Upclose: Dream Team

SBO Staff • ChoralNovember 2011UpClose • December 1, 2011

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This pair of Shrewsbury (Mass.) choral directors make compelling educational duets.

Bonnie Narcisi and Michael Lapomardo have been teaching together at Shrewsbury High School for eleven years now with incredible results. Their singing program has ballooned since 2000 from two choirs to four, with plans to add more varied ensembles to the middle school program, and a steady stream of students making their way into All-State choirs every year.

As director of the K-12 music program, Narcisi oversees everything from choir to band and the theatre program. She’s worked at Shrewsbury schools for 13 years and, these days, teaches for two periods a day, including rehearsals with the school’s top-level-choir, the A Cappella Choir.

Lapomardo came to Shrewsbury after meeting Narcisi at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts, where he was studying and where Narcisi had earned her master’s degree. She granted him a request to student teach at Shrewsbury and soon after hired him to begin teaching lower level choirs at the school.

Within a few years, Lapomardo had taught nearly every level of students in the school system and had gotten his foot in the door at the high school program. Soon, his position as a versatile instructor began to serve as a valuable bridge in the long-term development of students in the choral program. He was able to see trends in population shifts headed to the high school and he was able to watch for the types of skills and knowledge Narcisi’s students were in need of before they became upper classmen. He now teaches three choirs (Mixed Chorus, Freshman Chorus, and Women’s Chorus), orchestra, a theatrical design class, and an electronic music class centered on using Logic Pro software.

They added the Women’s Chorus choir to accommodate a recent rise in female students and they began focusing on music literacy earlier on choral studies. Now the school enjoys a supremely accomplished group of choral students in a program that fits into a greater performing arts program including band and orchestra and theatrical arts.

Choral Director caught up with both Narcisi and Lapomardo to talk about how their method of tandem teaching has evolved into an efficient feeder system from elementary singing classes all the way up through the most advanced high school choir ensemble.

Choral Director: Let’s get started by talking about this long-developing teaching tandem relationship that you have going. Bonnie, how does having someone like Michael handling duties in the younger choirs affect how you approach your students?

Bonnie Narcisi: I think our styles are probably different, but what we’re after is similar, especially in terms of excellence of performance. Michael is a real live wire. He’s up and down and bouncing all around and singing every octave imaginable. I’m older and more reserved. [laughs]. We both have a lot of personality and we make our expectations clear to the students. I think that the fact that our goals align is a key to the success – that we’re expecting the kids to read and understand what they’re performing and that we’re expecting them to listen and adjust their sounds appropriately.

CD: When Michael started working, what was the process like to figure out how to balance those duties?

BN: He’s had a lot of different positions here but he has been at the high school full time for a number of years now. Due to budgetary issues, the whole department morphs at times, though we’ve been able to stay pretty consistent lately.

I’m sure he’ll say that he spends a lot of time on music literacy and solfège. There’s really been a focus toward that and you can’t talk enough about that. But I’d say that with the honors ensembles – the women’s group as well as the a cappella group, the emphasis is more on literature and performance. The emphasis is more on music literacy as well as performance in the other two ensembles.

CD: Was it always that way?

Michael Lapomardo: I think it takes awhile – you can’t just walk in the door and be on the same page immediately. You have to have a continual process of trying different things and seeing how they work. I’ve done a lot of that with the younger kids coming in, asking Bonnie what it is that she wants them to be ready for by the time they’re juniors and seniors. Between the different sight reading courses and the music theory courses that are out there, over the last six years I’ve been fine-tuning what they need to know by the time they leave freshman year so they’re ready for any choir.  It has taken a lot of work to see how to get that where we want it, and then we have to go through a full cycle of four years. At that point, it’s back to square one – did this work? What can we change?

CD: Michael, you sought Bonnie out after meeting her at Fitchburg State for a student teaching position at Shrewsbury and you’ve been there ever since. How has Bonnie influenced your approach to teaching?

ML: I haven’t had any outside places of teaching, but I have worked in other schools and other districts doing theater activities, which still relates because you’re seeing what other students are doing. You’re seeing what’s in their program and what’s not in their program and how it affects how you’re able to teach them. So it’s really the same thing – I’m not doing classroom music with them, but still just trying to do a show in certain districts has been a particular challenge because they don’t have the same system of having students start singing in a certain grade and charting progress so that by the time they get to high school, they’re at a particular level. Some schools don’t even have choral programs in their elementary and middle schools – they don’t have a feeder program to supply the school.

