This article originally appeared in the September 2007 issue of Choral Director magazine.
In 2007, Cherry Hill (N.J.) High School West broke new ground by becoming the first school to field back-to-back winners at the International A Capella High School Championships. However, the triumphant 11-voice male ensemble, Men of Note, is far from the only group happening at this hotbed for choral achievement: the larger mixed choir, West Singers, is also nationally acclaimed.
In a recent Choral Director interview, the architect behind Cherry Hill West’s diverse and accomplished vocal music program, choral director Christine Bass, shares some insight into the approach that has transformed a modest choir of 60 students into a bustling choral department of seven ensembles and 315 students, among them the 2007 captains of CHW’s varsity football and volleyball teams.
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Christine Bass: I sang in my cherub choir in church from five years old on up, and I sang with my school choirs after that. My first mentor was Bill Rennacker, a Westminster Choir College grad who was my church choral director. He was the one who sent me to a summer camp at Westminster when I was in high school. I fell in love with the school and decided to go there to study music after high school. I chose Westminster because I knew that I would be exposed to a lot of music right away. If I liked it, I’d know immediately.
CD: Where did you grow up?
CB: I went to high school in Flint, Michigan and studied with Mr. German my freshman year. He was wonderful, but after my first year at high school he left to teach at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. That was heartbreaking for all of us in the choral program, but his successor, Mr. Dawson, came in and did a fabulous job. I remember when I was a senior saying, “I think I want to go into choral music,” he had this apprehensive look in his eye that asked, “Are you sure?” [laughs]
CD: What sparked that decision to pursue choral music?
CB: I was thinking of what I liked doing the most, and I realized it wasn’t singing with soloists; it was being involved with choirs, switching around parts and really working with people. I was either going to study sociology or choral music. I figured I would try choral music first, and it was a good fit.
CD: And you continued at Westminster Choir College?
CB: Right. I received my bachelor’s degree and a master’s in Music Education from there.
CD: What was your first experience teaching?
CB: It was in 1975 at Long Branch Junior High School, in Long Branch, N.J. I taught there for four years, until I had my first child. I resumed teaching two years later – the same position, only at the high school because the choral teacher there had retired. It was neat because the same kids I had at the junior high school two years earlier were now in high school.
I did that for two years and then stopped teaching in public schools. I taught privately and did church work for about seven years. In the fall of ’89, I ended up in Cherry Hill, N.J. I actually did my student teaching at Cherry Hill High School East, our sister school, and when there was an opening here at West, I got the job.
CD: What was the program like when you first arrived?
CB: There was a dedicated group of students, but it was small. There were only 11 boys and a total of about 60 kids. There were two choirs: a beginning group of girls and a mixed group, where the boys were. It’s funny to think now that my men’s group, Men of Note, is 11 boys – out of 96 that we have now – and I originally started out with 11 boys.
CD: There’s some symmetry there.
CB: Yep. So the program was small, but there was a lot of room for growth. For the first few years, I also worked once a week with the kids in seventh and eighth grade at our feeder schools, so I was able to bring them up to the high school. It only took a couple of years for the program to really explode – by about my third or fourth year of teaching there were roughly 350 kids at the junior school, which was out of control. We took up the whole gymnasium and had to pull out the big bleachers to have choir.
When those seventh- and eighth-grade kids started coming over to the high school, we quickly expanded to over 300 students and two fulltime choir teachers. The Board of Education was really supportive of the growth.
CD: To what do you attribute such student interest?
CB: I suppose it comes from where I think my strengths lie as a teacher, which is really teaching students how to sing. If the kids come in with a little raw talent or even minimal talent, I work at teaching them how to use their voice correctly and how to listen and sight-read.
I focus on really drilling the basics. I always record my choirs at the beginning of each year, before we do any work on scales, singing [sings out of tune in child’s voice] “Do-Re-Mi-Fa,” [laughs] I call it, “Sally Sunshine,” and it’s spread all over and out of tune. The students are so proud of themselves for being able to sing that, even though it’s often pretty mediocre. After we start working, I say, “Remember, I have that tape.” And then I play it for them the day after the Spring Concert so that they can hear, as I like to say, how I earned my paycheck. And the students always respond, “Oh my gosh – we sound so different!”
