When We Collaborate, We Are Stronger

Jerome Upton

This past summer, I was cleaning out my old desk to replace with a new one. In the back of one of my drawers (scrunched behind the actual drawer) was a document that was a 2000 directory of all of the Duluth Public Schools music teachers. There were 42 full time employees listed. Duluth Public Schools has gone through so many cuts to teachers and programs that in 2019, we now only have 12 full-time music teachers in our district, and a total of 17.8 FTE dedicated to district music! Of the 12 full-time teachers, only 7 teach in one building.

Fortunately for me, Duluth East High School has maintained a full-time teacher in choir band and orchestra in our building. One reason for this is that we have adopted a collaborative approach to our music department. Collaboration has been our mantra for many years, and I believe because of it, we have been able to maintain a strong and healthy music department despite the years of declining enrollment and cuts to music programming in our district. The culture of total support between choir, band, and orchestra, teachers and students alike, has allowed for all three disciplines to thrive. When we collaborate, we are stronger.

All the music rooms at East High School are together in a music suite, including practice spaces, small ensemble rooms, and the large rehearsal spaces. Because of this, our 9-12 music students are very familiar with each other. They interact far more than if our rooms were located further away from each other. They support each other at concerts, often joining more than one music ensemble. My colleagues and I meet twice a week, once in department meeting and once in a Professional Learning Community. We get along well, and often meet in the hallway between classes. We laugh a lot, joke a lot, and talk to our students and each other’s students. Our students do the same. They know each other well.

Perhaps the most culminating display of collaboration comes in December. The Duluth East Music Department prepares a Holiday Concert with the over 600 students we have in our music department 9-12. Although there is a common holiday theme in the production, the performance itself is very unique in its presentation. All 13 music ensembles are involved, yet the performance is completely collaborated.

It begins with a massed number (this year it was a student’s arrangement of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”). The piece is played by the jazz band and all of the rest of the orchestras, bands, and choirs sing from the stage, the aisles and the balcony. There’s even a group of singers located in the alcoves up high on each side. After individual performances from the Jazz Ensemble, the Choralaires (chamber choir) and the Sterling Strings (a strolling Chamber Orchestra), the stage is filled with younger ensembles from the 9th and 10th grade. They perform a set of music adapted for combined band, orchestra, and choir. Each director conducts a piece. After the intermission, the 11th and 12th grade ensembles combine to perform a piece. At the end of the concert, all performers from every grade and ensemble gather one last time for a combined number. The finale was arranged exclusively for the East Music Department by Bradley Bombardier, a 1978 graduate of East High School. In total, Bombardier has written 4 finale pieces for East High School.

The East Holiday Concert has been a collaborative effort since 1996, however in the early years, each ensemble was featured separately. This made for some very long concerts (one actually lasted 4 hours!). But in 2006, the band director, orchestra director, and I made a commitment to collaborating our music students. It took many hours of writing music, adapting band scores to choral arrangements, writing orchestral parts from a choir anthem, or writing out band parts from an orchestra score. There is not a large market for music written for combined band, choir, and orchestra!

Because of these collaborations, I was able to give my choir students the unique opportunity to perform with instrumental ensembles. The rehearsal process of putting collaborative music together is unique. I can teach them the common language that all musicians share. At the same time, they get to experience how band and orchestra students are taught.

Collaboration makes us stronger as musicians. It allows for personal growth as choral conductors, provides for unique performing opportunities, expands our literature options, challenges us to write, arrange and adapt music scores for our singers, and allows for other collaborative music experiences throughout the year.

Photos from Holiday Concert




Photo Credit: William Garnett