UpClose: David Moellenkamp: Built to Last

SBO Staff • ChoralNovember 2012UpClose • December 4, 2012

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Los Alamitos High School has always had a strong choral program, but the ranks of its singers have doubled in the last four years. Director David Moellenkamp reveals how.

It’s no easy task to retain high enrollment in any school choir, regardless of location. Choir directors must be vigilant in their communities and persistent with new recruits, using all tools available to them – everything from direct outreach to word of mouth, colleague support, and fundraising are all vital.

Wild success year after year in performances and competition never hurts.

This past school year marked the second year in a row that choirs from Los Alamitos High School were named National Grand Champions at the Finale show choir competition (the honors went to both the school’s mixed AAA choir and its all-girl advanced choir).  The Orange County, California students were part of a program steeped in a proud choral tradition, but choral director David Moellenkamp is actually a recent addition to that timeline.

In the four years since Moellenkamp came onboard, enrollment numbers in Los Alamitos choirs have doubled and their showings at competitions have improved dramatically. The school’s choirs have combined to win 29 first place/championship awards and have also collected over 80 “Best in Category” recognitions.

Moellenkamp was a seasoned veteran when he was hired, having begun work as a choral director at the age of 21 at his old high school’s rival program in Sullivan, Illinois. During those formative years, he found fast success in the Sullivan program while rapidly expanding his reach by adjudicating at competitions throughout the country and getting involved with choir camps like the Butler Showchoir Showcase in Wichita and the famous Stagedoor Manor in New York’s Hudson Valley. By the time he arrived at Los Alamitos in 2009, he had over 100 first place finishes to his credit.

And yet, Moellenkamp says that the size of the trophy has become less important to him than the development of his kids. “The kids don’t remember the placement,” he says. “But they do remember how great it felt coming off the stage after having just performed for a really great crowd.”

Choral Director spoke with Moellenkamp about his own development and the success he’s had at Los Alamitos, particularly regarding the incredible recruiting and retention numbers.

Choral Director: How did you approach the job at Los Alamitos when you first began there?

David Moellenkamp: The kids’ complaint when I first started was that everyone else thought that all they did was stand and sing. So my main goal was to change the perception of choir on campus – first by changing the perception the kids had about being in the program, and second (really at the heart of it all) by giving these kids more confidence. I wanted the campus to know how great these kids were and I think getting more students involved certainly helps with that. We try to instill confidence in all these kids. I wanted to be their champion. I wanted them to be really proud of being in choir. That was my main goal.

CD: Your first job directing choir was back in Illinois, at Sullivan High School. How did that affect you in your early years?

DM: I started when I was 21, right out of college. It was quite a shock to me. When I was in high school, we competed in a national competition against the Sullivan Singers. I went to Rolling Meadows High School in Illinois and I remember watching them when we were in competition and just being in awe of everything about them – their performance, their strength, their costumes, and their sound. It was weird that four years later, I’d find a job opening there. Actually, after I graduated college at Millikin, I didn’t think I was going to teach. I really thought it was time to do something else. I found that this job was open and I interviewed on a Tuesday morning and was given the job that afternoon. I thought, “Okay, I can last a year to make my parents think I’m grateful for my four-year private school education.” Now, 21 years later, here I am still teaching.

Even that program doubled in size within the first three years. We started more groups – we started a girls group and the mixed group got larger. When I showed up the first day, I thought they’d be just like I had seen them in competition and that wasn’t the case at all. It actually took a lot of hard work! I hadn’t realized that, naïve as I was. It was quite a program. When I took over, it was a very successful program so I had quite a lot to learn. I still do, obviously. But it was a very challenging first couple years trying to figure out how to navigate that program.

CD: What was it about that first year that got you hooked?

DM: The hope that it would be better next year. Everyone says your second year is going to be much easier and that you’ve got to stick it out. You’ve got to try. And honestly I’ve always really loved show choir. I was in show choir in high school and in college at Millikin. I enjoyed doing it but the challenge came later on. You just learn as you go. At Sullivan, I had very big shoes to fill. I was replacing David Fehr, who teaches at Clinton, Miss. – he’s the Attache Show Choir director. He’s a really strong director so I had a lot to learn to measure up to that, and I definitely still do.

CD: Was there anything in particular during those experiences that has really changed the way you’ve approached choir direction?

DM: Oh sure. At Butler Showchoir camp, working with Valerie Lippoldt Mack was life-changing. Her teaching methods are so uplifting, motivating, and positive and she’s so gracious to everyone that she comes in contact with. The way that she’s able to build a group’s self-esteem and their camaraderie was extremely inspiring. I also spent 13 summers working at Stagedoor Manor, a music theater program up in the Catskills. That experience was incredible because I was able to work with a different kind of kid than I had at Sullivan. These kids from New York were all the music theater stars.

Then there was going to Show Choir Camps of America with Dwight Jordan and Sue Moninger. In general, every director you run across, you should be able to learn something from. I feel like a sponge trying to pick up everybody’s knowledge.

CD: What do you do to get the kids excited about the program? 

DM: Success breeds success. I remember our first show back in 2008, our Broadway show. The kids were so proud of their vocal sound and proud of their performance and proud that they’d worked very hard. It was during Halloween weekend and I think we only sold 100 seats the last night of the performance. Overall, we sold maybe 700 seats for the production. We are at the point now that we’ve added a fourth show for all of the performances and we sold 2,700 seats for our Broadway Show this last year. Still, that first show created a buzz around campus. We always invite the staff to come to the show and they’re very supportive. They talk about the performances and eventually more people show up.

