This May, Brian J. White completed his fifth year as the choral director of Bonner Springs (Kan.) High School and his fourth as the school’s music department chair. Under Brian’s watch, the choirs have grown immensely, swelling from the 85 kids he had when he arrived fresh out of university to the over 250 students in the program this past year.
Considering that this school on the outskirts of Kansas City has a student enrollment of only 785, it’s clear that the infectious enthusiasm Brian has brought to the Bonner Springs choirs has had tremendous effect.
Born into singing through the local church where his mother was the organist and director of music, Brian J. White performed his first solo at the age of four. Although he sang with church groups throughout his youth and played in the school band from the fourth grade on, it wasn’t until his junior year of high school that the gifted young singer joined his school choir. Once he took that step, however, Brian was immediately hooked; his only regret was not joining his choral schoolmates sooner. Experiences working with Kansas State University’s Rod Walker at a select summer camp choir ultimately led Brian to KSU, where he studied music education. From there, being in the “right place at the right time” brought the fledgling teacher to Bonner Springs.
In a recent CD interview, Brian J. White explains the meteoric rise in his program’s choral participation, and what he’s done to garner so much success so early into his educational career.
Choral Director: Talk about the transition from being a student in a choral ensemble to being the director. What was your introduction to that side of the podium?
Brian J. White: The other side of the stand is vastly different from being behind the choir folder as a vocalist. My first directing job was with a youth church choir, one that I was a member of from sixth through 12th grades. That helped me get my feet wet with a bunch scenarios. I learned how to deal with a changing voice, some angry parents here and there, and how to deal with conflict. I also had to manage people working with me who weren’t getting paid volunteers. Sometimes life intervenes for them, and you have to learn to accept that they have other priorities than your choir. That was pretty humbling, but it laid the groundwork for my responsibilities in school.
CD: During your first year teaching, what were your objectives beyond simply surviving?
BJW: I wanted to be a first-year teacher that didn’t just survive, but one who would thrive. At the very least, I wanted to be a teacher who would maintain the traditions that had already been established by my predecessor. When I came on board, there was an adequate program with about 85 kids that went to contests and did a respectable job. Now we’ve blossomed up to about 250, out of a school enrollment of about 775 kids.
CD: That’s a pretty high percentage.
BJW: It’s pretty sweet. That first year, it was all about keeping things going. I figured that if I came in every day with a positive attitude and showed the students that I had a passion for what I was doing, eventually the kids would buy into the “new teacher.”
One issue I had to deal with that first year was an accompanist who had already been there for years. Instead of being someone who could really help me navigate and help me out although she did to some degree she was more like a “nag-igator,” someone who was really on my case. Sometimes it seemed like she was trying to sabotage me. So I had to make a tough decision with someone who was about 15 years older than me. I was 23 or so, and that was a pretty big deal to me that I had to tell someone that age, “Hey, so why don’t you take the weekend and think about if this is really some place you want to work or not.”
I had to make a tough decision, but I learned a lot from that experience. It’s not that different dealing with parents and administrators: you have to think things through and make sure that you’re making the right decisions and you’re justified in your actions.
CD: What is involved with taking a program and increasing student participation by over 300 percent in five years? What steps did you have to take in order to make such expansion possible for the students?
BJW: It all started with the day-in, day-out routine. Once that spark was lit within the students and they joined in my relentless pursuit of excellence, I think it just caught on and spread throughout the school like a wild fire. Through word of mouth, the kids joined in. I always say, “If we take care of what’s happening in Room 210, in our classroom, other people will take notice of what we’re doing.” And that’s what happened. Teachers started to talk. Administrators would walk the halls and see us. And we would go out in the community and perform at festivals and go to contests. It all spread from there.
CD: Was there anything specific that you did as far as recruiting?
BJW: I told those I already had in the class, “I can recruit, but you guys are the ones who seal the deal.” This is because my students are the ones who talk to the other non-choir kids at lunch and after school.
I make sure the students are involved in recruitment so they have ownership of the program. For example, if I have a few students who are good with multimedia, they help out with the posters and other materials we put together for recruitment. I also usually send a mass e-mail out to prospective students including some kind of funny picture designed to get their attention, followed by a little spiel on joining choir.
Another way I reach students is through driver’s education courses, which I teach during the summer. I put the students I know I absolutely want from day one in my car and talk to them every day. Hopefully, after spending the required 18 hours in my class, my personality will have won them over. I also have other choir students in the car who talk about what we do in our ensembles.
CD: What are some of the things that your choirs have done in the past few years that are new or different?
BJW: We’ve done several anthems for the Kansas City Royals baseball team, and when the New Orleans Hornets basketball team was stationed in Oklahoma City, we traveled there to do the anthem.
CD: When you perform at a sporting event, what’s the process leading up to the event?
BJW: The baseball performance was lined up for us through the administration, and we have been invited back each year. With the NBA performance, I received a call from them and went from there. Any performance opportunities that I think are worthwhile and that I think we can pull off, I bring up with administration and deliver my sales pitch. I make sure I’m prepared, so it looks good for the boss. If he okays my proposal, he takes it to the superintendent and from there up to the Board of Education.
Anywhere that we’ve wanted to go, the Board of Education has always supported us. We were actually supposed to head to Hawaii for a week, but that plan fell through a few months ago. With the company that we were using, I just didn’t feel comfortable having them manage $25,000 it seemed like it was their first time putting a trip like that together, so we pulled the plug.
At a Glance
On the Web:
Students in vocal music program: 250