Over spring break, I had the chance to visit Walt Disney World to explore their choral workshop, performance ,and competition offerings in person. I spent the entire day with Betsy Ervin, who is the team leader for Disney Performing Arts, a series of workshops and performance experiences designed to help students perfect their craft with an entertainment professional, showcase their ensemble as they perform for Disney Park guests, and challenge themselves to excel in competitive and noncompetitive annual festivals. In her role, Betsy oversees the daily operations of all student onstage performances for marching bands and stage groups at the Magic Kingdom Park, Epcot, and Downtown Disney at the Walt Disney World Resort.
Her team also oversees the operation of all Disney Performing Arts Workshops for bands, choirs, orchestras, dance groups, and theatre ensembles at Walt Disney World. Betsy has been with Disney for 14 years. Prior to that, she was a high school choral director overseeing concert choirs, vocal jazz ensembles, and the award-winning Encore show choir. A native of Illinois, Betsy earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education from Western Illinois University. We sat down and had this fascinating conversation about all things choral and Disney.
Tell me about the Disney Performing Arts Workshops.
We have three different workshops that we would recommend to vocal groups. Our most popular choral workshop is Disney Sings. The ultimate educational goal in this workshop is to teach the students about a day in the life of a professional singer at Walt Disney World. We focus on live performance as well as recording studio experience and the skills needed in each of these areas. For the recording studio portion, we encourage the students to experiment with voiceover techniques as well as recording vocals for one of our animated movie trailers. We also provide the director with a copy of a DVD to take home and use to continue reinforcing the skills discussed in the workshop. We want to reinforce what we know the teachers are teaching every day in their classrooms and give them some tools to continue that growth.
We have several different movie trailers to choose from and the Teaching Artist decides which movie to use after learning a little bit more about the group. We are looking to choose a video that is going to challenge the group, but also make them feel successful in the end. It’s important to build the students up and have them walk out of the room feeling empowered.
Tell us about your other vocal workshops.
We have two other vocal workshops. Disney’s Show Choir Magic workshop focuses on vocals and choreography. Groups participating in this workshop are sent the music ahead of time and we ask them to prepare the vocals. When they arrive for their workshop, we polish up the vocals a little bit and then we add the staging and choreography.
Are the groups sight-reading or getting music to rehearse ahead of the trip?
The Disney Sings workshop is about sight reading, as professional singers might be asked to sight-read in the recording studio. In the Disney’s Show Choir Magic and Disney’s Broadway Magic workshops, we send the music to the group ahead of time so that we can focus on the staging, choreography, and acting, in addition to the vocals.
What is the third vocal workshop?
The third one is Disney’s Broadway Magic. Our focus here is on the triple threat of singing, dancing, and acting. We pull a scene from one of our Disney stage shows and we send it to them ahead of time. We ask them to take a look at the vocals before they arrive and familiarize themselves with some of the dialogue, but we actually cast it during the workshop. The Teaching Artist will take them through a very fun mock audition, and then we put together a cast, with each student getting a role. We then add blocking, choreography, and characterization for everyone, while continuing to focus on the importance of the ensemble.
How long has Disney been offering these vocal workshops?
Disney Sings has been around for about 20 years, Disney’s Show Choir Magic for 15 years, and Disney’s Broadway Magic just celebrated five years. Each of these workshops has been reimagined over the years several times. We go to great lengths to stay current with our educational content so we can properly support the music education goals in the classroom.
Groups can apply up to one year out.
Is there an audition process?
Absolutely! The easiest way for groups to audition for Disney Performing Arts OnStage or apply for a workshop is online at www.disneyyouth.com. Groups hoping to perform at Walt Disney World complete an application and upload their audition video. Directors should also be prepared to upload a photo of the group’s performance attire. Hopeful performing groups can also register for a workshop at the same time. Groups looking to participate only in a workshop can apply online, as well, but will not be required to upload a video.
I think it’s important to point out to teachers that groups can come to Walt Disney World and not perform. If your entire group is not able to make the trip, consider taking one of our workshops. Our Teaching Artists are experts at quickly assessing your group’s strengths and capitalizing on those skills to create a great experience for all.
How does Disney go about choosing its workshop leaders?
Most importantly, we want great teachers with unique performance experiences to share with your students. We love for our Teaching Artists to have performance experience within the Disney company whether it be with our theme parks around the world, our Broadway or touring shows, or on our Disney Cruise Line ships. One of the things that make our workshops so special is the bond that forms between the students and the Teaching Artist. That bond is created by the Teaching Artists sharing personal stories about their journey.
