Altruism and the Successful Choirs of Central Islip High School

SBO Staff • ChoralNovember 2008UpClose • November 18, 2008

John Anthony

In September of 2000, John Anthony began his first job as a choral director at Central Islip (N.Y.) Senior High School. It was John’s own experience in his high school choir that inspired him to continue with his musical aspirations and become a choral director. As a student at Calhoun High School in Merrick N.Y., John learned from his mentor, Calhoun’s choral director, that being in a choir is about much, much more than just singing. As Anthony puts it, “It is about being your best, about expecting the best from others, about learning how to express love through music, and what a powerful force that can be in the world. I learned that choir is about community, and giving back to those who have supported you. I learned that choir is a place where young people can connect with others, where they can strive to achieve amazing things together, whether it is the unaccompanied performance of a Bach Motet, putting together activities for young children, raising thousands of dollars for charitable causes, or working to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.” He has never forgotten his own experience as a student and the lessons learned.

Choral Director: As a student you had a teacher who was a mentor you and played a key role in your passion for music. How important do think mentors are for students?
John Anthony: For me, it was very important. This year I have a student who is so thrilled with choral music, more than any student that I’ve had. Everything I give him he just eats up. I had an extra iPod that I didn’t need and filled it with all kinds of recordings. He knows all of it like the back of his hand now. So, I asked him to be the student conductor this year. I want to encourage him. This is a boy who was not in choir in ninth and tenth grade; he was more into paintball, acid rock, and all that kind of stuff. Anyone looking at his MySpace page would have been horrified. All of a sudden here he is a fan of Randall Thompson. I really want him to know what I know, which is that high school kids can do anything. If he can dream about conducting a Bach motet, then he can do it.

CD: Has the music program changed at all since you’ve been at Central Islip?
JA: When I got to Central Islip High School, I was not happy with the structure of the choral department, how performances were staged, or even when they were staged. The students displayed an alarming lack of discipline. The department had an auditioned show choir, an auditioned women’s barbershop group, two other non-auditioned women’s choirs, and a non-auditioned mixed chorus that was split between two periods and two teachers.

The music being performed was, generally speaking, far too easy for the high school level. Not surprisingly, the choral students were undisciplined. I was told repeatedly by the other choral teacher, who had far more tenure than me, that trying to get the students interested in traditional choral music would not work. She said it had never been done here before. She also said that they’re children and they must be treated like children. I could not have disagreed more.

High school aged students (young adults) will respond to high quality if they are exposed to it and if they are expected to excel. Even in show choir, the dance element of the group was very limited. The kids reminded me repeatedly that show choir was supposed to be fun first. Of course, I agreed with them that it should be fun, but what the kids did not know, or understand at the time, was that if we did music and choreography that was more difficult and they worked very hard to perfect it, they would end up having a much more satisfying experience and more fun!

CD: How have you gone about changing the program?
JA: The program today is better organized than before. Today we have an auditioned concert choir as the core group of the choral department. I am very thankful to Peter Freeman, the music director for the department, who, in my first year, implemented all of the changes I requested.

The concert choir performs challenging literature (mostly a cappella) and gives 20-30 performances a year including choral festivals, neighborhood venues (churches, Knights of Columbus, nursing homes), as well as an annual spring tour. In the last five years the concert choir has traveled to Orlando, Fla. three times, Austria, Czech Republic, and Italy. While we work on sight-singing and music theory fundamentals, the primary focus of the concert choir is to provide quality performance experiences.

We still have a show choir, but we have much more elaborate stagings than before. My choreographer for the show choir, Jeanine Ecklund, and I share the same belief that our students can do anything they put their minds to. Jeanine is a remarkable choreographer she gives students very detailed routines, rehearses with them intensely, and outfits them with the most professional costumes, with money that the students themselves raise through a fundraiser.

We now have a freshman choir, which is a training choir open to any student. The main focus is to prepare the students for the upper level groups in the department, like concert and show choir, as well as giving those students who do not make one of the auditioned groups a place where they can have the opportunity to sing. A non-auditioned women’s choir and a select women’s barbershop group is also available.

This year I have 146 students divided between the Freshman Choir (62), the Concert Choir (64), and the Show Choir (20).

