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Will Breytspraak: Giving a Kid a Chance

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The best way to learn is often by doing and hands-on experience can provide insight that might never come from simply being taught. The opportunity to get your feet wet doing something you love, however, can be hard to come by.

For Will Breytspraak, the big break came as a high school senior when his choral director fell sick and Will was given the chance to direct his school’s choral rehearsals. This life-changing experience propelled him toward a career of providing similar opportunities. Now the choral director at Pebblebrook High School and the Cobb County Center for Excellence in the Performing Arts in Mableton, Ga., Mr. Breytspraak relishes his role as teacher, conductor, and mentor to Cobb County’s choral progeny. Choral Director recently had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Breytspraak about his passion for nourishing the gifts of the next generations.

Choral Director: Tell me about your musical background.
Will Breytspraak: Very early on, my older sister played piano. I remember the day that she got her first piano – it was so exciting and I wanted to play because I was hearing it all the time. I was intrigued by the Mozart that she was playing, and once I was old enough, my parents let me start taking lessons. I studied with a really passionate Venezuelan musician named Juan LaManna. He was really inspiring and taught me a lot of the fundamentals, but also just to have passion for music. I played a lot of Schumann as a child, and I sang in my church choirs. I also really enjoyed that. I became even more interested in vocal music in high school.

CD: How old were you when you first started taking lessons?
WB: I first became interested in piano as an infant, really, but I started taking lessons when I was seven.

CD: And you were involved with choral music throughout your youth?
WB: I didn’t sing in my middle school choirs. I was really involved with the youth choir and also played piano at my church. In seventh grade, I joined a group called the New Spirit Singers, which was in Prairie Village, Kansas, where I grew up. There was a choir of seventh- through twelfth-grade students and it was a lot of fun because I was doing the same things as the older kids. Actually, my first year in that choir, my sister was a senior, so I got to sing with her. It was really neat to sing with older kids when I was that age.

My high school had a really great [choral] tradition and I just knew that I really wanted to sing, having been to my sister’s concerts.

CD: And you continued to study voice in college?
WB: I did. I went to the Interlochen Arts Camp (IAC) after my sophomore year of high school and it was there that I met Hugh Floyd, the choral director at the IAC up in Michigan. He is also the director of choral activities at Oberlin College, and he told me about St. Olaf College in Minnesota, which was also recommended by my high school director, Dr. Rika Heruth. I applied to a big batch of schools, but when I visited St. Olaf, I could tell that choir was something very special there.

CD: So that was a deciding factor for you?
WB: It really was. Because at these other schools, they actually offered me bigger scholarships, and opera was emphasized more, solo singing, but I could just tell in those rehearsals at St. Olaf that there was a real reverence for what they were doing – you could hear a pin drop in the room at several different ensembles’ rehearsals. After my visit to St. Olaf as a high school senior and after hearing their home concert from their tour in 1996, I knew that was the place for me. Also, the choral director at St. Olaf, Dr. Anton Armstrong had directed my all-state choir in Kansas my senior year in high school. He was a great influence on me because, by that point, I knew I wanted to conduct. My high school director had been kind enough to give me opportunities to direct the choir there.

CD: You had opportunities to conduct as a high school student?
WB: Yeah. During my senior year, my choir director, Dr. Heruth, who is a wonderful person and a great influence on me, called one night and she could barely talk. She was coughing up a storm and she said, “Will, I’m not going to be able to make it tomorrow, I was wondering if you could direct all the choirs.” I was just thrilled, because this was my big chance. You know, I’d been sitting in her choirs and I loved what Dr. Heruth did, but I had so many of my own ideas – I knew exactly what I wanted to do. So I took that day – the accompanist was still there – and I ran all of the rehearsals. Just one experience at that age is so invaluable. I actually wrote a college essay about this, which was called, “My Big Day.”

