In 2002, fresh out of college, Amanda Roeder joined Marblehead High School as the director of choral music. Over the past eight years, she has doubled the number of students involved in the high school music program, augmenting the music department’s curriculum to the extent that the high school now offers eight different music classes, in addition to its choral ensembles.
She has also taken on the role of music producer, directing her a cappella groups in the recording studio, producing CDs which have garnered her ensembles international recognition. Her ambition and enthusiasm is infectious, and it shows in the success of her students. Choral Director recently caught up with Amanda, which, as one can imagine, was not easy to do!
Choral Director: What was your musical experience like as a student?
Amanda Roeder: I knew at the age of 15 that I wanted to be a high school music teacher. But I didn’t expect to be directing a choral program I was a band kid. I was the drum major in my high school marching band, and as far as I was concerned, that band room was where the magic happened. I’m not just talking about the exhilaration of creating music, although that was certainly a part of it. What struck me, even then, was the magic of bringing together dozens of teenagers and getting them to create a moment of beauty. Music gave us an opportunity to reach towards something that was greater than us as individuals. Band was family, and I knew I always wanted to be a part of that.
I went to the University of Massachusetts to major in music education. My primary focus was the flute, and although I planned to be a band director, I sang in the University Chamber Choir and Madrigal Singers. Having sung my whole life, I enjoyed the choral setting. When it came time to apply for jobs in the spring of 2002, I applied for both band and choral positions all over the east coast.
CD: How did you land your position at Marblehead High School?
AR: Landing in Marblehead was serendipity. Based on the recommendation of an arts administrator in a neighboring town, I got an interview. Being fresh out of college, I probably would have taken any job that I could get, but when I arrived at this quaint little seaside town, I knew that I wanted to work there. From the galleries to the performance venues, to the gorgeous high school theater, I could tell that this was a community that values the arts. There was also the school administration, a lively, colorful principal, who had made a commitment to growing the choral program, and a committed, visionary curriculum director who would become my mentor and friend. It was a young teacher’s dream come true.
CD: It sounds like you found your dream job. What has the experience been like?
AR: In my first year, I had one class at the high school a chorus with 30 students. The remainder of my time was spent teaching chorus and general music at the middle school. In 2003, my principal asked me to list all of the classes that I could conceivably teach at Marblehead High School. From that list, our music program began to take shape.
CD: You were given a blank canvas so to speak, what an opportunity. How have you used that opportunity to develop your choral program?
AR: The first addition was a co-ed auditioned group of singers who were drawn from the high school chorus. While I was excited to start this select group, I was concerned about the potential impact on my larger group. I felt that it was vital that these talented young singers remain actively involved in the non-auditioned chorus. I was not interested in creating an elite group at the expense of the chorus I already had. I also had to figure out how to balance the rigorous scheduling demands that my students faced. I knew that most of them could not schedule two music classes per day.
CD: How did you work with your students’ schedules, with there being only so much time in the school day?
AR: The solution was somewhat unconventional. We decided that the group would meet after school. For the students involved in the program, the school day would be extended till 4:00. I knew that for the group to be taken seriously, it had to have a grade attached. It could not be extracurricular. In exchange for my time in the afternoons, I was granted an extra free period during the day. Thus, the Chamber Choir was born. For their first two years, they sang an eclectic mix of classical, jazz, and pop music, both a cappella and with piano accompaniment. They were well-received by the community, and the kids took great pride in their new group identity. But, what really caught the audience’s enthusiasm, and when the students really sparkled, was when they sang contemporary a cappella. Having long been a casual fan of collegiate a cappella, I decided to model my ensemble after the college groups that I admired. The first thing they would need was a catchy name. So long Chamber Choir, hello Jewel Tones.
In 2005 we added a second auditioned group for girls. They named themselves Luminescence. In 2008, I wanted to draw some new young men to our choral program. Without any real sense of how I would make it work, or how to fit it into an already bulging schedule, I announced the start of not one, but two new MHS a cappella groups – one for boys, and one for teachers. The faculty group has been a great source of amusement and fellowship among the teachers. The male group, after achieving widespread popularity in their first year, are now making the transition to become Marblehead’s first student-directed a cappella group.
CD: Your ensembles’ studio recordings have also garnered quite a bit of attention. How did those come about?
AR: We were introduced to the rewards of recording in 2007 when the generous older brother of a Jewel Tone paid for our first album Tied Together. The album was a gift to his sister and her classmates, who were less than a month away from graduation. We recorded that CD at Notable Productions, in Watertown, Mass., and have been working with them ever since. Working with Notable’s engineer, Dan Cantor, has been wonderful. But, that first record was a grueling process. Recording those ten songs, over the course of Memorial Day weekend, left the students vocally and mentally fatigued. And that was only the beginning. What ensued were several weeks of editing sessions that went late into the night. And oh, the things you discover about your students when you put a microphone in front of each of them. “Really!” I would cry as I listened to a tenor’s unintentional improvisations through a set of designer headphones. “That’s what he’s been singing all this time?” There were wrong notes. There were mumbled words. And oh, the rhythmic errors, it was humbling to hear that my students were making these mistakes. It was even more humbling that I had failed to notice them until that moment.
