Central High School is aptly named. It sits in the center of St. Paul and has a student body that represents many cultures, traditions, diverse both economically and socially. This diversity has been both a challenge and the joy of my eighteen years of teaching vocal music there. The goals, as you will see in the following pages, is to engage the student at whatever level they come into the program and to create challenging and measurable building blocks as they advance. Choirs, theory, individual performance are all tenets of this system.
Chamber Singers at St. Paul Hotel in 2012
SA Choir – (Natural treble voice range) freshman and new students to the Central Choir program – this class includes both beginning and intermediate students. In the curriculum for the SA Choir, students work through lessons 1-28 of “Practical Theory,” with some students progressing even further in the study. We also work through Bruce Phelps’s Sight Reading; In first semester we work through levels 1 and 2, and in second semester level 3. Students in this choir mainly work on treble choir octavos ranging from 1-4 parts, but also learn solo art songs throughout the year.
TB Choir – (Changed and changing voices) freshman and new students to the Central Choir program – this class includes both beginning and intermediate students. Curriculum for the TB Choir mirrors that of the SA Choir, with adaptations for the changed and changing voices. Students work through “Practical Theory,” Bruce Phelps Sight Reading, and sing octavos for changed/changing voices ranging from 1-4 part divisi, as well as some solo art song.
Advanced Mixed Voices – successful SA Choir and TB Choir students are selected to advance to Advanced Mixed Voices in March for the following year. Students that have participated in similar programs elsewhere may audition for Advanced Mixed Voices, and may be selected depending on their skill development, beauty of their voice, record of dependability, and the current balance of the choir (for the best experience, the voice parts need to be relatively balanced). All students must exhibit strong sight-reading skills using solfege, pass basic theory proficiency, have good intonation and part independence, and have displayed a strong work ethic and rehearsal focus through out the year in their current ensemble. Students must also have developed a beautiful, healthy singing voice.
The curriculum for the Advanced Mixed Voices choir takes the curriculum of the SA and TB Choirs, and progresses to more challenging skills in music theory, sight reading, and in the repertoire studied by the group. Students in this choir work on Lesson 29 and beyond of Practical Theory, Levels 4, 5 and 6 of the Bruce Phelps sight reading manual, and study advanced mixed literature at all levels of divisi.
Central Chamber Singers – The most rigorous choral experience for students at Central is the Chamber Sings and auditions in May each year. This group meets daily as its own class, as well as Tuesday nights from 6:30-8:30. The chamber singers perform frequently throughout the year, particularly during the December holiday season. Other performances may include a shared concert with Central’s Jazz band, participation in ACDA events and festivals, and 4AA Vocal Solo & Ensemble Contest. They are the choral department’s most visible ensemble – complete with tuxes and formals. Each singer creates a project based on Gifted and Talented curriculum that is presented or performed at the end of the year in a final Showcase. This class receives a weighted (5.0) grade.
When I first started at Central I formed a pullout group from the advanced mixed choir that was still a part of the choir, but worked additional rep in their after school rehearsal. The ensemble formed because I had received requests for a small group to come sing holiday music for their business or group. Those requests kept growing and the group selection and rehearsals became more involved. I finally separated the group from the Advanced Mixed Choir completely in 2012 and developed the curriculum for an honors chamber ensemble. I followed basic gifted and talented guidelines. The group starts the year learning about 90 minutes of holiday music that they will perform for a wide variety of audiences – businesses, retirement residents, civic groups, church groups, events, etc. Our favorite is performing for 2 hours in the St. Paul hotel lobby, usually right before break. The repertoire includes quite a few staples that all singers from the past have learned, plus a rotating body of lit, peppered with a few new pieces each year. Returning alumni often get together with current singers over break and go caroling and we invite them to join us on a few favorites when they show up to our gigs.
At the end of the year, each Chamber Singers member chooses a personal project to prepare and present in a showcase. This is probably my favorite part of the year. The main instructions are that it must have some performable, presentable product, that it must provide them with personal growth, and that it must offer a contribution to either the ensemble or the music program or Central. Some of the projects have been compositions or arrangements (three in the past have been songs in Hmong!), and several students select and direct small groups from the other choirs, or choose a piece for the chamber singers, teach it, and direct it. Others have taken on choreographing a piece for the chamber singers or another ensemble, videography of the group highlighting some aspect, etc. They are encouraged to be inventive and I’m always astounded by what they come up with. The final showcase can be rough, sometimes a bit raw – the end of the year is always a scramble, but so completely heartfelt and clearly a shining moment of their work and their passion. During it I become their cheerleader, errand runner and proud stage manager. They are completely in charge, and that is how they earn a weighted grade.