Another aspect of how the choir grew comes from doing quality music that the kids can relate to: a really diversified repertoire that fits a high school and junior high singer – music that is appealing. I know a lot of schools don’t do assemblies anymore because the audiences can be pretty rough, but we have a lot of them where we perform and I make sure that we sing pieces which the audience is going to appreciate.
CD: To say, “We find songs the audience wants to hear,” is one thing, but how do you decide what that actually is?
CB: Well, a big part of it is balance. My men’s group will do lighter, more contemporary repertoire, as will my 11-voice a capella women’s group, Fermata, but then all my other choirs, even the top groups that do the ACDA and nationals, do a really diverse mix of repertoire. My top ensemble is called West Singers and they’ll do basically college repertoire – German and French pieces, which are very tricky – and I’ll also give them a really kickin’ spiritual. For the student body, maybe we’ll do a complex rhythmic Rhystmus or something, and then we’ll sing a big spiritual, and the kids in the student body go, “Whoa!” Then I’ll put my smaller groups up there and they’ll do their lighter stuff.
This diversity of repertoire helps the kids in the choir progress from freshmen being excited about doing “Joyful Joyful” from Sister Act – which I pair with the real “Joyful Joyful,” the Beethoven chorale from the Ninth Symphony – to seniors who prefer singing Brahms. Our students develop an appetite for great choral literature.
Some people are purists, although I would not be considered one. I try to do everything, and I try to do everything well. That’s why it was so gratifying for me when Men of Note won the IACHS Championships. We’ve appeared at three national ACDA conventions and one eastern convention, but to turn around and have the boys win in a totally different genre is really neat. These are the same kids competing in both events: it’s the same students singing the Brahms and the Bernstein and then doing a really great King Singers’ arrangement of “Good Vibrations” with nine parts a capella. I love seeing the kids have the pallet of vocal textures and colors to be able to sing all those genres.
CD: Is there overlap in all of your ensembles?
CB: There is. My colleague, Jim Boeckle, and I have four curricular choirs. I teach the entry-level group, called Vocal Workshop, which includes everyone who’s starting off – mostly freshmen and sophomores. In that ensemble, there are 110 students and it meets in different classrooms because I don’t have a room big enough to hold them all, unfortunately.
CD: So you split them up?
CB: Yes, but they perform together. Then there’s an auditioned women’s ensemble of about 45-50 kids that Jim teaches. That is the first level of auditioned groups. There’s also an SATB concert choir of about 100 kids, again split into two different periods, which Jim and I team-teach. I run the top curricular group, a mixed ensemble of roughly 80 students called West Singers.
In addition to the choirs, there are rotating lessons throughout the day, so both Jim and I have a varied schedule. For these lessons, the kids will come out of an academic class once a week, in a sectional – for example, all the sopranos might meet during one week. That gives us a lot of time to work on vocal technique and the technical aspect of singing.
CD: And there are the extracurricular groups?
CB: Right. We have: the Men of Note – an 11-voice male a capella; Fermata – the 11-voice female a capella directed by Jim; and the Chamber Singers – a 24-voice mixed choir, which I direct. The Chamber group will do anything from all the early renaissance and madrigals straight on through to Take 6.
CD: Do all of these choirs have a chance to travel and compete or perform outside of the school?
CB: Yes, they do. Every year we take one big musical trip for the whole choral department, and our instrumental department usually travels with us. Only about 200 of the 315 kids are able to come, so not all the individual choirs sing, but we’ll have a combined choir, and the top groups will perform.
We’ve gone to Florida, the Bahamas, Montreal, Boston, Virginia Beach; really all over. We’ve done cruises, and we recently went on a 10-day tour of Switzerland, London, and Paris, which was really nice. Where we go depends on the demands of the program, like if we’re also doing an ACDA performance or something similar.
