For some, finding one’s niche in life can be a life-long quest. For others, finding a passion that inspires one to be ambitious, determined, and humble all at the same time can be almost instantaneous, as if predetermined. The latter applies to Ryan Beeken, choral director at Waukee High School, in Waukee, Iowa.
When Beeken was a teenager, his family moved from a small rural town in Iowa to Dubuque, Iowa, which, at the time, seemed to him like an overwhelming metropolis. However, Ryan found a home in the school choir. As he explains, “On the first day, the choir director told us that if we have any free periods or study halls, we were welcome in the choir room. I did spend my free time in the choir room, and that was the beginning of my life in choir. The music room was my sanctuary.” That was the beginning, and as Choral Director found out in this recent interview, for Beeken, there is no end in sight.#149;
Choral Director: What inspired you to become a choral director?
Ryan Beeken: When I was a middle school student, Mrs. Donna Reet, a vocal music teacher in Spencer, Iowa, was an inspiration to me. The vocal music room was a place where I could excel, be accepted, and leave every day yearning for more. It was that middle school experience, complete with Mrs. Reet standing in her stocking feet, on top of her desk, conducting that inspired me to pursue music and specifically choral music education. She was animated and motivational. She made it really fun to be there.
CD: When did you begin teaching?
RB: I began teaching in 1994 in a small rural school in Cascade, Iowa. I taught vocal music for grades five through 12.
CD: What were some of the pivotal experiences for you as a music student?
RB: As I’ve mentioned, certainly Mrs. Reet. Another would be my high school music experience. When I was a freshman, my family moved from Spencer, Iowa a very small community in the northwest corner of the state to Dubuque, Iowa where I attended a large school of approximately 1,750 students. The change was a bit unnerving and overwhelming for me. My schedule was such that I had choir and then a free period after choir. On the first day, the choir director made an announcement and told us that if we have any free periods or study halls, we were welcome in the choir room. I did spend my free time in the choir room, and that was the beginning of my life in choir. The music room was my sanctuary. It was a way to meet people and develop a circle of friends, and it all revolved around the music room. For me, a nervous little 14 year old, it was a good way to ease the transition into a new school.
Secondly, my experiences as a Music major at Drake University were extremely pivotal. I learned how to use my voice and teach others. Conducting and music theory were entirely new worlds for me, and I loved exploring them. Ultimately, every special, meaningful, or pivotal moment in my musical life involved an inspirational teacher.
CD: Do you see some of your own students finding refuge and their primary social connections in choir?
RB: Most definitely, it’s kind of a unique thing. Most of their social interactions are within the music department. There are also a lot of kids I see who would normally not be friends with each other. The choir is made up of a diverse group of students, but there is something about the choir that allows these students to come together and have a positive relationship, that they otherwise may not have had. I think this is something that is unique to choir and music in general.
CD: Often times, student choirs and bands are practicing, performing, and traveling together spending a lot of time together. Does this create a sort of familial dynamic within the group?
RB: This past March, we had one of the choirs perform at an ACDA convention. The kids videotaped the event and put it on a DVD for the end of the year slide show. On the video all of the kids were being interviewed, and it was striking how many of them talked about their choir family.
CD: You said that every pivotal moment in your musical life involved an inspirational teacher. How do you try to give that gift to your students and inspire them?
RB: I try to first demonstrate a passion for what I’m doing. I think that passion and commitment is contagious. I can’t expect students to get excited about singing music that some Italian guy wrote 400 years ago if I’m not excited about it. I also think that it’s important to invest in students on a personal level, to try and develop a personal relationship with them, find ways to relate to them. For example, if you know Tommy is a soccer player and you’re trying to get him to be a better singer, you somehow incorporate soccer into the singing. Kids not only want to have fun, but they really want to be a part of something that’s good, and they want to feel successful doing it. You have to have a standard of excellence and high expectations. I always say to the kids, #149;If after a performance I say, Wow that was so awesome, could not have possibly been better. Then you need to ask for a smarter teacher.’ We always have to ask ourselves: are we better today than we were yesterday? My students have seen that in me. I’m returning to school because you have to be diligent and constantly improving.
CD: So you went back to school?
RB: For the past three summers, I have been taking classes at Michigan State, and I’m taking a one year leave of absence to finish my doctorate this year.
CD: Are you eager to get started? What will this change be like for you?
RB: It’s a little surreal. I’m excited and stressed out all at once. To go from teacher to student is a bit strange, but it’s a good thing.
