Choir: Showstoppers National Show Choir Invitational 1991, 1995, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007; FAME 2008, 2009; First Runner-up in 2010, and 2nd Runner up in 2011 (Indianapolis).
National Titles for Women’s Show Choir: Showstoppers: 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007; FAME: 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011.
Concert Choir National Titles: Showstoppers: 2006; FAME: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011.
Upcoming Invitations: Olympia Show Choir Championships in Chicago, Ill., March 15-18, 2012 (Honors Host Show Choir – Sound System and Debtones), 2012 Olympics (“Varsity Singers” extracurricular group)