We also like to do competitions, but not just to try to win first place or anything like that. We make it very clear that it’s not about “beating” anybody. I say, “You have to do your best. You have no control over how good anybody else is, but you do have control over how good you make your own performance.” So it’s all about getting students to push themselves to do their best and be happy with that.
CD: How does travel benefit the students?
CB: Travel is about broadening worlds and getting to sing in front of different audiences, beyond just mom and dad at home. The students get to see if they can, in effect, move an audience that’s not necessarily waiting to be stirred or moved by them.
Having the opportunity to expose our kids to other choirs is so important. To accomplish this, we take a lot of mini-tours. For example, my top group and my boys just sang at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center with the Newark Boys Choir. We also sang recently at the Princeton chapel with three other Westminster conductors of high school choirs. Dr. Joe Miller, Westminster’s head of choral activities, conducted the group ensemble.
We also do a lot of festivals or concerts that aren’t necessarily competitions. The students will sing and they might get a rating, or they might just be able to hear the other groups, which I think is really huge – letting them hear what else is going on.
CD: Most choral directors and vocal teachers would love to know what’s going on at your program that has led to such outstanding participation, results, and stability. What is it that sets your ensembles apart?
CB: Well, I love the process of teaching. I love getting in there, taking risks and trying different things, and I also love the final product. I’m not afraid to push the kids; my students will tell you that I’m very demanding, but I also love what I do. I’m strict but I’m fun, they’ll say. I’m always raising the bar for them and I’m always demanding excellence.
A lot of people ask me, “How can you get your choir to sing in tune?” The answer I have to that is I don’t let them sing out of tune. As soon as they go out, I stop them. I don’t let my choirs practice something that’s not in pitch. As a result, the kids begin to develop a really critical ear. That’s one of the marks of my students: they have learned to listen for blend and balance and pitch. I think a lot of people don’t understand that every choir member really needs to learn how to be a great critic and listener.
I also love building the sense of community and family. My choirs will say, “We’re just like a big family, and you’re like our mom.” I love challenging high school students to emote. That can be really tricky these days, when kids are so individualized with their iPods and computers and they don’t come out to interact with other kids as much as maybe we did in my generation. It’s not easy to be in a team of singers and listen and emote and get across the real meaning of the music. I always say that music is so much more than the notes; anyone can sing the correct notes, but we have to make it music.
CD: What do you find to be most challenging about working with your choirs?
CB: Once you’ve built a program and you have the expectations to achieve at a certain level, sustaining it in the face of roadblocks is a challenge. For example, our school recently went to open enrollment and as a result, our feeder schools are not feeding directly to us – the students can choose which high school they want to attend. In response, we’ve set up a couple of things to help us maintain a healthy population, despite the school’s enrollment issues. One of the things we did is a Men’s Night Out, an idea I stole from a gal in Connecticut. (I steal ideas from everybody!) We bring in all the fifth-, sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade boys to sing with our high school boys. And of course, Men of Note sing, too. It’s a big, fun night – nothing spectacular musically, but it’s like, “Yay, sing!” So all the kids look up and say, “Wow, I want to do that!”
We also go and do a sixth-grade assembly in both of our junior schools, and an eighth-grade assembly where I take my top groups and we sing for them and talk about all of the great things that we do in our choirs. So there is a lot involved with sustaining our program in terms of recruitment and keeping a positive image.
CD: With all the success you’ve had, what’s the single-most thing that gives you pleasure as an educator?
CB: For me it’s two-fold. On the one hand, it’s the achievement of having the students be able to sing with excellence in multiple genres and a diversified repertoire. That, to me, shows that I’ve created a platform for real musicianship.
The other aspect is something that I think is the same for every music teacher: that joy that comes from when a student decides to go into music, to be an educator or performer, as a result of being in my program. This year we have nine kids going on to study music, which is just so fulfilling because it means that they can’t think of anything they love to do more. At that point, I know as an educator that I’ve really reached them. Not that everyone has to choose a profession in music, obviously, but when kids come back and say, “This is the one thing in high school that kept me going,” or, “Choir was the reason that I came to school,” it’s very satisfying.