2014 Directors of Note

SBO Staff • ChoralJanuary 2014 • January 16, 2014

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Choral Director’s 2014 Directors of Note report features a dozen outstanding vocal music educators from across the U.S. It is this publication’s great privilege to have the opportunity to cast the spotlight on some of the wonderful people whose hard work and dedication engenders success in school choral programs, and never is that more evident than in this annual feature. Nominated by readers and selected by CD’s editorial staff, the directors showcased here are representative of the countless inspiring teachers who are making a difference in classrooms across the country.

Keitha Bledsoe

Davidson Middle School
Years at Current School: 17
Total Years Teaching: 38
Students in Vocal Music
Program: 162

Goals as an educator: My primary goals are to share my love for music, and through the art, help children to rise above the struggles of daily existence to a place where they can experience and express true beauty, become more human, and thus, more humane.

Most important lesson learned about teaching: I came out of college with lofty expectations that, under my tutelage, my students would achieve the highest musical goals performing the great masterworks, and go on to become highly recognized professional musicians and educators. I began teaching in a rural K-12 grade school with approximately 400 hundred students and a filing cabinet of copied “pop” music. It didn’t take me long to realize that my job was as much or more about using music as a tool to help children get through the daily difficulties of life as it was imparting my great musical knowledge, and inspiring them to become world-renowned singers. We made many wonderful musical memories at that tiny school, and I learned more about children and about caring there than I could have ever imagined. Teaching choral music is an honor and a blessing, and it is so much more about the children than it is about my own musical reputation or esteem. My students and I have a relationship that is conceived and bound by a love for, and a desire to create, beautiful music. Many times I have felt that they were the teachers, and I the student.

Proudest achievement as an educator:  I can recall many special moments, both musically and personally, when I have felt overwhelming pride in my students’ accomplishments. I think it is the daily “aha” moments, the baby steps (like finding one’s voice while working through middle school vocal change, making that connection to the breath and actually hearing/feeling it, or success on a melodic or rhythmic sight reading practice example) that cause me to be the most proud. Watching their dedication and personal pride grow, and seeing their willingness to be molded and shaped reinforces me each and every day. I truly have the best job in the world!

Randall Kamisato

Leilehua High School
Years at Current School: 8
Total Years Teaching: 16
Students in Vocal Music
Program: 90

Goals as an educator: When I was hired at Leilehua eight years ago, the goal was simple: make a once-proud program viable and enjoyable. I’ve always insisted that at the end of the day, the music was always secondary to my students just being good people. I’ve had the honor and privilege of having many good people come through the program who have helped to build it into what it is today. Now, my goals as an educator are to encourage and allow my students to expand their imaginations and their concept of what “good music” is, and to increase the reach of the program into the community and beyond.

Most important lesson learned about teaching: Students from all walks of life with a myriad of different backgrounds are going to come through your program and all of them need to be challenged.And as such, I need to keep the learning multi-dimensional. When students are able to grasp the science behind producing music, when they’re exposed to the physiological aspects, or when they’re learning to embrace the mathematical, historical, and linguistic facets of music, it becomes so much more than just a one-dimensional subject. And in this day and age where music programs are being lost to the Common Core and the incessant push for STEM, it’s always good to remind everyone that music is all of that, and so much more.

Proudest achievement in the classroom: My initial answer might have been “just making the program viable and thriving,” because when I first got here, chorus class was an amalgamation of kids who liked to sing mixed in with a heavy dose of kids who got “dumped” into the class because there were no other electives open. But then the realization sets in: a teacher achieves nothing alone. And the greater truth is, it doesn’t matter what subject you teach – all the awards, the superior ratings, the trophies garnered, and the accolades that come with them are not an indicator of any one teacher’s achievements, but those of our students. That being said, my proudest achievements are not the “what,” but the “who.” I cannot possibly list the names of everyone who has come through this program, but every one of them has played an integral part of its achievements. These young men and women built our choral program on their hard work and talent, and that they allowed me the honor to be a part of their lives is by far my proudest achievement.

David Burton

Caldwell High School
Years at Current School: 6
Total Years Teaching: 7
Students in Vocal Music
Program: 240

Goals as an educator: I want my students to learn the value of hard work and discipline and to appreciate beauty. The philosophy I use is the study of vocal music as it relates to life. I want my students to gain the skills that will enable them to be successful and happy in everything they do in life. I use music as the tool and vehicle to accomplish this.