CD: Your choirs have achieved many accomplishments, including an annual performance at the NYSSMA Festival. Since 2002 your concert choir has received the Certificate of Gold and the highest honor, Gold with Distinction, at the festival. I read that one of the NYSSMA adjudicators said of your choir, “It is rare that we see this level of artistry here.” That must have been a rewarding moment for you.
JA: Yes, it was, and it was rewarding for the kids, too. We really do work very hard. None of my students take private lessons of any sort. They are not from that kind of community. In a general kind of way, people don’t really expect much from Central Islip, even though I don’t like to say that too often. Whenever we go and perform, the reaction we get from people is really noticed by the kids because it’s not what they’re used to. For some of these kids it’s the first time they are hearing something like that, and it’s not uncommon for them to tear up and cry. It means something to them.

John Anthony The Concert Choir and Show Choir have performed in many places and venues the last several years. Though we have performed in choral festivals in Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, as well as The Disney Honors National Choral Invitational, the most important performances have been those right here in Central Islip. The residents of our town cannot fully support what we do if they never see or hear us. Just performing at the winter and spring concerts is not enough. Residents need to know who we are, hear and see what we do, and interact with the students. It is amazing how often people are shocked and amazed at how professional and poised high school teenagers can be. We have created a wonderful product and residents respond with great enthusiasm and support. We have performed for the opening of our Federal Courthouse, for two political inaugurations for local politicians, for an NYSUT convention (New York State United Teachers), performances at nearby colleges, and at numerous churches throughout the community.

CD: How do you go about selecting the festivals that your choir performs in?
JA: The first festival I went to was in 2004; it was the All American Music Festival. Honestly, I selected that one because it was in Florida and I wanted to do something that would create excitement among the kids. We did the Magic Music Days and, there, people from Disney watched both our concert and show choir perform. They approached me after the performance and said they would love for us to audition for the Disney Honors. I really didn’t think that we would be selected, so I booked a performance cruise for the same time. We were selected for Disney, and I cancelled the cruise of course.

Disney Honors was wonderful because they had so many great choral people there. They really worked with the kids, and there were also great lectures. At Disney there was a professor from Potsdam University, who had heard the choir perform, and when she was approached by Music Celebrations International she recommended our choir to perform in Austria at the 250th anniversary celebration of Mozart’s birth. When I was contacted and was told that it was going to cost $3,000 per person, I just held my breath. My high school choir director didn’t do a European tour until he was in his 15th year of teaching and here I was on my fifth year. But, we did it!

CD: What do you attribute the success of your program to?
JA: I believe and have always believed that high school students will rise to the occasion if they are presented with a challenge. I have always expected them to be at their best and they know this. I have never expected them to be perfect, and they know this too. I know I have a lot I can teach them, but I try to remind them as often as I can that they too have a lot to teach me.

The most important thing I can do for my students is to awaken in them a desire a desire to learn, a desire to excel, a desire to expect from themselves the best they have to offer, and a desire to want something better out of life. Music is my tool to help students achieve these goals. I believe it is this attitude that is at the heart of the success of my program.

CD: In 2006 your choir was honored at Carnegie Hall for donating $7,500 to a children’s cancer charity. Generally, music programs are struggling to raise money. How have you managed to travel, perform at festivals, and be so philanthropic at the same time?
JA: Well, it’s hard for me to talk about these things sometimes because it’s such an emotional thing. One of the things that I think is very important from the standpoint of performance is that in order to get kids to connect with the emotional content of a piece, they have to be able to step outside of themselves. High school students are renowned for being self-centered. My students are always hearing how they are disadvantaged at Central Islip they don’t have this or that. I don’t want them to think that because they do have a lot of opportunities available to them, and the choir is a wonderful opportunity.

However disadvantaged they may think they are, whether it be a single parent home, etcetera, there are always people who are much needier than they are. I want them to be able to reach out to those people and help them because, in the process they learn something about what it means to give: And when they learn how to give, they also learn how to give of themselves in a performance, and it is a very moving thing.

In 2006, we raised $15,000 at our Have a Heart Festival, which is basically a variety show that we put on featuring the concert choir and the show choir. There is also a raffle and an auction. Out of the funds raised, we gave half to Camp Adventure, which is a camp for children with cancer.

Just last year we did Have a Heart again, and we raised $20,000. We gave $10,000 to an orphanage fund in the Ukraine. We were also going to Italy last year and needed to raise $175,000. But still I told the kids that we can’t have our year be just about Italy and raising money. It’s about the music; it’s about learning how to grow, and learning to grow personally means learning how to give. It’s a very important thing that they learn to do. This year we will do Have a Heart again and hope to raise the same amount that we did last year.

