Although children’s choirs are quite common, the varying skill levels of students in these choirs can lead to interesting challenges for music educators. In addition to rehearsing music and guiding performances, children’s choir conductors must also teach good musical practices and hold the attention of energetic and easily-distracted pupils. Cheryl Dupont, conductor and music educator, will be leading her children’s choir and a number of others on MidAmerica Productions’ Carnegie Hall concert on May 27. We asked her to share her insight into the unique challenges presented by teaching children’s choirs:
MAP: Tell me a little bit about your musical background and how you first got into teaching children’s choirs.
CD: Well, I never intended to. Originally when I went to college, I was a pianist earning a Music Education degree, but since you can’t get a Music Education degree in just piano I started taking voice lessons. I always liked to sing but never joined a choir and when I was taking those lessons I just fell in love with it. When I went back to get my masters, I got it in conducting and continued to take tons of voice lessons over the years so it just turned out that way, but it was definitely not what I originally intended.
MAP: And how long have you been working with children’s choirs? What ages are the groups you work with?
CD: About 30 years of working with children’s choirs, but in that time I was also a high school teacher, conducted the church choir and did orchestral conducting. That’s the way musicians are, I don’t know any who don’t work multiple jobs. Currently I’m the Executive and Artistic Director of the New Orleans Children’s Chorus and that ranges from age five up through high school, although I’ve conducted up through high school and adult groups as well.
MAP: Would you say there are specific challenges that are unique to children’s choirs and younger groups?
CD: Actually it’s not all that different even though people expect it to be. You’re always tailoring what you do and how you teach based on the makeup of the group and their ability. I do find that with younger kids they are more open and more primed for learning new things. With older groups you often have bad habits that have to be unlearned or they’re slower to learn new skills.
In the NOCC we have some kids who sing in their church choir or take vocal lessons and some who don’t. I like dealing with a range of ages and ability levels because I find that it raises the younger kids and the kids with less training up rather than slow down the more advanced ones. For a while I was teaching treble groups and some of the high school kids that aged out would stay because they enjoyed the repertoire and performing with the group; there’s a mentorship there where the younger kids see the right way of doing things and pick up on it faster than if they were in a less mixed group.
MAP: Have you learned anything from leading children’s choirs that has made you a better conductor or musical leader overall?
CD: Well, I’ve been working with children’s groups and adult groups interchangeably for years so it’s a little difficult to separate. I try to meet people where they are and get people where they need to be. You have to treat people individually and try to work with several different learning styles. For me it’s not about conforming to a pre-established sound but encouraging each of them to help get them to their best skill as an individual. Sometimes to reach the pre-conceived sound you have in your head you’d have to teach bad habits, and I don’t want to do that. It’s more important to help each person become a better musician.
MAP: Agreed. Lastly, what advice would you give a first-time children’s choir director?
CD: Two things: first, make sure you have the training you need to feel confident, whatever that is. I took voice lessons and kept seeking the skills I needed to feel like I was able to teach effectively. Secondly, prepare. Study your scores and know the music and how you’re going to teach it so that you don’t waste your time or the kids’ time. Kids will know if you don’t know your stuff and they aren’t afraid to call you out on it. They might be nice about it but they’ll say “hey, I don’t think that’s right.” Really they’re both the same thing: you have to be prepared.
Upcoming Children’s Choir Concert in Carnegie Hall
Cheryl Dupont is the Executive and Artistic Director of the New Orleans Children’s Chorus, among other appointments and guest conductor positions. She will be co-conducting a concert with fellow children’s choir director Ruth Dwyer on May 27, 2017 in Carnegie Hall. Dwyer will lead the two choirs in performances of Rogers & Hammerstein’s “It’s a Grand Night for Singing,” Cynthia Baney’s “Honor,” and “America the Beautiful,” and Dupont will lead the choirs in performances of Gwyneth Walker’s “How Can I Keep from Singing,” Bob Chilcott’s “This Day,” and David Brunner’s “A Living Song.” The concert will also include a performance of Orff’s Carmina Burana by the Orange Community Master Chorale, Orange High School Choir, and Symphony Irvine under the baton of Michael Short.
Over the past 34 years, MidAmerica Productions has staged over 1300 concerts worldwide including several world, US, and New York premieres. To have your ensemble join our upcoming season, call us at 212-239-0205 or visit our website at www.midamerica-music.com.