CD: What are some direct steps you take to keep your recruitment efforts strong?

DM: There are a number of ways to recruit kids into the program. Having taught grades 6-12 for so many years, I knew that it was easier when you were able to get to know kids early on and transition them into the high school program. Now that I’m only teaching in high school, I’ve had to come up with other ways of listening to different colleagues and look for many ways to get the job done. I spend a lot of time at junior high, whether I’m doing a workshop with them, choreographing a song, or teaching a song.

We’ve gone in and actually taught the middle school physical education classes where we’ve done choreography and show choirs – keeping them active, of course. I’ve also been given written recommendations from current students and teachers at the middle school for certain kids that we need to have in our program. So we write personal letters – the students and myself – to the kids at the middle schools that we feel would be great in our program.

CD: Are there specific events for which you harness your choirs’ talents that are designed to help with recruiting?

DM: We do a district choral festival with a big group number including  every boy that’s currently enrolled in choir from grades 4-12. They do a big singing and dancing performance and that’s a big deal. Also at that choral festival, our groups all perform together and for each other including all grades 4-12. That seems to be a very popular event.

We’ve also gone into the middle schools and done performances at their assemblies and spoken about the choirs there. At the high school, we’ve done a class-by-class performance where we’ll be getting ready for a show and invite the classes to come in and watch students perform. Whether it’s the kids in the classroom or the whole school, for students to see what our kids did and the success they were having onstage. The fun and pride that they shared was really incredible. And we picked up a lot of kids from that.

CD: How important is it for you just to be present in the schools and get to know the younger students?

DM: I try to get to know the kids on campus as best as I can. If I can’t get out of my classroom at lunch or after school, I at least try to communicate to the students who are already on our campus. I do think that it’s important to get kids early. If you get students as freshmen, you can keep them throughout their years. The kids that join late are always so disappointed that they didn’t join earlier.

We had a whole conversation recently in our boy’s group and some of them were talking about the letter they received from me as an 8th grader and how it made them feel so special that someone wanted them in the program. There were five boys in that group that year that would not have been there if they hadn’t received that letter. It was amazing how much a difference that one letter made in their high school career.

CD: Do you find that there’s a critical mass for the amount of boys in particular in the program to keep it moving?

DM: Yeah, but the moment you stop recruiting is the moment that your numbers start to drop. You can’t ever stop. They’re not going to run to you. Most of those boys are not going to walk into that room. You’ve got to get them in there. We had that whole talk about how the choir had changed their life, but then we started talking about their responsibilities.

CD: Do you try anything to actively instill that attitude in them?

DM: My choir director at Millikin, Richard Hoffland, told me something important after one show. We’d gone on tour in Russia and had been performing in St. Petersburg. The show was amazing and I was so moved. It was a mind-blowing experience – just singing in that choir always was, but that performance especially. So I talked to him afterwards and I asked, “How do I ever thank you?” He said, “You pay it forward. You share your talents, you give kids that skill, and that’s how you repay me.”

This year, my students and I talked about what this experience has been like for the first six weeks of the year and how our lives have already changed. They didn’t know they could have this much confidence, they didn’t know they could have this much fun. And at that point, we entered a conversation about paying it forward. I think we had 80 percent of those boys think of someone on this campus that could benefit from this program. So your kids can actually be big recruiters. The more confidence they have in the program, the more confident other students will be in a decision to join.

CD: How do you balance the need to build the program as fast as you can with the challenge of making sure the quality improves?

DM: That’s tough. Last year was the biggest leap. We grew this year as well, but it was only by about 20 kids. We’ve been doing more vocal sectionals where the basses meet, the tenors meet , the altos and sopranos meet – that way, the kids don’t get lost. All the section leaders meet with them at lunch or after school. That certainly helps. We call them “tribes” – the tenor tribe and the bass tribe and so on. We make smaller groups within the big groups and make sure they feel like they’re part of some community as well as part of a big group. It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle.

CD: Do you think formal successes like those found in regional and national competitions plays a big role in recruitment?

DM: It does help to remind people how great the choirs are, but the normal kid on campus doesn’t have any idea of who the other groups are that we go up against in competition. I think the success that really translates best is when they can actually see what the choirs can do in a show and do it really well. That’s exciting. Winning a competition is fun, but it’s not really what we’re about. Having said that, I always expect that they give a Grand Championship performance! At competitions, we just want to be the best we can be and hopefully receive some positive comments about what we were able to do.

If you’re just chasing a trophy, it’s an empty chase. I learned that along the way. When I first started teaching, it was all about getting that first place trophy, but then it really became about the experience with the kids and them growing as people.

CD: Now that you’re five years into this experience on the West Coast, what have you learned about kids that you can compare to students of yours back in the Midwest or at camps in the East?

DM: Everyone always wants to know how kids are different in California or New York or Kansas or Illinois or wherever. You know what? The kids all really just want one thing – they want to be proud of what they do. They want to fit in and be proud of who they are. Being a teenager is tough and that’s why Los Alamitos has been so successful, because it is a haven for kids that want to express themselves and be successful. People figured that out and that’s why the program keeps growing every year.

At a Glance:

Los Alamitos High School
3591 Cerritos Avenue
Los Alamitos, Calif.
On the Web: www.losalamitoschoir.com

Students in the LAHS Choir: 385
Students Enrolled at LAHS: 3,200


  • Xpressions
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  • Axcent
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  • David Moellenkamp (Director)
  • Eddy Clement (Accompanist)
  • Heather Hoppus-Werner (Choreographer)
  • April James (Choreographer)
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