“We see these festivals we go to as a way to celebrate the many different kinds of music that are out there.”
Having had the good fortune to step into a well-established program at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, Illinois, Mark Myers has been taking his program to new heights. In just his sixth year at the school, Mark has already built a very successful show choir program from the ground up, while continuing to strengthen the overall vocal music program by paying homage to the diversity of the student body.
In this recent CD interview, Mark talks about the joys of introducing music to students of all ethnic, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds and the challenges of keeping a successful program afloat.
Choral Director: How did you begin your career in music education?
Mark Myers: I first began singing in church. I became really involved in both band and choir as a student in middle school and high school, where I joined just about every ensemble that I possibly could. When I was in high school, a sophomore, I think, I decided I wanted to pursue music education. At first I just wanted to be a teacher, but there was something about music that really hooked me, too, and I realized what I wanted to do.
I studied music education at North Central College in Naperville, Ill., and right out of school, I worked for the Chicago Children’s Choir. A new charter school called the Choir Academy had just opened and I taught there for two years. After that, I moved on to Waubonsie Valley High School, where I’ve been for the past six years.
CD: Tell me a bit the Waubonsie vocal music program?
MM: It’s a pretty large program. This year we have almost 400 students involved in curricular classes. We have three classes for freshman, which is at our freshmen-only campus. At our campus for upperclassmen, we have a non-auditioned choir, a non-auditioned men’s choir, a treble choir, which is just 10-12th-grade ladies, and then we have the Varsity Singers, which is our second SATB concert choir, and the Varsity Chamber choir, which is our most advanced group. That is the curricular layout and, of course, we offer other classes, including Intro to Music Theory and AP Music Theory.
Outside of school we have two show choirs, a mixed choir of about 50 and a girls choir of about 50, and several other groups.
CD: That’s an impressive array of ensembles. How many people are on staff?
MM: We have two fulltime choir directors and we have a fulltime accompanist with us, as well.
CD: I see. How has the program developed under your direction?
MM: The curricular ensembles have grown a little bit. Basically, we have the same number of choirs, but the structure has changed some. It was already a very high-level concert choir program when I came in. My predecessor was here for 25 years, and I co-taught with him for a few years before he retired. He’s the one who built the program. However, in the last few years we have expanded on the extracurricular choirs quite a bit. Our school, as a whole, has grown in numbers and the numbers in the choral groups have gone up, as well.
CD: What are some of the challenges of stepping into a program that already has so much going on?
MM: It takes a lot of time, that’s for sure. Balancing activities at school while trying to maintain a personal life is always a challenge. But I have no problem spending a lot of time here with kids. It’s a lot of fun. Of course, it can be stressful, but it’s also very rewarding. While it does take up a lot of time, it’s time well spent.
CD: I’m sure your students would agree. What is it about the program that has enabled so many students to participate?
MM: A large part of that is due to the fact that our school district is very supportive of the arts. Our teachers, at every level, from elementary up through high school, are really great musicians and teachers, and we’re all dedicated to our kids. That’s one thing when the freshmen come in at the beginning of the school year, they already have a pretty high level of performance for their age, and I think that really helps. Music is an important part of our school district, from top to bottom.
Another aspect of our program that I really enjoy is that we have a very diverse student body on many levels. We try to focus on that in the repertoire that we choose and how we program our concerts. We do a lot of multicultural repertoire and we try to perform it as authentically as possible. We have a lot of ethnic, religious, and socio-economic diversity and we want all of the students in our school to feel invited to take part in our choral programs.
Last year, I had a great interaction with a student who is originally from Venezuela. He is going to be a senior next year and he’s been in concert choir and a few other ensembles. One of the small groups in a concert did an arrangement of a Venezuelan song and, after the concert, he was just so excited to hear his culture honored in that way. And that kind of thing happens over and over.
Another example happened this year, when our show choir did a Bollywood medley. We have a few students who are from India, and one of the girls did some Indian singing, and another, who has been studying classical Indian dance, performed. We try to play to that as much as possible because in this world, the kids need to be exposed to as much multicultural education as possible. That’s one element of our program that I think is pretty unique. We have an auditioned after-school group called Mosaic Choir. It includes about 115 kids and the sole focus of that group is to perform multicultural music we’ve done pieces from Africa, India, Latin America, South America, Classical music, and more. That ensemble is open to anyone in the school, so students who aren’t in a music class can still participate. In fact, we took a small group of the students in the Mosaic Choir, called the Mosaic Ensemble, to South Africa last June and did a cultural exchange there.
CD: Was that exchange a part of a performance tour?
MM: We connected with a school there and were abroad for two weeks. It all came about because we had some students who were South African and their parents worked in the South African consulate in Chicago. They had heard recordings of our kids doing South African folk songs and wanted us to sing at this event, so we performed for them. A contact from a school in Cape Town happened to see the performance, and we connected.
Our trip was mostly based at that school. They set up performances for us at various schools and churches in the area. The kids were singing a lot, but there were a lot of community venues and events that they performed for. It was a pretty amazing experience. When our kids sang the South African songs that we knew in front of those people, the reaction was unbelievable. They were so honored to have kids from America singing their music. People told us that that they didn’t know that people cared enough to study their music and perform it. It was really exciting.