Most important lesson learned about teaching: The most important lesson I have learned is to be real with my students. I have a very open relationship and communication style with my students, as do they with me. I don’t sugar coat things and I am very honest and genuine with my praise and critiques. As a result, my students have developed a level of trust and willingness to work that allows them to achieve their potential. Additionally, they feel comfortable in sharing their ideas and insights, which always helps me see incredible new things that I would not have found on my own.

Proudest achievement in the classroom: It was a tremendous honor to be named the Caldwell High School and Caldwell School District Teacher of the Year for the 2012-13 school year, and receiving Superior scores at festivals is always gratifying. However, my proudest achievement is whenever I see students organizing sectionals outside of class or when I ask them to work on a section at home and then having an amazing rehearsal the next day. It is incredible to see my students experiencing music and maturing into more rounded, self-aware, and confident people.

Paul J. Rausch

Woodstock High School
Years at Current School: 30
Total Years Teaching: 30
Students in Vocal Music
Program: 135

Goals as an educator: My goal is to help students develop the musical skills necessary to become independent musicians. This includes learning how to sight read, knowing musical vocabulary, understanding how the vocal instrument works, and how to adjust vocal tone to the style of music chosen to perform. It includes how to prepare a song from scratch without the help of a teacher and learning the skills necessary to make a beautiful, supported, open tone. It includes connecting to the emotive aspect that makes music unique and life changing.

Most important lesson learned about teaching: It concerns me when I hear stories about eager students turned away by choir teachers because they cannot sing in tune or match pitch. Isn’t that what we as choral educators are supposed to teach? When talking to adults about their own childhood singing and choral experiences, I find it amazing how many were told by their music teacher that they could not sing well, or that they should lip sync rather than sing aloud with their class. These adults, now far removed from the incident, can identify with great clarity who made that claim, where they were, and how old they were. Tragically, that misguided claim most often marked the end of their experience with choirs or singing. Our job is to nurture, encourage, and provide opportunities for our students to grow and experience the lifelong joy that music brings. This is why no student is ever turned away from my choirs and all of my students learn the skills to sing in tune and make incredible music by the time they graduate. That is our legacy: the ability to experience music by making music.

Proudest achievement in the classroom: The moment in a rehearsal when the singers have connected to the music beyond the notes and rhythms and have touched the deepest part of who they are. Those are life-changing aesthetic experiences that are impossible to put into words or describe to someone who has never experienced such a moment. It leaves you changed forever and longing for more.

Ann Conrad

Carmel High School
Years at Current School: 38
Total Years Teaching: 38
Students in Vocal Music
Program: 540

Goals as an educator: To inspire young people to love music, to love hard work, and to become caring people.

Most important lesson learned about teaching: Your students will achieve at the level of your expectations. To paraphrase Fields of Dreams, “If you set the bar high, they will work to achieve it.”

Proudest achievement as an educator: The growth of our choral program! I am so proud to work in a school and a city that values the arts. Being in choir is a respected thing at our school. I love the fact the students have a “home” in our department!

Darrell Letcher Parks

Bloomfield Elementary &
Middle Schools
Years at Current School: 26
Total Years Teaching: 26
Students in Vocal Music
Program: 78

Goals as an educator: My goal is to give my students a solid foundation in music concepts and fundamentals. This includes leading my students to success in as many musical experiences as possible, whether that is my entire choir performing in our community, helping my students audition for honors choirs, or encouraging them to sing in community and church choirs. Through the performance of the music, they develop a life-long passion for all types of music, and by giving them performance opportunities, it builds their self confidence and helps them learn to work as a group.

Most important lesson learned about teaching: No matter what task I put before my students, with the right leadership they will give me all they have to accomplish it. At the beginning of the year, we have our district honors choir performance, and it happens within a week of audition deadline for KyACDA All-State Choir. Yet every year, my students go to the district festival musically prepared, and I have several qualify for All-State and others who have very good auditions. This year, a month after school started, our entire school schedule changed. I now get my elementary students less than half the time per week I used to, but the kids worked hard and kept a positive attitude, and we had a very successful semester.

