OMEA Conference – “Walls Giving Way”: one choral director’s highlights

Choral Focus Article, January, 2017

Erika Lockwood, Secretary, OR ACDA
Many Portland-area music teachers were determined to get to last month’s All-State conference in Eugene, despite record snowfall in the area that closed schools and kept residents home-bound for days. Drawn by the music of the wonderful honor groups, the promise of reconnecting with colleagues and friends, and the clear roads South of the metro area, most registrants and honor choir students found their way out of the snow and to a weekend of learning!

Upon arrival Friday morning, the first session I was able to attend was “Cultivating Choral Unity in a Sea of Diversity” presented by Karen Bohart from Reynolds High School (my alma mater – go Raiders!). This session contained a solid mix of data-driven research and inspirational success stories. Karen presented the breakdown of RHS demographics including economic, ethnic diversity, students with disability, and English learners. Over the years she has been at Reynolds, Karen has been intentional about having a choir that reflects the “face of the school”. I have long admired this about Karen’s program, as well as others throughout the state, and was challenged to discover whether this was true of my own program. I found to my surprise that my choir program is reflective of the school in some categories, but in others we have a ways to go. Karen had invited an alumni to speak who had faced extreme hardship throughout high school, as do many of her students, and became a great success musically – he now has his own choir program here in Oregon!

The greatest “take-away” from her session, for me, was a reminder to re-connect to the students as people – to take notice and care for their individual goals, dreams and concerns. This week, upon

returning to school after “snowpocalypse,” I had my students write down goals they had as singers and/or for the choir, as well as something they feel is a hindrance to achieving the goal. They tore off the “hindrance” and threw it into the fire – actually, our recycle bin – as they read aloud things that held them back. Some were not a surprise to me; lost school days/rehearsals, sickness, and lack of focus. I learned that many of my students are held back by low self-confidence – far more than I had thought, giving me renewed reason to spend more time building up our singers as individuals! And, at the students’ request, I took those home and burned them in my fireplace, with a video to prove that those struggles don’t need to be in our way any longer!

On Saturday, I attended “Teaching Vocal Technique in the Choral Rehearsal” presented by Kimberly McConnell from West Salem High School. She has coined some “Domino rules” for her choirs with regard to vocal technique, teaching students that if one habit falls down, they all fall down! The order of the domino rules is:

  1. Posture
  2. Breath
  3. Support
  4. Vocal Tone
  5. Lifted soft palette (rarely and sensitively mentioned with younger students)

Her systematic approach made a lot of sense – these rules are taught in order, and used in order during each day’s warm up, building upon each skill to create a strong, healthy tone. As I returned to my classroom this week, I tried to plan my warm-ups intentionally along these lines, and found the students responded well to the building of the skills. I use a lot of head voice practice, especially with young tenors and basses to help them bridge the “gap” between head and chest voice. One young man asked, “what if it hurts when I use my head voice?” After praising him for asking the question in front of his peers, I was able to make the connection between posture, breath, support, and tone. We all practiced using our head voice without good posture, then without good breath, etc. and as we built and utilized each skill, students found the tone to be easier to achieve, and tension-free. “Was that better? Does it hurt now?”, I asked the 12th-grade bass. “No, that’s much better!” Thank you, Kimberly, for a successful 5-minute application! Next step for me is to create a poster similar to the giant banner Kimberly has in her classroom for quick reference and feedback, giving students the tools to be vocal technique specialists!

Other workshops with impact over the weekend included headliner Judy Bowers from Florida State University, whose humorous and no-nonsense approach to teaching beginning singers has grabbed my attention each time I’ve learned from her over the past several years. Her direct application of the “Rules for Expressive Singing” really take the guess work out of building musicianship in beginning and intermediate level choirs, and are wonderful reminders for musicians at any level.

All four honor choir conductors gave individualized and personal offerings of inspiration: Victor Johnson directed a marvelous middle-level treble choir, and offered directors many fun ideas for visual and tactile learning tools to demonstrate vocal techniques. Dinah Helgeson, an inspirational mentor to many of us, conducted a top-notch middle level tenor/bass choir and encouraged directors to connect with each individual singer to build relationship, tone, and community. Janet Galván led a powerful high school women’s choir, and in the director’s session emphasized the importance of thorough score study to bring out expressiveness in performance and work smarter in rehearsals. Nicole Lamartine directed a dynamic high school men’s ensemble, and compared her journey in power lifting to the goals we set as directors preparing for concerts – very timely for those of us who have lost so much rehearsal due to weather this winter!

Outstanding performance ensembles at the conference included the chamber choirs from Oregon State and University of Oregon, OSU Bella Voce, Westside Christian High School Concert Choir, and Sprague High School Concert Choir. The Alder Creek Middle School Concert Choir, Liberty High School Concert Choir, and Portland State Chamber Choir had prepared to perform at the conference but, sadly, were detained due to snow and ice.

Needless to say, the 2017 OMEA Conference was a full weekend of renewed focus, inspiration for teaching, and time with friends old and new… definitely worth the time spent shoveling out the car!

You may contact Erika Lockwood HERE