CD: As the part of the team with the most exposure to the younger students, you must have a lot of ideas for how to tailor the program to prepare them for high school choirs.

ML: Bonnie was willing to listen to what I was doing and I’m really the introductory person to the choruses. I’ve had the lower levels for seven years now. I am really settling them in, giving them knowledge and understanding of how to read and understand music. So she really listened and eventually we got everything to pass. That’s how we managed to have four choirs.

CD: How has the progression been since you started?

ML: Early on, we mapped things out because the general chorus was getting too unmanageable. There were so many girls. That’s when we decided to add a Freshman Girls Chorus so the boys could all go into the General Chorus and the girls would have their own separate chorus that would alleviate some of the size issues and make it more manageable. That was my first class at the high school.

So I did that for a couple of years and as things progressed and the middle school got stronger– they’d been through many changes but they got stronger and their class sizes became more manageable so that you were able to do more work. I then came to Bonnie and said, “Here’s my problem – I’m seeing my freshman girls starting to decline because the number of girls coming in is getting smaller and the boys starting to get stronger.” I said, “Now what I’m feeling is that there needs to be a women’s choir because the girls come in and get to do women’s music, and then never get to go back to that again.” There are many girls in the school that love women’s music because it’s so different. So I talked about putting in a women’s choir and then having all freshmen receive the same introductory lessons, learn the theory, learn the music reading, and learn what it’s like to sing at a high school before they get into a real high school choir so that the high school choirs could be at an advanced level and there would be a good feeder program to go into our program.

CD: How are the students organized as the year begins?

BN: We do a screening before course selection is supposed to take place for the next year and we evaluate all the kids in the choral program on a section of a madrigal that we have them prepare. We listen for all the usual things – breath support, tone quality, diction, articulation, and so on. We evaluate and place them not unlike how you would place students in Honors Calculus or Calculus or Math II, where we think their developmental level stands. Of course we also have to take into consideration balance and blend, so it’s a combination of the two things. But we do screen them together, which has worked very well.

CD: Do you have specific goals each year that you want the kids to accomplish, or does it change from group to group?

BN: Certainly the literature changes from year to year. I can specifically talk about the a cappella choir for this – every year you have a different group, a different sound. Some of the goals are the same. Obviously, at the beginning of the year, you want the group to gel. You want there to be a balance and blend. Then you take off from there and branch out into the different styles of literature.

CD: Has there been many long-term planning developments insofar as you getting students that Michael’s been working with for years? Is there a feedback system there that you have worked out for once you start working with those students?

BN: Yeah, for sure. We talk about that quite a bit in terms of the literacy piece. I don’ thtink we spent much time with at all early and then we saw that they need to have a better understanding of what’s on the page. Michael really latched onto that and has been diligently creating much more literate singers for sure. So that’s one place where that’s definitely been true.

CD: Did it take awhile to get on the same page as far as what the end goal for music literacy would be?

BN: I don’t think so. I think we’ve always been on the same wavelength. Like I said, part of that might be that this was really Michael’s first job, teaching here at Shrewsbury, so we kind of morphed into a unit.

It would be a lot different if someone were teaching for eight or ten years somewhere else, had developed their own total style, and then came into this system.

CD: Shrewsbury has been hosting the Massachusetts All-State and your program always has several students on the choir. What do you do to prepare students for auditions?

BN: I listen to them all again individually and assess who’s ready to go and I take as many as we can take. I actually have to post the list about who’s approved for Central District Audition, because there’s a waiting list. Then what we do is we have some master classes after school and we go over a lot of the things that will occur in the audition like the interval matching, the piece – I run those sessions like a master class. Each individual student goes up and sings his or her piece and the other students who are there will give some constructive criticism or support. I think both things are supportive, frankly, and it’s a good atmosphere.