CD: How did the rehearsals go?
WB: I don’t know if I can summon up the details from my memory, I just remember the feeling of, “This is what I know I love to do” – that feeling where you don’t even have to think; you just respond and you have this musical idea and you’re with people that you love to work with. It’s invigorating. I don’t think I’d ever felt that as strongly with anything that I’d ever done, whether it was sports or singing in a choir or playing piano. I just felt like I was doing the right thing. I think the frustration that young conductors have is that they don’t get a lot of podium time, so the chances that you do get are extremely valuable and formative. I was really lucky that my high school director recognized my abilities and cared enough to let me conduct a concert. I remember I tripped on the stage the first time I went out! But I went on, my hands were shaking, and she had given me a red folder to keep my music in, to keep it apart so it wouldn’t get lost. I still use that red folder today. My high school kids ask me, “What’s the story with that red folder?” and I tell them.

CD: Are you offering any of your own students similar opportunities to conduct?
WB: The really neat thing about that is that now, 10 years after I was a high school senior, I’m teaching students to conduct at this high school here in Georgia. Last year I started to recognize that there were a few students that seem to have some of the attributes that a conductor needs – the piano skills – the kind of students that, when you get out of rehearsal, they’re at the piano and, like Mozart, they’re picking the music out by ear. And I noticed a couple of exceptional ones who have a real knack for what we’re doing, so I’ve taken them on. One of them, Darian Clonts, is only a junior and I really believe he’s going to be somebody major, so I took him on as an assistant conductor. He had his debut in our holiday concert this year, conducting the freshmen choir and it was fantastic. I’m teaching him everything I can and I’m learning things from him. I told the audience and singers that ten years prior, my conductor in high school had given me the chance to direct the choirs. I told them how, during my first big chance, I’d tripped onto the stage and never looked back! (Laughs.) It was really neat to see Darian up there.

I think it’s just because I love conducting so much and I’ve had such nurturing teachers that I feel like I have a lot to give when I’m teaching conducting. With Darian, I sit back and I see all these qualities that I couldn’t possibly teach and I just try to let them come out. I try to give him ideas, and encourage him, but let him be the decision maker – let him have his interpretation of the piece. And there’s another student, Allison McDowell, who’s been doing the exact same thing with our women’s choir. Now I have all these students coming up to me saying, “I want to conduct – can I be an assistant?” and it’s very exciting.

CD: Tell me a little bit about the choirs that you teach.
WB: Now I have a graded vocal program. Students enter into a classical vocal concentration and in that class we stress all the fundamentals of music, particularly keyboard skills and music theory. I’m very lucky to work with two amazing faculty three times a week. These students work with the keyboard lab coordinator, Ms. Evelyn White, and Mrs. Judy Cole, the theory program coordinator. So we teach all the fundamentals in that class and we do a little repertoire. This year we have about 65 students.

The next level up is our intermediate group, called Mixed Repertory Chorus, and they emphasize more repertoire. We have 35 students in that class.

The very top classical ensemble is our Chamber Choir, which does all kinds of things. Last year, they sang for the southeastern ACDA convention and they’re great readers. We cover all kinds of music in that choir, so it’s great working with them. It has 53 students, which is large for a chamber choir in terms of numbers, but it is a chamber choir due to the type of repertoire that we do – a lot of a capella work, a lot of chamber work. They still do rotations with piano and theory, but they mainly emphasize repertoire.

Our biggest group is our Chorale. At the end of the day, all of our singers come together and form a choir of 150. It’s very exciting because it’s a group where, daily, our first-year students are getting to sing with seniors. In that group we do large-choir music.

CD: Do your choirs compete?
WB: We sing for festivals, but we go for comments only. Sometimes we do compete for festival trophies, but we keep the standard high. We don’t emphasize the scoring; we try to emphasize the experience. We’ve done things like the Disney festivals, we sang for [former “American Idol” contestant] Clay Aiken – we were his backing group and the kids loved it because they’d all been watching him on TV. The ACDA event was also a lot of fun. We sing at a lot of venues around the region. We sang at the St. Philips Cathedral. This spring we’re doing a joint-concert with [professional male vocal ensemble] Cantus. They’re going to do a clinic with us, and then we’re going to perform a concert downtown.