Marblehead High School
Total Number of Students at MHS: 1,000
We went about the painstaking process of searching phrase by phrase, measure by measure, note by note, for the best performance. Recorded a cappella is an entirely different from live a cappella one song comprises hundreds of musical fragments, each potentially pulled from a different take in the effort to create that one perfect, final product. I imagine that some of your readers would be unimpressed with this endeavor. After all, if our errors can be hidden by some skillful digital editing, then what’s the incentive to develop our craft at all? I understand and respect that point of view. But I maintain that recording is an equally viable art form.
CD: What was the most valuable lesson you took away from your recording experience?
AR: Recording these albums has made us all better musicians – not just the students, but me as well. To put it bluntly, it takes time to correct mistakes, and studio time costs money. Therefore, it is in our best interest, both educationally and financially, to sing well in the studio. I knew exactly what needed our attention, starting with our somewhat sloppy approach to rhythm. After the completion of our first album, I went out and bought four metronomes. ‘These will be your best friends,’ I informed my students on the first day of the following school year.
CD: While recording can be a agonizing experience, in the end, it sounds like it was a successful one for everyone involved. I know that your CDs have earned your students some awards and nice accolades from the a cappella community. Could you talk about those rewards?
AR: The completion of each album was, of course, a tremendously satisfying accomplishment. And yes, they also earned us some nice praise from the a cappella community. In 2008, the Jewel Tones album, Tied Together, was nominated for two Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards (CARAs) for best high school album and best high school song “Time After Time.” The album also earned us a track on the annual Varsity Vocals compilation CD, Best of High School A Cappella. In 2009, the Luminescence album, nonpareil, also earned a featured track on BOHSA, and it was the winner of three CARAs for best high school album, best high school song “Miss Independent,” and best high school soloist, Suzie Wyman. Tracks from both albums have been played on the radio and on several podcasts. In 2008, Jewel Tone soprano Chelsey Reardon was the recipient of the Jonathan A. Minkoff A Cappella Award (JAMAA) for her senior project. She produced an album of collegiate and professional a cappella, the proceeds of which went to the Pure Water for the World Foundation. This project was fully funded by a grant.
CD: As you said earlier, studio time costs money, and it can get pricey. How was your time in the studio funded?
AR: We raise the money for our albums, the budgets for which run into the thousands, all raised by the students. A major source of funding is paid gigs; the groups perform quite frequently at public and private events. They have also been known to put out a basket and sing on street corners. They solicit sponsorships from local businesses and families these generous people donate money to have their names listed in the CD liner notes. We are also fortunate to have the support of our parent group, Friends of the Performing Arts, who have kindly paid the mechanical licensing fees for the cover songs on our albums. And we occasionally seek funding from organizations such as the Massachusetts Cultural Council, who generously donated to the first Luminescence album. We have even been known to barter with the studio, logging babysitting and dishwashing hours in exchange for studio time. Finally, at $10 each, CD sales go towards the production of the next one
CD: It seems as though you always find a way to make things happen, as if nothing is impossible, which is a wonderful outlook to convey to your students. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to face as an educator?
AR: It’s a constant challenge for me to find balance in my life. Because I genuinely love my career, I am somewhat prone to being a workaholic. And because the work is so fun, I tend not to notice that I’m overdoing it until I reach the point of exhaustion. In the last year or so, I have made it a conscious priority to spend more time with friends, to read books, to cook, and to travel. I think it’s important to do these things for myself, but also for my students. I think a lot about the example that I set for them. I see in my students tremendous pressure to distinguish themselves from the masses. They come from a town that values education and encourages excellence. It’s a wonderful environment in which to do our work, but it also means that the expectations are quite high. Many high school students today and not just those in my community are workaholics in the making. I want my students to have joyful, fulfilling lives. I try to find the balance, allowing time to just be me, not Ms. Roeder, but just me. It’s not easy.
I also have a hard time with the competitive nature of my work. I see how hard my students work and how much music means to them. I hate to disappoint them. The best response to this, of course, is to make my assessments as transparent and objective as possible. But no matter how fair the results may be, I still hate auditions. I lose sleep, my stomach churns, and my heart pounds. I think I handle it worse than the students.
CD: When you look back over the past eight years of your career, is there a particular moment or event that gave you a momentous sense of pride?
AR: The moments that make me the proudest can be the most seemingly insignificant ones. I think my favorite moment of every day is when the bell rings and my students walk through the door for rehearsal. They drop their backpacks and their defenses at the door, and for that hour, they are free to be their silly, sometimes awkward, often beautiful selves. To be a musician, especially a singer, requires a certain vulnerability. It’s the hardest thing for even us adults to do; so when my students open themselves up so freely, I am tremendously grateful.
CD: Do you have any words of advice for other educators?
AR: I’m still pretty young, so I’m far more interested in receiving than giving advice. I’m lucky to have a network of experienced colleagues, who are also my friends, who I can go to for words of wisdom. But I suppose I have learned a few things along the way.
Teach music that you are genuinely, deeply excited about. Your passion for great works will be infectious, and your students will thank you for it. Take on projects that are just a little bit over your students’ heads or even over your own head. They, and you, will rise to the occasion. Give your students honest, constructive criticism, but be equally honest and genuine with your praise. Tell them how much you enjoy their music and their company. Tell them often.