Raymond Churchill, a music theatre and choir teacher at Griswold (Connecticut) High School (GHS) just completed his 21st year of teaching at Griswold High School. He serves as director of choirs and drama and works with about one third of the 600-student population on a daily basis.
“Every teacher has to find their own flavor, their own style. Not only with their philosophies, but also with how they interact with their kids. One of the philosophies that I try to adhere to is my “Bank Account” theory. I try to treat every student as if I have an account balance with them.
“Any chance I get, I try to raise that balance with genuine praise, a compliment, a pat on the back, a conversation about nothing really important, a wink or even a caring smile. I need to get that account balance as high as I can because, anyone who works with teenagers knows, every so often, you will need to make a big withdrawal. Withdrawals are fine and are part of leadership but I need to make sure that my balance stays above zero or I will lose that kid.”
Churchill teaches several classes at GHS. “We have a choral program made up of three curricular choirs and four extra-curricular choirs. The choirs that occur during the school day are a Chorus of 110, an auditioned Concert Choir of 70 and a Chamber Choir of 21.” He said his program receives strong program support from school administrators.
There are also extracurricular choirs, including a Men’s Choir of 30, a Woman’s Choir of 50 and two smaller, student run, A Capella groups. “In addition to my choral duties, I also teach Piano Theory I, Piano Theory II, and a Musical Theater class.”
Asked to shares some choral tips, Churchill said the best tips “target specific situations,” but said in general said the key to good sound production are: breath support, mouth shape, and tone placement.
- “Breath support is the mother of all vocal techniques. Nothing else matters if a singer’s sound is not connected to their breath. Vein-bulging neck singing is extremely unhealthy and will not produce a beautiful tone. A deep connection to the diaphragm/belly area is essential to sound production.”
- “Tall, not wide, vowel shapes are best for blending an ensemble and creating beautiful vowel sounds. A tall mouth with an arched soft pallet is most conducive for classical/Broadway type sounds. If a singer is seeking a more pop/jazz sound, then the soft pallet can sit down a bit but the height of the mouth should remain.”
- “Tone placement and getting the sound forward into a singer’s mask is crucial. No matter the genre, a person’s tone should never have a swallowed sound. Focusing the sound too far into the back of the throat will create a muffled sound. The ideal sound can be created by focusing the tone on the harder, bonier areas of the face such as the hard pallet, cheek bones, or nasal bones.”
How can a teacher help students learn to be leaders?
“We’ve all learned more about music by figuring out how to explain it to someone in a clear and organized way. Let the kids have that experience too. Under your guidance, let them lead, direct, adjudicate, rehearse, organize, and educate each other. Let the success of the group rest squarely on their shoulders. The success of a music program is not based on how much the teacher has bought into it but rather, how much the students have. Let them make their program, “Their Program,” and they will work twice as hard.”
Churchill was selected as a 2016 national LifeChanger of the Year winner out of more than 620 teachers, administrators, and school district employees nominated for the award from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. LifeChanger is a national program sponsored by National Life Group that annually recognizes and rewards K-12 school district educators and employees who make a difference in the lives of students by exemplifying excellence, positive influence, and leadership.
Roz Fehr, Membership Outreach Specialist, July 28, 2016. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org).