We also do a lot of enrichment trips. For example, some of our most advanced students have gone to New York up to three times a year, where they take classes with actual Broadway choreographers, dancers, and singers: Peter Flynn, John Rocco Guyton, et cetera. For example, on a typical Pebblebrook trip to New York City, our students see six or more Broadway shows. We actually have a lot of alums on Broadway, currently, and at the best conservatories for classical voice, as well. We’ve got students at Oberlin and Indiana University.

CD: What’s the most challenging element of what you do as an educator?
WB: With the demand for excellence in our school and out in the world, there are a lot of pressures to get things perfect, to make things right and correct. I try to teach our students – I try to explore music with them. I don’t want to fall into a trap of acting like, “This has to be this way.” Ideally, we’re creating music. Even when we’re performing, we’re creating music in the moment. The spontaneity of that is an artistic thing. You have to study your craft, work on all the details, and have good technique. You have to have the right notes and the right vowels – you know, everything the composer asks for. But the thing I work on the hardest is what comes after that – making sure that you don’t lose the human being and you don’t lose the art and you don’t lose the composer when you work so hard toward all of this. So when I get into a concert, I just try to create as if it’s the first time that I’ve ever heard the piece in question. And I hope – no, I know – that the students take that from this because I see it in them when they do their own performances. That’s just a natural thing, but I think that’s the toughest [part of my job]: there’s so much pressure to get things right that I think you can lose sight of the real work. Does that make sense?

CD: Absolutely. In fact, it leads me to my next question, what is the “real work”? Clearly it goes beyond simply a “perfect” performance.
WB: I’m not a concert pianist. I love the piano, but I went into [choral directing] because it’s something more than music – it’s the people. I feel like I’m a steward of something very special. These students that I’m working with are only with me for a very short amount of time. I think that’s something you learn the more you teach, as more students leave and more come in. They’re really just in a passage and so I’m more concerned with, not what they do while they’re here, but what they are taking with them when they leave – what they have been able to give and experience during this passage. I think it always just has to be about that. And, as a steward, I’m a steward of their talents; so if a student like Darian Clonts or Allison McDowell has a talent for conducting, I need to take care of that. I need to do everything I can to help them cultivate their talent and share their gift, to encourage them.

I guess what I’m really working towards is helping these students learn to use these gifts and what I see in them. You have to be incredibly open to see it all, because there is so much. I’ve been given a lot, and so I want to give back everything can. I’m at an exciting point in my life right now because I’m doing what I want to do. I’ve always wanted to conduct and teach, and I’m becoming more aware of the greater goals, the bigger picture – what the real essence of all this is. I don’t see how it’ll ever get tiring, I just love teaching music so much, trying to help students to reach their goals. They inspire me. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Will Breytspraak at a Glance

Education: Bachelor of Music, St Olaf College; Master of Music, Westminster Choir College
Director of vocal music: The Cobb County Center for Excellence in the Performing Arts, Pebblebrook High School, Mableton, Ga.
Assistant director of choirs: First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta
Enrollment at PHS: 1800
Enrollment in the CCCEPA: 275
Web site: www.cccepa.com

Recent Achievements:

  • February, 2006 – Pebblebrook Chamber Choir performed at the American Choral Directors’ Association Southern Division Convention.
  • April, 2006 – Pebblebrook Chorale performed Mozart’s Requiem with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
  • October, 2006 – 98 Pebblebrook High School students make the Georgia All-State Choirs.
  • December, 2006 – Pebblebrook Chamber Choir performed at Atlanta’s Cathedral of St. Philip.
  • March 22nd, 2007 – The Pebblebrook High School Chamber Choir and the choirs of the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta will be performing in a joint concert with world renowned male a cappella ensemble CANTUS.
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