Some twelve years ago, Mark Myers took over a well-established choral program at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, Illinois, and since then he has taken his program to new heights, greatly expanding its offerings, and taking his show choir to continual top rankings in competitions, though he’s not nearly as interested in winning competitions as you might think, given his groups seemingly perpetual winning. Choral Director is delighted to revisit this top-ranked show choir director who graced our cover six years ago, to see what’s changed, what’s the same, and how popular culture may have impacted his program during those years.
For those who didn’t read your previous interview, why did you decide to become a music educator?
Early on, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I think it would go back to fifth grade, me wanting to be in education and when I was in high school, I had a really influential choir director in high school. I’d always enjoyed music and that connection kind of came together and I knew very early on in high school that that’s what I wanted to pursue as a career.
What kind of choral programs did you participate in in high school?
I grew up in Indiana in a small town in Indiana and the program there was show choir; though we also did concert choir literature as well. But it was fairly focused on show choir. I also was in band as well; I did marching band and jazz band and concert band. I did both band and choir all through high school.
How do you think having been a student and educated in both band and chorus has helped you in your career now as a choral director?
It’s helped me immensely. I think the more that you know about different ways of going about the same music as an instrumentalist and as a vocalist; of course, there’s a lot that’s in common about it. But I think we all know that there’s a lot that’s very different about it.
The obvious relationship that I have now as a teacher is, first of all, my relationship with my colleagues and instrumental program and band and orchestra. I just have an appreciation for that which maybe some other choral directors don’t have by the same token. My department chair at Waubonsie right now, for instance, is a band director that was involved in choir and he was involved in singing all through his university time. I know that he has an appreciation for what I do that’s different.
There’s a combo that meets regularly that I direct that’s all instrumentalists from all over the program, band, orchestra and choir. But I’m really lucky at Waubonsie that we have a great instrumental program and we collaborate with them all the time when it comes to full orchestral choral pieces and we’ve even done things with wind ensemble and choir before. Whether it’s Eric Whitacre style, or we did a Copeland thing one time. I walk into those situations obviously not feeling like I’m an expert in that field, but I at least know a little bit about what’s going on instrumentally from my experiences as an instrumentalist.
Tell me a bit about your vocal music program at Waubonsie Valley.
I’d like to say it’s pretty comprehensive, in terms of what’s offered. The curricular program is all concert choirs and there are two of us that teach full-time, as well as a full-time accompanist, which is fantastic. We have nine different curricular core classes, which are all like concert choir setting and all focused on teaching traditional vocal techniques, sight singing, music theory and then when I said “concert choir,” that’s traditional literature, but we also do a diverse repertoire that they study in class from those kind of traditional choral styles to multicultural, to jazz, to pop. There’s an all-women’s show choir. This is pretty typical for Midwest show choir. There’s an all-women’s show choir and then there’s an SATB mixed show choir of guys and girls. Those are both auditioned.
We have a women’s chamber group for freshmen and sophomores just to give another opportunity outside of school for younger girls in the program. Since it’s much more competitive for the ladies in the choral world, so we try to offer an extra opportunity for them. That’s an extra ensemble that meets after school that does all kinds of different styles of music. There’s a large choir that I direct called Mosaic Choir. It’s 130 students with a focus on diversity. Waubonsie is a pretty diverse school in every aspect. It’s racial, ethnic, also in terms of socioeconomic and religious. That’s a choir that’s actually open to any students in the school; they don’t need to be in the curricular music program. But there is an audition and that’s 130 voices and there’s a small group within that choir called Mosaic Ensemble, which does similar repertoire. That’s a group of 13 to 14 students. Then we have two pop acapella-type ensembles, kind of like “Pitch Perfect.” Those are both student-directed, though. Beth, my colleague, the other teacher, she advises them, but they pretty much do all their own. They create their rehearsal schedule, they come up with their own repertoire, and they have student directors. They do pretty much everything on their own. That’s everything, I think. That’s a lot of stuff.