Proudest achievement in the classroom: The proudest I’ve been is having my children’s choir invited three consecutive years to perform in a concert with the community choir in Bardstown at Christmas. (Bardstown is the larger city in our county, and there are several elementary schools in Bardstown, as well as church children’s choirs, but Bloomfield was asked).

Karen E. Randall

Clarksville Elementary School
Years at Current School: 18
Total Years Teaching: 28
Students in Vocal Music
Program: 525

Goals as an educator: My goals as an educator are to open the minds of young children to music of all types, to broaden children’s musical experiences, help them to explore music, help them to broaden their views of the world and different cultures, help them find their first instrument with their voices, help children to learn to work together for a common goal, (their performance for themselves and others), and – last but not least – for them to learn to appreciate what types of music they like, what they don’t like, and why.

Most important lesson learned about teaching: The most important lesson that I have learned as a teacher is patience and a deeper love for all music. Over the years, I have matured and come to understand that children are coming from different places in their lives. As educators, we have to help them to mature and understand what is expected of them instead of assuming that they just “know.” Also, when I was younger, my tastes for music were pretty limited. I enjoyed classical, jazz, and soul music. Over the years, I have learned to enjoy show tunes and show choir music, different types of jazz,  more ethnic types of music, and more current types of music. The children have really opened my eyes and heart to all types of music that I hadn’t heard in my life. I am thankful for my children.

Proudest achievement in the classroom: My proudest achievement is when a student in my class who is struggling with a concept really gets it! For example, the students in fifth grade were recently working on complex rhythms and one of my special needs students was having some difficulties with syncopation. The students in her class and I helped her to break down the patterns into chunks. She practiced with all of her classmates and then we did the two-measure phrase and she got it! We all were so proud of her and her accomplishment that we cheered and gave her a shout-out in school. That was a proud moment for me. She felt so good about herself and what she accomplished that it makes me feel really good down deep. That is my purpose!

Diane Heaney

Albert Lea High School
Albert Lea
Years at Current School: 21
Total years of Teaching: 29
Students in Vocal Music
Program: 310

Goals as an educator: I must make the effort to reach every student in some way to try to make a positive impact on his or her life. Some are easier to reach than others, and some won’t realize what they got out of their high school experiences until much later, but every student is worth the battle. I try to teach with passion about the music and about the process of making music every day. I don’t teach my choirs great music for me, I teach them great music for them, and how it feels to perform with pride after working so hard to “get it right.”

Most important lesson learned about teaching: There are many reasons why students sing in a choir. Some of those reasons have very little to do with the actual music. As a musician, this is sometimes frustrating, but as a teacher, I must remember this every day. It is very powerful to belong to a successful organization, one that has pride and commitment from its members. It is wonderful to work hard to create beautiful music, beautiful memories, and to feel like they were an important part of the process and the product. The longer I teach I realize that it is the impact of each student that makes the difference. Students will remember the feeling of success long after the notes and rhythms are forgotten.

Proudest achievement in the classroom: We have had our share of guest performances and honors over the years. Perhaps I am proudest of the fact that there has been a tradition of quality set in our community since my tenure here. It is hard work to maintain high standards year after year with all the changes and demands on students’ time and energy. I love getting notes from former students sharing their gratitude for the life lessons learned in the choir room and encouraging me to “keep it up” for future students.

Mark S. Cotter

Seckman High School
Years at Current School: 17
Total Years Teaching: 29
Students in Vocal Music
Program: 274

Goals as an educator: Although I strive to help students at all levels to become successful life-long creators, performers, and consumers of music, one of the main reasons that students want to come back to the choral program each year is because they feel choir gives them a sense of belonging and community. It seems we are in a time where much importance is placed on high test scores, getting into the best schools, and making good money. Perhaps we should more readily recognize the value of goals that include expression of emotion, positive social interaction, the development of good character, and simply being a better human being.

Most important lesson learned about teaching: The most important lesson I have learned is that I have so much more to learn! Even without the consideration of technology that can enhance the music learning process, music itself offers infinite possibilities of additional study. Although I am excited about new technology, I have learned that technology can enhance the learning process but has a tough time replacing good old fashion practice.