All choirs perform on the winter and spring concert. All choirs may perform for large group contest – usually in the spring. Central choirs have regularly participated in other choral festivals and outreach programs through Minnesota Chorale, Vocalessence, Cantus, Kantorei, Oratorio, One Voice Mixed Choir, local college and universities, etc. Choirs at Central have had the opportunity to perform for area businesses and organizations: Ceridian, Midway Lions Club, the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the Federal Reserve Bank, retirement residences, the St. Paul Hotel, inauguration/retirement celebrations, fundraisers, school, private and civic celebrations, etc. Central vocal musicians are composing, arranging, and premiering their own music annually. We regularly welcome guest composers and artists and are committed to commissioning new works for our ensembles. Central musicians are pursuing degrees and careers in music throughout the country and world.
Past honors and opportunities include: Yearlong residencies with Cantus, Vocalessence, The Singers Minnesota Choral Artists, festivals hosted by St. Olaf, Chanticleer, Concordia University, Minnesota Chorale, Oratorio, One Voice Mixed Choir, performances at the ACDA Fall Convention and the Choral Arts Finale.
In addition to our choral curricular opportunities, choral students at St. Paul Central High School take part in many other enriching musical experiences. All students are eligible to audition for our Drama Board Fall Musical. The production is a joint effort between teachers and students. Central students have the opportunity to apply to direct, assist and participate in all aspects of the production.
Many students at central also participate in various MSHSL contests, including Solo and ensemble contest and the Music Listening Contest. Each semester, we schedule a formal or semi-formal music department recital, along with a senior recital for soon-to-be graduates in may. Parents and friends are welcome to attend these performances as students share solo work they’ve been preparing. Central also has two groups that are auditions from the SA and TB choirs for second semester called the Minnesingers and Meistersingers which are selected by and directed by students from Chamber Singers fulfilling some of the project requirements.
Ordway Honors Choir – Advanced Mixed Voices members (10-12 graders) are eligible to audition for the Ordway Honors choir. Concert is usually the 3rd Tuesday in April each year at the Ordway.
Honors Choir Credit – A rigorous program for advanced music students requiring private study, recital performances, auditions, contest participation, professional and peer concert attendance, etc. to earn 5-point credit for choir. Students must apply at the beginning of each semester and complete the requirements before the end of the semester.
Sophomore and Junior students enrolled in Advanced Mixed Voices and Central Chamber Singers are eligible to audition for the Minnesota All State Choir. There is a rigorous recorded audition that is submitted in March and students are selected throughout the state to participate. The students attend a summer camp the 1st week of August and convene again in February to perform at Orchestra Hall during the Music Educator’s Midwinter Clinic. The fee for participating if selected is around $450. Partial, need-based scholarships are available through MMEA. Financial help may also be attained through special Central funds and by the Central Music Boosters. Each year Central vocal students have been selected to participate in all state choirs.
Central Advanced Mixed Voices, Central Chamber Singers, Orchestra, Symphonic Band, and Jazz Band students plan and fundraise for a trip that occurs every other year. TB & SA Choir students hoping to continue on in choir can participate in fundraising. Our next trip is projected for February 28-March 3, 2018. Partial scholarships will be available through an application process.
On off-tour years, the Central Orchestra, Symphonic Band, Chamber Singers & Advanced Mixed Voices have collaborated on choral/orchestral masterworks. Parents and staff have sometimes been invited to join the choir. Past projects have included Fauré’s Requiem, Vivaldi’s Gloria, Brahms’ Nänie, and others.
Most recently, the Central Music department performed We Give Thanks by Jocelyn Hagen, a work commissioned in honor of Central’s 150th Celebration in the 2016-2017 school year with the generous support of the Central Music Boosters. My colleague Matthew Oyen and I approached Jocelyn Hagen 2 summers ago to write a piece for chorus and orchestra for Central’s 150th anniversary, which we celebrated last year. She was at the top of our list, even though we knew she was in high demand, but we had a relationship with her from a Composer’s Forum grant several years back when she was fresh out of St. Olaf and beginning her graduate studies at the U of MN. She worked with a small group our students once a week for 30 minutes – bringing in friends like Tim Takach, Abbie Betinis, and Eric William Barnum, sharing her own work, and supervising the student’s compositions. She was commissioned to write a choral piece for my choir for the end of the year. That piece is “I Hear America Singing” scored for SATB choir, piano & trumpet.
Jocelyn agreed right away to write the piece for our anniversary and she found a lovely Native American prayer about gratitude and wrote “We Give Thanks” for SATB chorus, full orchestra and featuring glockenspiel and vibraphone, giving it a shimmering quality. It also has luscious melodic lines. We premiered it on my spring concert, performed it again on Matt’s orchestra concert and finally for graduation. It’s a gorgeous, shimmering work, very accessible, and perfect for high school and civic groups. We are pretty proud to have facilitated its creation and I think it deserves a long life of performances by many groups. I am not sure if she has it in her catalogue yet, but it will be soon.