• Vanessa Allen mixes praise with technique instruction for her Alger Middle School choir members
  • Allen ends a song by bringing out a long “hallelujah” from her singers
  • The Countryside Elementary School choir has grown to include 122 members
  • Following Allen’s example in adopting proper posture for singing are, from left, Jaeshawn Cooper, Aryana Bailey, Makenzee Powell and Olivia Wilson-Johnson
  • Allen directs from the keyboard during a recent choir class
  • Students rehearse twice a week before school, learning many songs to perform

‘Free to Try, Free to Do Your Best’

Choir Programs Crescendo with Strong Leadership

by Erin Albanese and Charles Honey  

For some students, inspiration came from a science teacher's lesson on the expanding universe. For others, it was reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" for the first time. And for others, it was finding their voice in the school choir.

Many famed singers, such as Al Green of Grand Rapids' former South High School, first discovered their vocal gifts in school choirs. But many more simply found a joy in singing that made them look forward to school each day, and stayed with them for the rest of their lives.

Today, School News Network visits two school choirs, whose directors have built strong programs through high standards, public performances and tapping into students' love of song.

Editor's Note: State of the Arts: Learning's Overlooked Ally is a continuing series of School News Network

Countryside students joined the Metropolitan Choir of Praise at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in DecemberCountryside Elementary, Byron Center

Students clad in their choir T-shirts created a sea of orange on a recent Thursday morning, as they stood on risers and sang, "Celebrate what you celebrate!" Director Mark Shepard led his students as their voices merged in harmony, their mouths shaped in perfect "o's."

The 122 third- and fourth-graders are learning to sing, arriving at school early twice a week and preparing to perform, both for parents and peers in school assemblies and at major events in big venues. Shepard, a choir director for 30 years, has organized performances for his students with well-known singers and adult choirs, at churches, festivals and events, knowing his students will step up to every occasion.

In December, they performed with the Metropolitan Choir of Praise, singing "A Midnight Clear in Bethlehem" -- which is partly in Italian -- at St. Andrew's Cathedral in downtown Grand Rapids. They also joined well-known soprano soloist Diane Penning in performing "O Holy Night" and "My Favorite Things."

Even Shepard was impressed. "The kids just adjusted to singing a song like 'O Holy Night' with a soloist," he said. "It was a song they weren't that familiar with, yet they learned the song, learned to appreciate it and they were able to sing it with a soloist."

'(Music) makes us have empathy for others. It's a way to express ourselves. It's what makes us human.' -- Vanessa Allen, GRPS choir director

They are cooperative and eager to learn, he said. "They don't have preconceived ideas about how they should sound. They are very willing to try whatever you ask them to try. Therefore you can have very high expectations, and they will rise to those expectations.

"You can do some excellent things even with young kids," he added. "I just appreciate their flexibility and their willingness. I'm impressed with how quickly they learn."

'A Lot of Great Songs'

Shepard has served as Countryside's director for six years, tapping into students' natural enjoyment of music. The program has grown steadily from 80 students two years ago to 96 last year.

"It's fun because we get to go to many different places and sing to many different people," said fourth-grader Cole Brechting. Added third-grader Holly Lawrence, "I like how we go on stage and sing a lot of great songs."

Shepard, who also performs with the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, has previously served as choir director at Byron Center High School; at Valleywood Middle School in Kentwood Public Schools; and at Berkley High School, near Detroit.

Countryside's choir has also performed at First United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, at the school's annual Veterans Day Assembly, and at Fifth Third Ballpark. They will join choir students from across the district during the Festival of Voices in April.

"The students love music; they love singing," Shephard said. "We try to do some really fun music but also some really quality music."

In Byron Center, Brown and Marshall Elementary schools also have strong choir programs, creating a foundation of talented and experienced singers for Nickels Intermediate, West Middle and Byron Center High School.

Countryside Elementary students always exceed expectations, says choir director Mark Shepard

Allen built a strong choir program at Ottawa Hills High SchoolAlger Middle School, Grand Rapids

In the choir room of Alger Middle School, Vanessa Allen is swaying side-to-side along with 18 students, singing "I Will Get There" by Boyz II Men over a mellow instrumental track.

"Get there," the students sing, warmly. "Good, breathe!" Allen exhorts them, and sucks in a deep breath. "Get there," they repeat. "Good!" she encourages. "That's you how do your preparation: attack and release."

The veteran choir teacher continues to mix praise with instruction as they sing the inspirational ballad: "I will get there somehow, cross that river. Nothing's stopping me now. I will get through the night and make it through to the other side."

It's an inspiring private performance, with students holding their heads high and shoulders squared. They follow Allen's lead as she reminds them to keep their chins up and mouths oblong. Although they are studying for an exam, the choir members seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Makenzee Powell certainly is. "I just like having fun with everybody," the eighth-grader says, adding that experiencing different cultures through song is part of the fun. She also likes singing out in the community, and helped to write and record a song about bullying. But she admits she didn't like choir until this teacher came along.

"Miss Allen actually does care, and she makes sure that we're OK and that we understand," Makenzee adds.
Getting to know her students, and caring about what they care about, are essential to building a strong choir program, says Allen, a 20-year GRPS veteran who also teaches at Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy.

"This room is like a safe haven," Allen says as students work on writing a song on piano. "You can feel free to be yourself, but within these boundaries. Feeling free to try, free to do your best."

High Expectations and 'Non-Negotiables'

She looks for songs she knows students like, and lets them choose some of their own adapted to reworked, positive lyrics, finding that music culturally relevant to students helps them learn and apply vocal techniques. But she mixes those "want-to's" with "have-to's," such as classical pieces and Swahili/English songs. And she is a stickler about "non-negotiables," such as singing in tune, understanding notation and respecting themselves and others.

"I have high expectations for them," says Allen, whose choirs include special-education students. "I always push them way further than they think they can go."

That philosophy helped her rebuild a first-rate choir program at Ottawa Hills High School, where she taught for 18 years. Her three choirs included the Salt & Pepper Chorale, an audition ensemble that performed in national competitions and in venues ranging from New York and Toronto to Disney World, where they placed third nationally in their category.

She has kept that traveling tradition since coming to Alger last school year. Her students sang at the Martin Luther King Day service at New Hope Baptist Church, at a GRPS citywide vocal music spectacular at Ottawa Hills, and for passengers disembarking at Gerald R. Ford International Airport. They will perform at Michigan's Adventure in May.

'The students love music; they love singing.' -- Mark Shephard, Countryside Elementary choir director

At the same time, she's had to contend with arts programs being bumped after school under the previous superintendent, and with budget cuts that often pit music classes against courses for high achievers. "I sometimes have to fight to get them in choir, because sometimes those are our best kids."

The fight is worth it, she says, both for the arts' academic benefits and music's intrinsic value. "It makes us have empathy for others. It's a way to express ourselves. ... It's what makes us human.

"I want them to just enjoy singing music," she adds. "I hear it all over the building, because kids walk out of here singing."

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Countryside Elementary School

Alger Middle School

A little dancing helps get the rhythm of the song into students’ bones

Submitted on: February 10th 2017

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