There were things that I had started that were probably at that time, six years ago, which felt new or different. Which, the big things are extra-curricular speaking, that mosaic, that large mosaic choir that was not large when I started it. That was 60 kids and now, it’s usually 125 to 130, but that first year, I took 60 kids and I just took whoever wanted to come and now, I’ll have over 200 kids audition. Then the show choirs are the same way. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a fantastic guy, John DeGroot who had been there for almost since the school had opened. He didn’t quite open the school, but it really had made the choral program what it was and he had swing choir, which is more based off of his experiences in college and as a student and was a smaller . . . it’d be 22, 24 kids in one ensemble that did singing and dancing with usually just a piano player or maybe even a rhythm section to now, that it’s the two large show choirs that both are around 50 members. Then we have a full instrumental combo that . . . I shouldn’t even call it a combo. It’s usually 20 students that are playing instruments
I am fascinated to hear you keep referring to a 20-piece backing band as a “combo.” That’s certainly not a combo.
It’s just kind of the word we start with and then you just keep calling it that, even though I know it’s not wrong. I actually talked to the kids about changing the name of it at one point. “Should we call this the ‘show band’”? “No. We like that it’s called the ‘combo.’” I’m like “Okay, you know it’s really not a combo?”
What is the instrumentation in a 20-piece show-choir backing band?
It varies. Standard, it’ll be piano. There will also be a synthesizer, keyboard player. Two keyboard players. Usually, I’ll have a drummer . . . like a drum set player, but then there will be one or two auxiliary percussion players, bass guitar, electric guitar, so that’s your rhythm section. Then the horns vary from time to time. The standard show choir instrumentation is to have at least two or three trumpets, trombones. I had two trombones this year, but the year before, I had a lot of good trombones and they wanted to be in it and I took them; I had four of them. But they were amazing players. They were all top-tier wind ensemble players and so I was like “Since I write my own arrangements, I just make the instrumentation work.”
Tenor sax, alto sax, baritone sax, that’s standard. But then, I’ll have kids that want to play that don’t necessarily play one of those standard instruments and I’ll just make it work. One of my kids, she graduated in 2012, one of the singer/dancers, but her younger brother was a French horn player and he was amazing. He’s a principal for the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra and he wanted to play for a show choir and I was like “How would I not have this kid play? He’s incredible.”
French horn is not a standard instrument in the show choir backup band, but of course, he played and I’ve had flute players, I’ve had clarinet. I had a kid that played low brass that really . . . tuba was his main instrument. He could have played trombone. But I scored things for him for tuba and it was cool, it was fun.
Then I actually had another one of those younger sibling situations where somebody wanted to play violin and his parents were up for buying him an electric violin, so we had electric violin. Actually, our new orchestra director is very much . . . she’s new within the last two years. She’s very much into electric instruments and all that. She’s expressed interest in wanting to introduce that somehow because they’ve been introducing that into the string curriculum.
I’ve always taken whatever kids I thought are capable, as they don’t get to rehearse very often. Since I do the arranging, I just will design the instrumentation around what kids we have and what their strengths are.
It sounds like you have a small band program within your choral program. You must have a really good relationship with the instrumental teachers. Has there ever been any friction or calls for contention between your programs taking on so many of those students?
No, not really. From day one, I’m very insistent with them that this is meant to be like an additional part of your band like your instrumental experience with the school. This should not take the place of anything. If there’s ever a conflict with a band performance, they clearly need to do the band performance and if it comes to the point that I need to somehow hire in a college kid or a pro just to sit in a performance because they need to honor their commitment to the instrumental program, then that is no problem with me.
Do you have kids auditioning for the combo who are not involved in the traditional band program at all?
Mostly just rhythm section kids, yeah. Almost always, the drummer . . . the percussion kids are usually all in the instrumental program. It’s the guitar and bass players, drummers, typically.
I think it mostly just boils down to just really high expectations and consistent high expectations. My goal always for the kids is for them to achieve something that’s beyond what they ever thought they could achieve. To perform at a level that they never really thought that they could and almost surprise themselves. It’s consistently high expectations and shooting beyond what you think that they could possibly do. I think it’s also trying to nurture a love of music and passion for what they do and get them to really care about what they do.
For me, that really doesn’t have a lot to do with competing. The thing that I think is different about our program than some is that the show choir is an add-on to the program. The program is the concert choir, curricular concert choir program. They learn fundamentals and skills and love of music every day in those classes. What they do in show choir is an enhancement of that.
I feel like that’s actually part of what makes the program strong. They’re trained to be really good musicians and really good performers, whether or not they’re with show choir or not in the program. When it comes to what they do in show choir, I don’t want to say that it comes easy, because it’s not. It’s hard work, it’s a lot of hard work all the time.