The whole approach has kind of morphed. You try various things and end up centering on what works so you have that key to success. I think that we definitely have become more successful with that whole aspect since we do take time to extend individual attention to the kids. I’m a big proponent of listening, also, so I think it’s also important that, as singers, they become discriminating listeners. And that’s not just in the district workshop piece – that’s in the classroom, too. I frequently have the kids comment on what was good about takes or what they think we can improve on. “Why do you think this chord is out of tune?” “Oh, perhaps our vowels aren’t matching.” “Yes, that could be it!”

CD: The actual gatherings must give you a great opportunity to mingle with all types of other programs.

ML: Since we host the All-State auditions, the majority of the schools come to us and walk in and see our kids and they’ve all commented about our parents and our kids and how enthusiastic they are. We don’t care who comes in that door – we’ll take them as one of our own. Outside of that event, I just try to do everything that I can and be in more spaces than just my own because I know how powerful that is. I know how important it is to be out there and to see other schools that are in our area or in our district.

CD: Just in terms of getting face time with other students or seeing other programs?

ML: Everything. When I’m out other schools – I actually have a lot of students now that are out and working in other schools now. I see other theater programs maybe doing a show that I just want to see. And I’m always interested to see other programs to think about how to tweak ours. I’m always thinking that we’re not the end-all be-all. There’s always going to be a school that’s better than us, so how can we make this better for the kids? I’m not ever the person that will be comfortable and sit at one place and say “This is how it is and it will never change.” I’m always looking for change and always telling the kids to go out and look and see what’s around you because you’d be surprised where you fall on the spectrum. No high school is the same as the next one. It’s just not that way.

CD: What’s an example of something you picked up from another school?

ML: There’s a school that I go to every year to see one of their theatre productions because I have a friend that works there. It’s a very small school and a lot of the kids are involved in music. It’s not the best space – it’s kind of run-down, it’s old – but you walk in and they’re up there performing and loving it. I always think to myself, “These kids have nothing but they’re enjoying this. What am I missing? When I go into my school, these kids have everything at their fingertips. They have a beautiful performance space, up-to-date technology, but what is lacking?”

The thing that’s lacking in our students is sometimes the true appreciation for what you’re doing. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing – as long as you’re enjoying what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter where you are. That’s something I see in other places and it’s a problem in myself sometimes when I get lost in this world. But I love seeing other kids when they’re out there just having a great time. When my kids aren’t having a good time because it’s a belaboring job, I try to bring it in check with them. I say that I’ve been out and these other kids are doing it and love it and that I know these kids love doing it, too.

CD: Going along with the idea of making students aware of different contexts for this music, the Shrewsbury a cappella group seems to happily work in several different environments.

BN: There’s a five-star restaurant in town, The Beachwood, and during holiday time they have these brunches with Santa. We usually have quite an extended holiday repertoire and I assign different octets to go sing for those different Sundays. They circulate throughout the various rooms of the restaurant and there’s an adult there – sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s a parental chaperone – and a student leader with a pitch pipe and they do their thing.

CD: That’s really cool.

BN: Yeah, and I think that’s one of the highest levels you can bring students to, when they’re comfortable just performing independently. Certainly, I would never do that if they weren’t ready. But that also happens at the football games. They sing a four-part version of the national anthem and different quartets go on their own with a student leader with a pitch pipe and they just sing.

CD: That autonomy seems really important to the program.

ML: I don’t shape my program towards one person. I don’t send them down a track since, in my eyes, they’re my kids and if I were to drop dead and someone else had to come in, they’d be able to continue because I laid a good foundation. That’s how I approach it. I give them all kinds of background information on why it’s important to sing and what it is we’re singing about. I always talk about how it’s more than just the black and white on the page. Because that’s not what music is – music is much more than just these notes and words on a page.

Our school motto is to make these students become real independent individuals. They have to be responsible for everything that they do. We are always trying to find a way to give leadership and make that happen.

CD: That’s great to have these little units that can run themselves like that.

BN: I think the great thing about that is that when they leave here – I definitely don’t look at it like it’s the end of their choral experience at Shrewsbury High School. I think that collectively we prepare them to be successful at performing at college and out in the community. I mean, we get so many notes back from kids that they’re really excited that they have been accepted to this group or that group this a cappella ensemble or that large chorus. I post those things on the board to show that there is life after Shrewsbury High School.

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