Choro in Schola Fills Music Education Gap

Bruce Browne leads Choro in Schola.

Bruce Browne leads Choro in Schola.

By JANA HANCHETT

“I want you all to conduct yourselves and see what happens,” Bruce Browne told Gresham’s Centennial High School mixed choir. As the students began moving to the music, Browne suddenly stopped and pointed to a tenor: “This young man right here! He’s got it! Come up front and show them how you’re moving!”

Red-faced but pleased, the tenor demonstrated his fluid hand motions, and as all the students began imitating the natural flow of the phrase, the stodginess of Mendelssohn’s Grant us Peace suddenly lifted to reveal refreshing vibrancy. This fabulous teaching moment captures the musical inspiration that Browne and Choro in Schola provide to Portland-area high school choirs that are struggling to maintain high quality music instruction because of budget cuts to the public school system.

In 2012, after learning that Beaverton district schools experienced a $33 million budget reduction, Browne (full disclosure: a frequent contributor to Oregon ArtsWatch) began visiting schools to assess the needs of choir directors and their students resulting from these budget cuts. As Emeritus Professor of Choral and Vocal Music at Portland State University, Browne has traveled the world coaching choirs and was recently awarded for outstanding Leadership and Service to the Northwest ACDA.

As his concern grew over the impact of budget cuts on music education in the public school system, Browne gathered some of the best voices in Portland choral music at a tavern outside of Portland State University that very summer. How, Browne asked, could professional singers step into the music vacuum created by budget cuts in Portland public schools? Brainstorming over drinks, Browne and the sixteen professional vocalists decided they could present to high school choirs both artistic vision and steps towards vocal excellence.

Calling themselves “Choro in Schola,” these professional singers, who already perform with the Oregon Symphony, Cappella Romana, The Ensemble, Resonance Ensemble, In Mulieribus, and local colleges, formed yet another a vocal ensemble — this time with the purpose of performing live for high school students and coaching them on their repertoire. Each workshop begins with a short performance by CiS of repertoire specific to high school abilities. Browne and the members of Choro in Schola then coach the participating high school students on the pieces they are currently studying.

Since that first meeting in the summer of 2012, CiS and music director Browne have facilitated seven workshops with nine Portland-area high schools. Now with 25 participating singers and equipped with 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, CiS is looking to expand its workshops to more high schools, even into Bend and Salem, depending on their own ability to raise funds.

Budget Cuts Hit Hard

Why is such a program needed in Oregon schools? “The budget cuts have had heartbreaking consequences,” said CiS board member and soprano Mel Downie Robinson, also a member of The Ensemble and who has performed with Portland Baroque Orchestra and Third Angle New Music. Gresham High School choir director Janine Kirstein, an alto in Choro, explained the day-to-day struggle of dealing with school music program budget cuts: “We went to a seven period day where class is only 50 minutes instead of 80 minutes. Students now have to choose between choir or band, student leadership, drama, and many other electives. All programs have unfortunately lost students. The new schedule has also pushed my ensemble [class] to 6:40 a.m. every day, an extremely difficult time for any choir ensemble to rehearse!”

While recent measures such as the Arts Education and Access Income Tax that Portland voters approved in 2012 are helping, at least at the elementary school level, CiS fills a vital role in meeting the educational needs of students learning music.

“The cuts at the lower levels five years ago hurt our numbers at high school,” explained Centennial choir director Julia Voorhies. “We were seeing less involvement and also lower levels of music knowledge. However, with the arts tax that passed in Portland to help with music costs, our elementary program has been revitalized. We have seen significant increases in student involvement over the last few years in our program, but the district still lacks the funding to create more classes to better serve our students’ needs.”

No other program like CiS exists in Oregon; the National American Choral Directors Association knows of no other US group with similar aims in and so have asked Browne to write about CiS’s history, goals, and progress.

Paying Dividends

The organization’s biggest workshop to date happened last month when mixed choirs from four big high schools— Centennial High School from Gresham, David Douglas High School from SE Portland, Gresham High School, and Reynolds High School from Troutdale—gathered at Centennial for two hours, listening to each other and getting mini-coaching sessions from Browne.

“Watching Dr. Browne coach the other choirs on technique really helped me think about my own singing even though I wasn’t on stage with them,” said Caitlyn Douglas, an alto from Centennial.

As Douglas watched, Browne addressed Gresham High School choristers working on acclaimed young Latvian composer Eriks Ešenvalds’ Long Road. “Do you love this piece?” The students nodded. “Then let’s see it!” With this simple challenge, the students’ eyes lit up, their dynamics expanded, and their expressiveness sharpened. Clearly engaged in the learning process, the students raised their hands eagerly to offer advice on tempo, dynamics, and blend; they cheered for each other, and jumped on stage when it was their turn.

While the benefits of studying with CiS begin accruing immediately—the change was audible and dramatic in this rehearsal—the program also gives students a vision of where music can take them in the future. “A huge benefit of Choro in Schola is that the students can finally hear and visualize their end goal,” said Christopher Silva, choir director at David Douglas High School, whose mixed choir constituted 89 out of the 300 students participating in the evening workshop.  “I loved the amazing powerhouse sound that came from CiS,” agreed Daniel Rydell, a tenor from Centennial. “The experience was quite eye-opening to the possibilities of an entire choir that is skilled, dedicated, and committed.”

Encountering CiS members also inspires students’ life choices. “Listening to CiS helped me examine myself as a singer rather than just viewing myself as a whole group,” explained Douglas. “CiS had fewer members than us, but the sound that each individual produced was so phenomenal. That really makes me want to step it up! Their performance solidified for me that I want to sing outside of high school.”

 Kirstein thinks the benefits can last a lifetime. “Seeing adults continue to sing and perform past high school gives the students a sense that singing in a choir can be a lifelong passion that can continue into the future.”

CiS is taking a break for the summer but stay tuned as they gear up for their fall workshops.

How have you seen budget cuts affect music education in schools? What solutions have you seen or been a part of?

 Jana Hanchett is a teacher, writer, and pianist living in Portland.

Want to read more about Oregon music and arts education? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

One Response.

  1. Andrea Rose says:

    I am so elated about this! I don’t know what I would have done without music in school. It was such a great outlet for me. As a former choral student of Dr. Browne, there isn’t a better person on the planet to make this happen! THANK YOU to all CiS participants. Our students are in desperate need of your expertise and zeal for music!

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