I think that time-wise, rehearsals have to be efficient and they all have to be doing something all of the time. But then the other reason that we don’t have to spend so much time is because they learn how to read. They learn nuance and musicality and all those things in their concert choir curriculum. They just kind of apply those naturally, so it doesn’t take me as long to teach music.
Are you also re-writing the arrangements for competitions?
Yes, do your own arrangements. This is very similar to competitive marching band, I feel like and there are, of course, published arrangements that you can do. But that’s stuff that we would do in like . . . we do a fall show that’s not part of our competition set. There are stock published charts you can buy. But then, for competition shows, a lot of times, people do custom arrangements. Then I do all of the arrangements for my own ensemble. That gives me a lot of flexibility there.
I try to do as diverse of music as I can when it comes to different styles, like incorporating pop music, but then also incorporating musical theater or any kind of period-type piece; if it’s swing or “’20s” or anything like that. Just as much diversity as you can possibly get with the singing and dancing ensemble. For me, I want it to be very diverse. But then it also needs to have a common thread conceptually, like in terms of the show that you’re presenting.
Then the arranging of it, again, that’s where I know who my kids are and I know what their abilities are and where their strengths are. I use that to help come up with the arrangements and it has to do with some of this music selection, too. Another part of the cultural diversity that we have at Waubonsie is related to diversity. Way back when I did that article before, we did a Bollywood medley, but we have a big population, comparatively, of Indian kids that have classical Indian dance training and classical Indian vocal training. They can share those skills with their peers and provide a level of authenticity to the performance that I’m not sure that I could bring in another setting.
A lot of the black gospel music that I do, that’s another reflection on the kids that I have in the program and some of them that come in with that knowledge and ability already from their upbringing and that that they can share that. That becomes another part of selecting repertoire. I feel like they have . . . as vocalists, that’s a whole other part of their cultural upbringing, from the time that they’re born. That they bring into an ensemble that they can bring to that group that is kind of special and unique and can be really cool and exciting for the kids and for the audience to see that and to hear things like they’ve never heard them before, seen things they’ve never seen before.
This is probably a cringe worthy question, but I’m going to ask it anyway because of the timing of your last interview being 2009, to our talk today in 2015. Coincidentally, these are the years that “Glee” debuted and ended. During that same six years, how did that show, which at one point, had as many 12 million viewers, impact your program positively or negatively?
Oh, really? That’s hilarious. To be honest, it’s something I’m slightly ignorant to because I didn’t really watch it often. It’s not something I ever heard about very much; the kids didn’t really talk about it very much at all. Maybe around the first couple years of it. I’m sure that it helped and definitely, there was a definite interest in what we were doing from the press. They came and took pictures of the kids and did an article in “Parade Magazine” that was national circulation. That was Waubonsie kids in the front cover on Parade Magazine in everybody’s Sunday paper and that was directly related to “Glee.” It was all about “Glee” and they wanted to do a story on what’s a high school show choir really like? The Chicago Tribune did a huge article on us, too. There’s definite positive press and attention that came from that, I’m sure. I don’t know that I can quantify how that helped the program in any way. It’s hard to say.
If you were to give advice to a teacher in a small town like where you grew up on how to build a show choir program who’s starting with maybe just a regular chorus program, what would it be?
I think first and foremost, it’s just about . . . not getting too detailed, because to me, the details don’t matter unless you really care about what you’re doing and you really care about the kids and they know that. First and foremost, they will do basically anything you ask them to do if you stick your neck out on the line for them. If you show that you really care about them. When it came down to lesson planning . . . gosh, every second of my life was devoted to trying to be a good teacher for those kids. That’s first and foremost before you get into any specifics about resources or “How do you show choir?” or any of those things. If you don’t have that in place first, no one is going to want to be a part of what you’re doing.
I think it’s building that connection and relationship and trust with students. Then I think it’s just learning as much as you can from as many different people as you can. Learning from all those different directors, any workshops you can possibly go to and things to learn from others. There are lots of camps and workshops that people can learn from to bring in those skills.
Show choir is a small-town phenomenon. There are extra different things that I can do in this kind of suburban area that might be a little different, but that’s . . . a lot of the big show choirs, actually, to be honest, in the Midwest area, a lot of them came from small areas because I think . . . that’s an easy way to hook kids into music is through more kinds of popular genres. That’s why they would pull kids into these programs where they don’t necessarily have access to voice lessons and they’re not going to orchestra concerts. It was a good way to pull kids into those small programs through popular music and singing and dancing and something that’s very audience-oriented.