It’s Sunday night and I just got home from a three-hour rehearsal with a small group of Champlin Park High School students and others from across our Northwest Suburban Conference, preparing for our conference music festival to be held in early February.
I’m now a week late in getting this piece to Dr. Carrick who flattered me in August (yes, five months ago) with this opportunity to reflect on the amazing community of singers with whom I spend each weekday–and the occasional weekend. I spent the last week writing what I thought belonged here–some 1,173 words that checked every box my years as a choral director told me should be included. And then I deleted it and started over.
You see, a couple of years ago a student nominated me for an Above and Beyond Award, a district honor recognizing the impact that teachers have on the lives of their students. I was asked (oddly) to provide my own rationale for being nominated. I turned in an exhaustive list of degrees, honors, clinics, tours, and major works from my career and never heard another word about the award. I moved on, baffled by how such a litany of accolades hadn’t impressed the selection committee. “What more should I be doing for our program?” I wondered.
Naturally, when ACDA Minnesota asked me to “highlight some of [our] student/ensemble successes” I dusted off the accolades and wove them into what sounded like an academic paper. Then I remembered that award nomination and my later realization that the number of singers in our program, the number of All-State participants we have each year, the prestigious stages we’ve performed on, and the incredible clinicians with whom we’ve worked aren’t the true meaning of ‘above and beyond’ or the true pillars of a ‘star program.’
Instead, here are a few of the student and ensemble successes we value most in the Champlin Park High School vocal music family.
Before 7:40 each morning, more than 2,500 students fill the halls of Champlin Park and I get to start the day with one of my best friends. Josh Palmquist, who joined me in 2019 to co-lead the vocal music program, is an incredible human and we are so fortunate to have his light in our program. He is a gifted musician, a skilled educator, a dynamic leader, and is truly student-centered in his work. Our collaboration is a prerequisite to other successes.
As our auditioned honors-level mixed choir leaves their coffee drinks by the door and heads for their seats, they leave their phones in a caddy by the door without grumbling, appreciating (after the first week or so) the opportunity to be free of the distraction and obligation and anxiety that otherwise accompanies their hands and pockets all day. A phone in a numbered pocket serves as a proxy for attendance, taken by elected student officers, that allows me to start class on time.
After reviewing daily learning objectives and a few announcements, we focus on voice building, using this opportunity to warm up our instruments while bringing intentional focus to healthy and efficient vocal production. With about 20 students taking private voice lessons outside of school, our voice building allows every singer in our program the opportunity for a mini lesson each day.
As we dig into repertoire for an upcoming performance, student section leaders assist with sectional rehearsals while Josh and I make the rounds to more deeply assist smaller groups of students. We’ll do the same during the second period of the day when Josh leads our honors-level treble choir.
The remainder of the school day finds us leading three additional ensembles, two music seminars, and frantically inhaling some lunch with our instrumental colleagues in a tiny office, a routine that has become a joy. It’s made even better on the days when a small group of students who haven’t found a cafeteria home bring their lunch to our office and plop on the floor while filling us in on the latest news (and dances, and challenges, and disasters) from their social feeds.
As the school day ends, we take up our obligatory hall monitor positions on cafeteria tables just outside the choir room and begin our daily ritual of high fives and check ins with students as they pass, pausing for a few minutes to celebrate with their choir teachers a successful math test, a chemistry lab victory, or a new relationship milestone. Many will duck into the choir room for a few minutes around the piano en route to the coat racks we’ve placed in the corner, giving our lockerless students one more opportunity to spend a few minutes with their music people before the day is done.
Rehearsals for the seasonal caroling ensemble, one of four theatre productions, or Rebelution, our vocal jazz ensemble, bookend the day, along with preparing students for auditions and honor choirs. Thanks to the incredible work of Ruth Morgan and her colleagues at Jackson Middle School, singers arrive at Champlin Park loving music and having learned to work hard in its preparation. Thanks to the hard work of our students and the commitment they bring to making music with integrity, we’ve shared many powerful moments over the years, from the Minnesota premier of We Can Mend the Sky to our Annual Holiday Concert tradition of welcoming alumni back to sing Hope for Resolution.
But the true success is the peace we see on our students’ faces when they come into the music area, knowing they have a music community that cares for them. The choir room at Champlin Park, like at many schools, is a truly welcoming space where students are safe to be who they are, use their voices in meaningful ways, and find joy in a community of vulnerable, dedicated, and affirming artists.
If the impact of COVID-19 on our music classroom (and let’s be honest, on our registration numbers) has taught us anything at Champlin Park, it’s that our commitment to affirming community is the key to student and ensemble success.
By making simple updates to ensemble names and concert attire requirements, we can affirm singers of all gender identities. By identifying festival, exchange, and special performance opportunities at each curricular level, we can affirm singers of all abilities. By adapting rehearsal and performance schedules to acknowledge championship opportunities, we can affirm singers who are also star athletes. By offering phone chargers, coat racks, real Kleenex, and an open door, we can affirm the needs of students who don’t have an in-school home. By recording and live streaming all of our performances, we can affirm our student’s champions who cannot attend. And by working with our vocal music association to provide participation scholarships and concert tickets to those in need, we can affirm every student’s participation regardless of financial capacity.
On days when we’re struggling to find the energy to go above and beyond, we remind ourselves that the affirming community we center each day has led to strong, successful students who have a home in our classroom and have found meaning in their voice, and that’s the student success that’s most important in our star program.