CD: Your students were able to take on the role of cultural ambassadors. How many students were on that trip?
MM: It was a small group within that larger ensemble, and it ended up being about 16 students. We did take a larger group of about 100 to Italy over spring break last year, but the South African trip was pretty small scale.
CD: Do you have any tips or tricks for coordinating overseas trips?
MM: We have a lot of helpful parents who are really invested in our program and onboard with what we’re doing, from carrying the kids’ passports to whatever else we need help with. Of the 100 kids who went on the trip to Italy, we only had one lost passport, and her mom was with us at the time. [laughs]
Enlisting the help of parents is key. When we are recruiting chaperones for the trips, we put them through an interview process; we don’t just take anyone who wants to go. We talk about all kinds of scenarios about what they’d do in various situations and their experience working with kids. It’s very helpful when we assemble the staff for the trip. It can be difficult to “select” parents in that way, but in the long run, it’s definitely worth it.
CD: I can see how it would be. Let’s talk about your show choirs for a moment?
MM: We have two show choirs: one is mixed, and the other is all girls. We have about 50 students in each of them, with a little bit of fluctuation from year to year. When I first came in, we had one swing choir that had about 24 students and then I added a freshmen choir with about 15-20 students. Since that time, we’ve gone to the two groups, which are both grades 9-12, involving about 100 kids total. It has been an evolutionary process.
We go to four competitions in the winter, in addition to performances in our school concerts and a pops concert in April that usually plays to a pretty packed crowd. It’s a nice enhancement to the program in terms of combining various elements of performance like dancing, and singing with movement. It’s a completely different aesthetic. I was involved in show choir when I was in high school and I enjoyed it a lot. I think that’s part of the reason we want to make sure that we provide that opportunity for our students. However, we definitely downplay the competition aspect.
CD: Why do you downplay the competitive element to show choir events?
MM: I don’t want my students’ motivation for performing to be winning a trophy or competing with other schools. Music in its purest form is not meant to be a competitive event. It’s artistic, and we see these festivals we go to as a way to celebrate the many different kinds of music that are out there. I love having our kids see what’s going on at other schools and what other programs are doing.
Of course music has a certain quality level that can be assessed to some degree, but it’s also about expression. It’s great for the kids to see other types of music without necessarily judging those performances as better or worse. It’s about putting a positive spin on it.
Yes, the competition can be fun and it’s a great way for me to get feedback from judges, but it’s not about “beating” other ensembles. Philosophically, that’s not why we want to be out there performing.
The swing choir we had here never competed, and I was hesitant to bring our show choirs into that realm because I was afraid it would turn overly competitive, but I’ve just been really careful to state our philosophy to the kids. I put it on paper and hand it out to our students at the beginning of every year. Our students have been very receptive to that, and it’s been great to see them be supportive of other schools and ensembles.
CD: Speaking of support, is there anything special that you do to keep the community’s spotlight on your choral programs?
MM: Yes, we do, and a few groups in particular are very visible in the community. We have two a cappella groups that are student directed, like the college set-up. We advise them to certain degree, but they are basically student run. We have an all-male group and an all-female group, of nine kids each, and we have a chamber group of 16 kids, plus the group called Mosaic, which is the one that went to South Africa. Those groups are the ones that do the most performance in the community, at elementary schools and middle schools. The Pink Notes, which is the girls a cappella group, just performed at the Naperville rotary breakfast. Our principal even allowed them to take their exams at a different time so they could do this, because she recognized what a great opportunity it was: the Naperville mayor was there, along with the city council. We definitely try to keep ourselves out in the public’s eye. It’s a balancing act working around the students’ schedules because we try not to ask too much of them, but they love doing it.
CD: It sounds like you are fortunate to be a part of a vibrant musical community. Do you have any advice for other educators who might be trying to develop their programs along those lines?
MM: I think a big part of it is just knowing your school and your community and really finding ways to reach as many kids as you can. We try to reach out to kids of every different interest and ability level. Our school is very diverse, and we make multiculturalism a big part of our focus. As a result, we see interest from a lot of different kids because we connect with their backgrounds. It is so important to play to your kids’ interests and abilities, and also just get out into the community as much as possible.
You have to focus on building the program from the ground up, starting in the elementary schools. Our elementary school and middle school teachers sow a lot of the seeds in the community for us. The parents know that the high school music programs offer quality time for their kids because they’ve already experienced that in the middle schools. We stay connected throughout every level of the music program, from when a student first starts at the grade school level all the way through.
CD: So it really is about building that foundation from the ground up.
MM: If students are just starting with music in high school, it is really almost too late. We always have a few kids come in who haven’t been part of the middle school programs, but the bulk of our students started in school music programs in fourth grade or earlier, and we are just a continuation of that.
CD: What is it about your program that really gets you out of bed in the morning?
MM: I don’t know that it’s any one thing, beyond just working with the kids. I really enjoy working with them, and I really enjoy music. It’s great to see music become a part of their lives. Even at every level, from the non-auditioned kids on up, to see how music affects them is really neat. It’s a lot of fun and it gets even more so for me every year that I teach.
One thing I love about being a choir teacher, as opposed to, say, a freshman math teacher, is that I have the opportunity to see students grow over the course of four years. I really enjoy seeing that development.