Monday, October 18, 2021

Vox ætatis: High school choir and a GRAMMY


We reported earlier this month that Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Ill., had been named the National GRAMMY Signature School for 2013. With the recognition came a $10,000 grant for the school’s music programs.

I asked Charles Staley, fine arts chair at the high school, to select a few students to write about the qualities and traits that make Neuqua Valley’s music programs as successful and enriching for students as they are (this isn’t the first year the school won this national award).

The first set of responses I received came from Caroline Brown, a graduating senior. She performs in several vocal ensembles—Honors Varsity Chamber (curricular), Chamber Singers (women’s extracurricular), and Neuqua World Voices (extracurricular)—and participates in the school’s musical theater productions. Ms Brown also competes in horseback riding.

Below are her written answers to my questions, which I believe reflect important life skills that come out of accomplished music study and high-caliber guidance by good, caring teachers.


How did your classmates and teachers respond to the GRAMMY?

It definitely shocked a lot of people—they didn’t know that high schools could win Grammys! My peers and teachers not involved in music knew that we had a phenomenal music program, but I don’t think they understood just how extraordinary until the award was announced. After the Grammy, many of my non-music friends asked me when the next concert was because they wanted to see it for themselves!

Why does Neuqua Valley have a high participation rate in music programs?

From my own personal experience, I joined choir in elementary school because my parents encouraged me, and I think that’s how many students became involved. My parents always said that they had wished they were able to study music when they were in school, and that I should embrace this opportunity.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve realized how much being involved in music changed me: I was able to form a group of friends at a young age that remain my friends today; I found something that I was good at, gave it my all, and watched myself grow as a musician and into an adult over the years. Being in the music program allows me and my peers to find our passion and do what makes us feel accomplished at the end of the day.

How is your music education in elementary school important to your life today?

Music is unique to many other forms of study: there is never a single way to interpret something. Rather than having to read a novel and pull out a clear definition or solve an equation that only has one solution, there are countless ways to experience and interpret music.

I was able to think creatively in elementary music class. I remember drawing pictures of dancing cats when listening to a Mozart piece in elementary school, writing my own commercial jingle for Barbie dolls, and talking about why the French horn parts of the Harry Potter theme made me happy. I wasn’t able to think like that in other classes. If I hadn’t engaged my imagination that much back then, I doubt that the extent of my creativity would be anywhere near where it is today.

Instead of my directors telling the choir what a song is about, Mr Rimington and Mr Kellner often encourage them to discuss what they think it means. Earlier this year, I was thrilled when Mr Rimington asked my choir to listen to various pieces and describe what we saw when we heard it. Responses varied from natural scenes with oceans and mountains to drawings of kangaroos playing didgeridoos to images of the USA hockey team victory over the USSR in the 1980 Olympics. It was so interesting to see what everyone else was thinking: some people saw the piece as celebratory while others as more reflective or nostalgic.

That unit in choir will always be memorable—it was the one period of the day where I was able to think outside the box and use my imagination as well as get to know how my classmates use their own imaginations.

What would high school have been like if you hadn’t developed skills as a musician in elementary and middle school?

I would be so lost today! Next to high school, middle school was where my biggest stage of development occurred. I started to develop my range and vibrato, figure out what sort of music I liked best, learn sight singing, and learn more about life as a whole. Even middle school music was competitive with auditions and such, and I had to learn then that I wasn’t always going to get the solo or make the top ensemble.

If I hadn’t been able to learn that lesson then and there, I would probably be running around today thinking I was still the best singer out there, yet lacking any sort of reading ability and using a weak, underdeveloped voice. On top of that, I might also be very lonely, considering that my best friends today were all singing next to me in choir back in middle school.

How have your high school’s music teachers helped develop your skills as a musician?

For me, the most significant skill in high school that I have learned is being self-sufficient. Sure, I get to sing every day in class, but even 47 minutes five days a week is not enough to prepare me for concerts and auditions! When you’re in class, you work as an ensemble to fix bigger issues, such as blending, tuning, giving a piece its rightful color and tone. But there is also a responsibility on your shoulders to learn your pitches, fix your own tone to match everyone else, enhance your facial expressions, and pay attention to the director.

Every year, the [Illinois Music Education Association] District Festival seems to sneak up on a lot of students, but not me! I’ve learned over the years that only rehearsing the selection pieces during class will not help me in the real audition. Last summer, I spent my time learning every single piece to the best of my abilities, determining which sections were the most challenging, what made them challenging, and what I could do to make that section (and the piece as a whole) the most stylistically pleasing. When the school year began, I was not among the many students struggling to sight-read Mozart’s “Dixit Dominus” and later on went into my audition feeling confident. Even though it is not something that is elaborated on every day in class, being self-sufficient is expected of everyone in Neuqua Valley choir, because if you are not prepared, you are not putting in your best effort and you are bringing down the overall quality of the ensemble.

Has participation in your high school’s music program made you more or less confident in your abilities as a member of a team?

Participation in music has been a reality check for me at times. It can be really easy to be a diva when you’re a member of such a prestigious program, especially when you are able to watch other choirs that do not have the opportunity or ability to perform collegiate and professional-level pieces. But you cannot be a diva at Neuqua because there is always someone else wanting the lead role or a solo. Being a member in such a competitive program has taught me that I cannot and will not always win. I’ve had countless moments where I have scrolled through a cast list or ensemble list and not read my name or waited for someone to say that I got the solo and heard someone else’s name.

And I’ll admit that in those disappointing moments I often doubted my abilities as a musician and wondered why I kept trying if all I did was fail, but I’m glad that I’m here today and still trying. Even though I can’t be the best at everything I do, every attempt I make, including those outside of the music world, to get to perfection is a lesson on what to change for the next time and a chance to put myself out there.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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