Creating Their Own Legacy: Milwaukee High School of the Arts Choral Program

SBO Staff • ChoralSeptember 2008UpClose • September 16, 2008

Raymond Roberts

Since 1991, Raymond Roberts has been at the helm of the highly successful choral program at the Milwaukee (Wis.) High School of the Arts. His choirs have performed at numerous state and regional music conferences, as well as with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Roberts has received recognition from the Wisconsin Choral Director’s Association as an Outstanding Young Conductor. He also received the Distinguished Teacher Award from the United States Department of Education for his work with a student who was named a Presidential Scholar in the arts.

In addition to his work as an educator, Raymond is also active in Milwaukee’s music community. He is director of the Milwaukee Youth Chorale, the National Music Coordinator and accompanist for the NAACP ACT-SO competition, and he and his wife are co-directors of the music program at First United Methodist Church. He has held the positions of assistant director of the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus and director of the Plymouth Concert Chorale. However, his proudest accomplishments have come from the work he has done with his students inspiring people through music and shattering stereotypes.

In a recent Choral Director interview, Raymond Roberts details the challenges and rewards of being a music educator at an urban school for the arts.

Choral Director: How did you get involved with music?
Raymond Roberts: I started piano lessons as a child and enjoyed playing very much, as it seemed to come quite naturally. Additionally, I played the euphonium in band in middle school. I then continued studying piano at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas. That is where I started singing. I studied piano and voice in high school and then went off to study music education at Northwestern University and graduated in 1991.

CD: Why did you choose to become a choral director?
RR: My choir director in high school, Michael Wayne Terrell, left an indelible impression on me. I was enlightened to the extraordinary power that music holds in our lives. I wanted to not only be part of his legacy, but to create one of my own.

CD: What were some pivotal experiences for you?
RR: I consider my experience of studying music at an urban, public performing and visual arts school as the primary influence on my decision to become a music educator. I was privileged to be a part of a diverse student body that chose to celebrate diversity through the arts, rather than let our racial, ethnic, or socio-economic differences stratify us.

CD: When did you begin teaching? Where was your first teaching job?
RR: I am presently teaching at Milwaukee High School of the Arts, a nationally recognized urban public performing and visual arts high school in Milwaukee. I have been teaching here since 1991. This upcoming school year marks my 18th year as a music educator—all at MHSA.

CD: What was the program like before 1991?
RR: The program was only about six years old when I arrived. The school started as an art school in 1985 and had some growing pains. It merged with a non-art school, and the program took a while to get going. Even though it was a rocky start, it established itself as the only school of its kind in the state of Wisconsin. The music program was the focal point.

CD: And now?
RR: In addition to consistently receiving superior ratings at WSMA Choral Evaluations, the MHSA Concert Chorale has performed with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra on numerous occasions, performed at various state and regional music educator conferences, including the WMEA State Conference, the WCDA state convention, and the North Central MENC conference. The ensemble has also been featured prominently on Milwaukee’s ABC affiliate WISN’s Season to Celebrate primetime holiday feature. Individual students from the choral program have been recognized in national competitions such as the NFAA Young Arts competition, the NAACP ACT-SO competition, and the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center.

CD: To what do you attribute the success of your program?
RR: I attribute the success of the program to the curriculum which equips the students with the musical tools necessary to achieve at a high-level with a high quality repertoire. That combined with the passion the kids have for singing make for a successful program.

Raymond Roberts CD: Would you talk about your own impact at the school?
RR: The impact I have had on the choral program at MHSA has been qualitative rather than quantitative. Because students at MHSA audition into a specific arts specialty program, I do not recruit from the athletic teams, the study halls, or other groups of students. Additionally, every student is programmed for two hours in their arts specialty daily. Therefore, there are a limited number of students who have room in their schedules to add choir. However, the choral program has earned a reputation throughout the state of Wisconsin as a bastion of musical excellence. MHSA choirs are renowned for their vibrant tone quality, presentation of excellent repertoire, extraordinary energy, and ethnic diversity unparalleled in the state.

CD: What makes your program unique?
RR: What makes this program unique is really no different than any other quality music program. Because of its emotional content, its intimate nuance, and its inexorable power, making music by singing with others creates a close-knit group of people who experience and know the world in a similar fashion. We live through music. This experience shapes the lives of these young people and molds them into considerate, compassionate, creative, committed human beings. In an inner-city setting, because there seems to be a void of citizens with the aforementioned qualities, this program ultimately affects the entire city of Milwaukee in profoundly positive ways.

CD: It seems as though your program has not only had a positive impact on your students, but the community as well.
RR: Yes. While I don’t think it’s my goal to create the next generation of performers, I feel like kids who come through the program become future patrons and supporters of the arts. Even though they may not become performers, they have enriched their own lives through the study of music, and then by being supportive of that as adults they enrich the entire community.