Proudest achievement in the classroom: I believe one needs to be careful about recognizing “their achievements.” I don’t believe I have achieved anything without the efforts of many. Examples of my proudest moments would be when a “non-matching” student sings a beautiful phrase in tune for the first time, or a special needs student discovers the joy of performance, or when an elite student achieves a level of musicality that is beyond my own capabilities.

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Virginia Nickels-Hircock

Piedra Vista High School
Years at Current School: 13
Total Years Teaching: 21
Students in Vocal Music
Program: 110

Goals as an educator: I strive for excellence in musical rehearsals and performances. I hope to give my students the skills and tools to pursue excellence in their own practice, performance, and life. I want to challenge my students to push past their perceived capabilities in order to achieve group artistry. I attempt to teach the discipline and academic study of choral music, as well as the emotional and entertainment values of the art form. I don’t ignore the element of music being fun! I want my students to have a “home and family” in the choir room – a place of belonging and comfort.

Most important lesson learned about teaching: We learn so very much from the practice of our profession and art. Some of the negative lessons I’ve learned about teaching are that this job doesn’t get easier as the years go by, and it’s nearly impossible to balance my personal and professional lives. But the most important lesson I have learned is a positive one, and that is that I am terribly grateful for the opportunities, challenges, and joys that teaching choral music has provided me. My accompanist and I share a “gratitude journal” (an idea from a student’s father). We write our gratitude for our students, our families, and our shared experiences in this magical little book, and pass it back and forth between each other. This simple act reminds me to constantly be thankful for the challenges we all face and for the pleasures we all share.

Proudest achievement in the classroom: My proudest achievement came in the form of a compliment from Bruce Rogers, Director of Choral Activities at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California. Following my choir’s performance at a festival where Mr. Rogers was our adjudicator and clinician, he stated, “You guys just get it.” Aha! Mission accomplished!

Stephen M. Smith

Middletown Area High School
Years at Current School: 28
Total Years Teaching: 28
Students in Vocal Music
Program: 181

Goals as an educator: My ultimate aim is to provide students with the tools they need to be lifelong, independent musicians. A related intent is to help students gain a sense of pride and confidence in their ability to sing. A favorite saying of mine is to never settle for the status quo, and we often talk about raising the bar by pushing ourselves toward more challenging literature and a better vocal sound. Remarkably, an ethic of excellence actually attracts more students to the program; they appreciate the opportunity to be pushed to achieve. These outcomes of independence, confidence, lifelong learning, and excellence are important to music but also enable students to be successful in all of Life.

Most important lesson learned about teaching: I realized many years ago that the focus of my teaching is not actually music but rather the students themselves. This has impacted my teaching not only in the way I present concepts, but also in the way I approach individual students. They each have unique reasons for wanting to sing and also different levels of commitment to developing the art of singing. Realizing this allows me to take each student where they are and help them develop their vocal and music ability from there. This philosophy has been important as I think about the success of our choral program over the course of almost 30 years.

Proudest achievement in the classroom: My proudest achievement is witnessing the positive impact of music education. When students come to me years after graduation and articulate that being in choir is what they remember most about their high school education, I realize how much music education matters in people’s lives. I am proud of the fact that, while Middletown’s total enrollment is 640 students in grades 9 through 12, the choral program involves 181 of these students. It is also very satisfying to see this impact extend beyond Middletown through the former students who now have their own choral programs. When I attend their concerts, I enjoy not only seeing their passion for choral music but also observing the influence they are having on students’ lives. The trophies won at Festivals and the numbers of students who make Honor Choirs are wonderful, but the impact of our choral program on individual lives and the legacy it passes on is what truly makes me proud.

Mikkel Iverson

Union High School
Years at Current School: 7
Total Years Teaching: 36
Students in Vocal Music
Program: 170

Goals as an educator: To prepare my choral students to be musically literate in the area of sight-reading and rhythm-reading, and to develop their individual voices and musicianship so that they are prepared to sing at the collegiate level.

Most important lesson learned about teaching: Absolutely nothing speaks louder than being a good musician and that the pursuit of perfection is just that: a pursuit.

Proudest achievement in the classroom: My proudest achievement was seeing my Chamber Choir from Union High School singing for the American Choral Directors National Conference last year in Dallas, Texas, where they received standing ovations for the performances.

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