CD: Will you resume your teaching position at Waukee when you finish?
CD: What do you think that will be like, after being away?
RB: On some level it will be like a homecoming, and on another level it will feel like I’m walking into a new job. I’ve worked there for the past 12 years and know the families and the community very well on that level, people will know what to expect, and I will know what to expect. At the same time, there may be things that I’ll want to do differently. The way I operate on a daily basis may change. After being away at school my perspective may change. It may be like starting all over again. Once you go away, the relationships that you had with people you saw everyday, are going to be different and need to be rebuilt when you return.
CD: What was it like to tell your students that you were leaving?
RB: It was difficult. I had known for a long time that this was happening. In December, I told the kids and the parents, which allowed for some processing time. At the end of the year, it was very hard. The kids, my colleagues, and the parents did a lot of wonderful things it was very emotional and very difficult to go. I had to kind of spin it: yes, I’m gone for a year, and yes, it’s an investment in myself, but ultimately it’s an investment in the school and the music program.
CD: What is the current program like at your school as opposed to before you arrived?
RB: The current vocal music program at Waukee High School serves grades nine through 12 and consists of over 300 singers, in four different mixed ensembles, plus treble and bass clef ensembles. On an extra-curricular level, the program now has three vocal jazz ensembles and two show choirs. Each year we do a Broadway musical and a Madrigal Dinner production. When I arrived in 1998, the vocal program consisted of two curricular concert choirs, one extra-curricular jazz choir and approximately 100 students in the program.
CD: Can you talk a little bit about the accomplishments of your ensembles?
RB: The select concert choir, A Cappella, has earned consecutive Division I ratings at large group contest for over 20 years. In addition, they have performed with the King Singers, Cantus, and international opera star Simon Estes. They performed for the 2005 National Convention for the American Choral Director’s Association and for the 2006 and 2010 Divisional ACDA conventions. They also performed at the 2008 state convention. The show and jazz choirs frequently place at the top of their divisions, earning many solo and caption awards. Also, the department has consistently had among the most students of any school in the state selected to participate in the Iowa All-State Music Festival.
CD: What kind of impact do you think you have had on your program?
RB: I believe I have provided the leadership necessary to grow the department, but more importantly to let my students and colleagues shine and excel, sometimes by merely staying out of the way of their success, rather than trying to micromanage it.
CD: When you have new students, how do you assess them and their abilities? Is that something you do right away or is it something that takes time?
RB: First I try to get a sense of what their experience has been. How involved have they been in music? What are their motivations? I don’t ask these questions directly; I just try and figure it out. The first step is getting a rapport going with a student and hooking them up with other kids to help them establish a network of friends. Ultimately, we have a lesson program, and I spend some one on one time with students getting to know them, working with them, hearing them sing, giving them feedback, and figuring out what ensembles would be most appropriate for them. I try to give them encouragement too.
CD: Do you set expectations for your students at the beginning of the school year?
RB: Yes. We do this in a variety of ways. We have a handbook and all of those things that we go over. The first day of school though, we just sing rather than talk about how they shouldn’t be late, no gum chewing, et cetera. Our a cappella choir has a retreat every year before school starts. We usually have about 50 students who go on the retreat. We all get to know each other and talk about what we are planning for the year.
CD: Do you have any moments or events that have moved you or inspired you as an educator?
RB: Witnessing my students realize their potential and achieve it, all while being humble and having a great time! Our college choir traveled to Europe in 1992, shortly after the fall of communism, and sang in a small monastery in what was then Czechoslovakia. That was a time I will never forget, and one that solidified my choice and furthered my desire to be a choral conductor. The experience in that monastery, so cold we could see our breath, yet overflowing with people, none of whom could speak English, was incredibly moving. At the conclusion of the concert, a small elderly lady interrupted the choir’s departure and pandemonium ensued. The audience leaped to their feet and attempted to communicate and interact with the singers. After a time, things settled down and small, yet limited breakthroughs in communication began. It was time for us to leave, however. We loaded the bus and began pulling away. Suddenly the bus came to a halt, the doors opened and that same, small elderly lady entered the bus. She tried to speak, but couldn’t find the English words to express her thoughts. She closed her teary eyes, took a deep breath and sang “God Bless America.” There wasn’t a dry eye on the bus. From that moment on, I could not wait to have my own choir someday and hopefully have an opportunity to impact someone so profoundly through our music.
CD: I know it’s a bit of a clich