CD: You attended a performing arts high school. Have you found similarities in the school that you attended and MHSA?
RR: Yes, very much so. It is kind of a unique thing that I am a product of an urban arts school, and now I am teaching in one. I have been able, for the most part, to replicate the successful things, curriculum-wise and musically, which I experienced myself at Booker T. Washington. It’s been a wonderful way to continue in that same vein.

CD: How do you think the diversity of the student population impacts the program?
RR: It certainly makes it unique. In our state we really only have one large urban center, and the majority of the minorities in the state live in this urban center. When we do performances around the state at conferences and conventions it really negates a lot of the stereotypes that the rest of the state has of Milwaukee public schools and their students. It really does a great social service to promote Milwaukee to the rest of the state in a positive light. The Milwaukee school system is largely bashed and not highly regarded by the rest of Wisconsin.

CD: It’s such a gift to not only teach music, but also change minds and break stereotypes.
RR: It’s half musical mission and half social mission. I don’t think it could be any other way.

MHSA Choirs at a Glance

2300 West Highland Avenue,
Milwaukee, Wis.

On the Web:

Raymond Roberts

Choral Ensembles:

Treble Choir: 40 voices, SSA; freshmen and sophomore women.

Chamber Singers: 60 voices, SATB; freshmen and sophomore men, sophomore and junior women.

Concert Chorale: 60 voices, SATB; junior and senior men and women. This ensemble combines with the MHSA Chamber Orchestra to present major works each semester, including Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” Bach’s “Magnificat,” Faure’s “Requiem,” and Puccini’s “Glori.”

Vocal Jazz Ensemble: 14 voices, SATB; junior and senior men and women. This ensemble is regularly invited to sing with traveling artists who are on tour in Milwaukee. Artists have included Shania Twain, Kenny Rogers, and Lou Rawls, as well as Bob McGrath from Sesame Street.

Opera Workshop: 40-voice SATB ensemble that presents fully staged and costumed productions of one-act operas appropriate for young voices and geared toward introducing opera to elementary school students in the Milwaukee Public School district.

CD: You received the Distinguished Teacher Award from the U. S. Department of Education for your work with a student who was named a Presidential Scholar in the arts. What was that process and experience like?
RR: It was wonderful. It started with a program sponsored by The National Foundation for Advancement of the Arts. They have an annual competition called Young Arts, and between 7,000 and 8,000 students submit their work in various categories in the arts. About 120 finalists are invited to Miami for a weeklong adjudication with nationally renowned panelists. A certain number of those students, based on their performance that week, are given level-one awards and then allowed to apply to become presidential scholars in the arts. 20 students from that pool are later selected to be Presidential Scholars. The art scholars get to perform at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and they get to select a teacher who they feel was the most influential in their artistic development. My student selected me, and I was able to attend the week-long celebration in D.C. I watched my student perform at the Kennedy Center and was there when she receive a medal from President Clinton. It was really quite a memorable experience.

CD: I can only imagine. Was that your proudest achievement as an educator?
RR: My proudest achievement is not one specific moment, but a culmination of things. It’s knowing that for the rest of my time teaching here I will always have students coming back to thank me for inspiring them to succeed at something, whether it’s music or law, medicine, driving a bus; it doesn’t matter. I know my students appreciate what I instilled in them, and to me that’s much more worth while than any one specific accomplishment.

CD: Do you find that to be the most rewarding element of teaching?
RR: Yes, hands down.

CD: What are some of the challenges you have had to face as a music educator?
RR: Some of the challenges on a musical level have been trying to address music literacy in an urban school system that has such mobility amongst the students. It’s very difficult to get them on the same page musically when they come from such different places with regard to their music literacy. That has really been a challenge. It requires me to keep all the ones who have had some music reading experience busy while I get the other ones caught up. It’s a bit tricky.

Socially, getting parents involved at a level I think would be more indicative of the quality of what the students are doing has been somewhat tricky as well. When a large number of the students come from impoverished homes, getting to the concert to see their child sing is not the first thing on the families’ lists. But I know it would have an impact on the kid if they were able to see their family out there when they perform. I have kids that finish a show at 9:30 at night, and then I see them on the corner waiting for the city bus to take them home.

CD: Do you have any words of advice for other educators?
RR: There is nothing new under the sun, so my words are certainly nothing new. But, I would charge every choral music educator to the following tasks:

Know your craft. You can only take your choirs as far as your musical expertise allows you. Hone your skills so that there are no limitations to the quality of music you can confidently share with your students, including piano!

Know your students. In order to share with your students your passion for making music, you really must know who they are. Where do they come from? Where do they want to go? What extenuating societal or familial circumstances can assist or detract them from their goals? Also, know your students in terms of their musical skills. Meet them where they are, and equip them with the musical tools they need to experience quality music-making in a confident manner.

Be aware of the fact that we are the lucky few who have parlayed our life’s passion into a career. As you prepare each day to go to your room and teach, remember that you are engaging in an activity that has shaped your life and will shape the lives of every student you see. Don’t forget how joyful making music can and should be. You get to do it every day.

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