CD: What do you think are the distinctive attributes of your program?
JA: I am aware that there are other quality high school programs out there that do many of the same things that we do. But here in Central Islip, we put our talents to use in a way that helps other people in greater need than ourselves. I firmly believe that having a strong connection to our community is vital for the continued success of our program. The choir has produced fundraising events in order to help with their performance tours, but also to help those in need. In three years, time the Concert Choir and Show Choir have donated $22,000 to charitable causes. This year the choir hopes to raise another $10,000 for charity.

Another aspect of my program, while not unique, is certainly on the rare side. The diversity that encompasses my choirs is something I am particularly proud of. My students always impress people everywhere they go because they smash the stereotypes the erroneous stereotypes people have for African Americans and Hispanics, primarily.

CD: On your choir Web site there is a T.S. Eliot quote, which caught my attention. The quote is, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.” Do you think you have some talented risk takers on your hands?
JA: I think so. Every single graduating student who I’ve had has gone to college, which is a far higher average than from the rest of the school itself. I still speak to all of them to check in and see how things are going, what their dreams are, where they’re heading. Many of them tell me that they want to do something because they love and are passionate about it, despite not being in line with their parents thinking.

Even though this may sound pompous, I think the biggest danger to music programs is music teachers who don’t know anything and who aren’t inspiring kids to do great music. When kids are inspired and challenged, people notice. I get letters from people all the time thanking us for performing and saying how moved they were by it. I always share these things with the kids, and tell them that they have to understand the power that they have.

CD: How do you think the current state of the economy will affect your ability to participate in festivals this year?
JA: Not too much this year, but next year I don’t know. There is a perceived fear that things are not going well in this country. When you have a community in fear and they are asked to go vote for the school budget, whether or not it has affected them directly, they will consider their taxes and vote to cut. That’s what I worry about. Also, I am not the most senior teacher, and I will be the first one to go.

CD: What are some of the challenges you have had to face as a music educator?
JA: One of the challenges that I, and I’m sure many other music educators face, is learning how to play the balancing act. I have many students in concert choir and show choir who are involved in many other activities, especially sports. Concert Choir and Show Choir both have many performances throughout the school year in addition to extra weekly rehearsals. These rehearsals and performances are necessary to achieve a higher level of performance. I could just say that all students must be available for everything, and if they cannot be there, then they are out of the group. If I did that however, not only would I have a much smaller choir, I would be denying my students the opportunity to experience other activities that also serve to enhance their education. So, I try to limit the number of conflicts ahead of time.

If an organization asks the choir to perform on a Thursday and I know that I have five students playing on the basketball team that day, I ask to change the date to one more compatible. On our weekly evening rehearsals, if a student has a game that day, I allow them to miss. Do I like it? No, but it is necessary. As a result the students learn over time that I value their other activities, that I can understand that there are other activities important to them, and therefore important to me. When students feel respected, they will perform at a much higher level.

Another challenge is the perception that music is easy. Other educators, and some parents, often have no idea how much hard work goes into preparing a choral work for performance. It is as though some people think the kids come to class for a big party every day and the polished performance just flows out of their mouths.

Another frustration is that there other choral programs that focus primarily on pop tunes doing whatever it takes to make the audience happy. In those instances the audiences may be happy, but the academic/scholarly value of music is not evident. When budget crunch time comes, that same happy audience will think nothing of cutting music. It is, after all, just fun, as evidenced by the pop tunes they hear the kids performing. “Let them turn on the radio then,” they might say, “we don’t need to spend money for that.”

CD: Do you have any words of advice for other educators?
JA: My advice to other music educators is to challenge themselves and their students to perform high quality literature and to really believe that their students can be successful doing it. When I first started at Central Islip, I walked into a situation where if you told me that in just seven years we would have completed two European tours and several other honors festivals out of state, I would have told you that you were crazy. Choral students seemed like they were out of control, seemed like they thought school was a waste of time, seemed like they couldn’t focus for more than 30 seconds.

But that was not the case. They did care and it was my job to find a way to make them listen. I figured, if other schools could do great things, so could they, but I would need to find a way. Everybody’s path is different, but there is a way for every situation, as long as you care enough to find it.

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