My name is Bradley Beale, and I teach 7-12 choir and general music in Foley, MN. In the beginning of March, I had the great fortune to attend the Central/North Central ACDA Conference in Milwaukee courtesy of the FMC Endowment Fund. In my career, I’ve always made it a priority to attend ACDA events; anyone who has attended knows how profession-reaffirming they can be. It’s hard to articulate just how influential the performances, sessions, meals, and coffee breaks can be, especially for a young director.

Without a doubt, this conference was no different. As we find ourselves now in the age of social distancing and e-learning, it can be very easy to be overwhelmed with the task ahead of us. How can we take choir, an entity that is defined by interpersonal connection and emotional nuance, and move it into a space that so often seems to lack those things? Fortunately, the Milwaukee conference was a reminder that our students need us to be at our very best during this time, and re-filled my cup to tackle these challenges head-on.

Highlights from the conference included: Stephen Sieck’s session “Othering and Inclusion and the Choral Experience”, Linn-Mar High School’s “Bella Voce” performance, and Zach Durlam’s session “Vocal Pedagogy in the Choral Classroom.” The most powerful events of the conference took place on Wednesday, or “Inclusion Day.” This day was set aside for presentations and performances centered on making music accessible to students of all abilities and backgrounds. I found two ensembles in particular to be especially inspiring: New Trier High School’s “High Five” Choir and VocalEssence “Singers of this Age.”

The “High Five” Choir is made up of about 90 students of varying abilities, 15 Educational Assistants, a sign language interpreter, a speech pathologist, accompanist, and a director. The director uses the universal design for learning model to ensure that all of the students (including deaf, non-verbal, autistic, Down’s, etc.) can be integral parts of a musical experience. This means using iPads, instruments, choreography, and other techniques to get them involved, and let me tell you: I have NEVER seen kids having more fun while performing. It was a fantastic reminder for me that music-making allows our students to truly be themselves and see beyond the minutiae of school life.

Minnesota’s own VocalEssence “Singers of this Age” was another great reminder of this. As G. Phillip Shoultz and his singers talked us through everything from the audition process to selecting repertoire, it was evident that their experience went well beyond notes and rhythms. Students talked about the issues of their world, the impact of their friendships, and how their singing allowed them to access both. More than anything, it was clear that they have made a conscious decision to build relationships, access choral music in a variety of ways, and move beyond the music. One quote from Mr. Shoultz has stuck with me: “The way you cultivate relationships has a direct correlation on the depth of your impact.”

So as we make our way towards the end of the school year (whatever that looks like for you), I urge you to take advantage of ACDA resources, lean on others, and remember how important music is to our students. Be the teacher they need us to be!