Once the audition is passed and it’s time to book the trip, does Disney help with booking?
We do have people here who can work with them and talk through options for rooms and food and beverage and also answer any questions they may have about their performance and workshop experiences.
How many hotel resort properties are available on-site?
On Walt Disney World property, we have 26 different resorts where guests can stay. Obviously, with these kinds of groups, Disney’s All-Stars Resorts are probably the most efficient and affordable. It’s much larger and has a higher number of rooms. The Disney’s Pop Century Resort is another cost effective option. A lot of our groups will also have the option of using Disney transportation at these hotels.
The Candlelight Processional is a holiday show presented at Epcot every year from the day after Thanksgiving through December 30. This show includes the Voices of Liberty (our premiere Disney vocal group), a 55-piece orchestra, a 70-voice cast choir, and a celebrity guest narrator. In addition, each evening features a 225-voice Youth Choir. The Youth Choir is comprised of high school choirs from around the world. The audition process for this experience is the same, but one of the selections your group must perform in their audition video should be from the show. We will provide you with the music for this selection ahead of time so you can prepare your audition. If chosen, the choir will be sent the music for the 10 additional songs in the show and they will need to learn and memorize those selections prior to their trip. On the day of their show, the group will be taken through a short backstage rehearsal with the entire choir prior to performance. This is a really exciting opportunity for groups to be a part of a professional Disney show.
What does a group do with Performing Arts OnStage?
For an OnStage Performance, the group has an opportunity to audition to be featured in their very own show. If accepted to perform, they have 25 minutes to present whatever type of performance that showcases their talents the best. This time, it’s all about them! We will have professional technicians at the stage, and these technicians will be talking to the director a few weeks before hand to make sure we understand exactly what they need to make it a stress-free and exciting performance for everyone. We can provide choral risers, microphones, a piano, drum kit, or pretty much anything they need so they won’t have to travel with their extra gear. The choir just gets to show up that day and be the stars!
Their Disney Performing Arts Specialist will meet them prior to their performance and help them prepare in our backstage area. We will have changing facilities and a warm-up space for them and can help with any last minute needs.
You mentioned microphones and risers and things like that. If this is a show choir, or other performing group, what other backline can you provide? Is there a guitar amplifier? Bass amplifier?
Is there any extra cost to your groups to have the backline provided?
None at all.
You really get the rock star experience, where you can just walk on the stage and plug in?
Absolutely! This is the performance of a lifetime for everyone!
Here at Disney World, all of our percussion is provided by Conn-Selmer. Wenger provides all of our additional equipment.
This leads us to Disney’s competitions and festivals. Tell us about those.
Our main competition for vocal groups is Festival Disney. It runs for 10 weekends in the spring, typically from the first weekend in March through the first weekend in May, with the exception of Easter weekend. The group does not have to audition for that experience. They do have to register and there is a registration fee. They can register up to one year in advance, as well.
What is it that they’re competing for in this festival? And what levels are there?
They can choose a couple of different things. They can choose to go for comments only, if they just want feedback. They can choose to go for a rating – superior, excellent, or good. Or they can choose to actually compete against other groups there that weekend in their same category. It’s really up to the teacher to decide what experience they’re going for. On Saturday nights, we run the competition before holding a magical awards ceremony with all the schools in attendance. There is so much energy in that theater, in that moment. We have an emcee and sometimes there are special guests. The entire night is filled with high energy, loud music ,and a great time bonding with the other kids who are sharing the experience with them.
How many vocal groups participate each year in Festival Disney?
It varies, but last weekend we had close to 5000 student participants in Festival Disney. The groups come from all over the country. This year, as a special treat, we actually have a DJ dance party on Streets of America at Disney’s Hollywood Studios after the event.
Do you have any closing thoughts on Disney from your perspective as a former choral teacher?
When I was travelling with my students, I was always looking for opportunities to make the entire trip a learning experience. I loved bringing my ensembles to Walt Disney World because I knew they would get once-in-a-lifetime performance and workshop experiences, but I also loved that the learning continued beyond those moments. My students also got free time in the parks to explore and have fun with their friends. Those bonding moments are a huge part of what makes choir such a great part of high school. I would always provide my students with a list of live professional performances I wanted them to see each day. These included incredible shows such as the Festival of the Lion King and inspiring performances from groups like the Voices of Liberty. We would even choose times when we would attend as a group so we could talk about those experiences in our classroom when we returned home. Where else in the world could you provide your students with so many incredible memories in one location?
You can learn more about Disney Performing Arts workshops and performance experiences by visiting www.disneyyouth.com.