Even before TV shows like Glee and High School Musical: The Musical became all the rage, local students were singing their hearts out in their school choruses. While the performances may not be as over-the-top as viewers see in the TV programs, local chorus groups pack in the crowds and wow audiences with their sheer talent.
The benefits of music education in K-12 schools are well-documented. It boosts mood, fosters creativity and collaboration, and supports brain development. However, participation in chorus falls outside most K-12 music education programs. It’s considered an elective course by most schools, so students have the option of taking part.
Despite the optional nature of school choral programs, most are holding steady in the number of students who join. At Shaler Area High School, 120 students are currently enrolled in the choral program.
“The program has been holding steady through all of the changes that we’ve seen in society,” said Kristin Tepshich, Shaler Area High School director of choirs. “We have had years where there were as many as 230 students when graduating classes were larger. We have also had years where there were 105 performing choir students. This year, we are starting to see a rise in numbers after the past few years of uncertainty.”
At Pine-Richland High School, music teacher and choral director Lee Rickard said that COVID hit the program hard over the last two years, creating some challenges for participation and performances. “It was extraordinarily difficult to translate our curriculum to an online model that came close to representing the feeling of singing collaboratively with a room full of other kids,” he said. “We maintained the kids who absolutely love to sing, but we lost kids who may have ‘liked’ to sing but had no interest in an online model during COVID. And sadly, once they have found something to fill that void, it’s very difficult to bring them back in.”
At North Allegheny Senior High, choir director and music teacher David Schmiech said that NA has had a “large and well-supported program for over two decades.” Like other schools, NA’s numbers dipped slightly during the pandemic because of the restrictions on in-person practices and performances.
“Our numbers are already returning now that we are back to singing and performing,” said Schmiech, adding that there are now just under 300 members in the 9-12 choir program.
Despite the challenges, music teachers and choral directors work hard to build programs that draw students in and foster their love of singing. For students who plan to pursue careers in music, participating in school music programs can be an essential building block.
Shaler Area starts its choral curriculum in fifth grade, said Tepshich. Once students hit sixth grade, they have the option to audition to be a part of the SAES Singers. “This ensemble typically meets outside of the scheduled school day (or during flex time) and performs around the community,” she explained.
When students enter middle school, they have grade-level-specific ensembles. Once in high school, students have the option to audition for two honors level choirs—the Honors Women’s Chorus and the Honors Chamber Choir—or to enroll in Shaler Area’s nonaudition Concert Choir. All high school choirs are comprised of grades 9-12.
Rickard said that Pine-Richland starts its choral curriculum in the fourth grade. “We are fortunate to have a group at every level thereafter,” he added.
Eden Hall Upper Elementary separates fourth, fifth and sixth grade choirs, while the middle school has two separate age-specific choirs for seventh and eighth grade students. “Our high school has four curricular choirs: Freshmen Choir, Concert Choir, Women’s Ensemble, and Chamber Singers,” Rickard added. Additionally, Pine-Richland has two extracurricular choirs at both the middle and high schools.
North Allegheny has choirs at all levels, starting with grades four and five at the elementary schools, said Schmiech. The choral program progresses through the grades:
Middle School (grades 6-8) fulfills music requirement of either band, chorus, orchestra or general music.
High School (9-12) offers choir courses at various levels as an elective, with placement by audition only.
Mixed Voice Ensembles for grades 9 and 10, and combined 11-12; two treble ensembles (grades 9, 10, 11, and 12); and an Honors Chamber Choir.
When it comes to musical selections for student chorus performances, choral directors and music teachers extend great effort to find pieces that stretch their student performers’ musical abilities.
Rickard said choosing music is probably the most important step in the process of choral education. “Our directors take great care in performing a variety of music that includes repertoire from a wide spectrum of historical and cultural backgrounds,” he said. “We believe that to educate kids on choral music, they need to know and be able to perform a wide variety of musical styles and genres.”
The process of choosing choir repertoire starts long before the school year begins at Shaler Area. As Tepshich looks at the full scope of the choral curriculum, she makes a list of key concepts and benchmarks that her students should be exposed to and be able to perform.
“This list consists of some foundational choral necessities, such as singing in various foreign languages, studying repertoire from varying time periods, and being exposed to repertoire that spans various genres, cultures, and ethnicities,” she explained.
Schmiech said that North Allegheny’s repertoire is carefully chosen to represent a well-rounded music education regarding historical periods, cultures, and composers who bear significance to the choral tradition. “We are careful to select music that represents and challenges the strengths of our singers’ skills and backgrounds so that our students are successful in performance,” he said.
Each song chosen by a choral director or music teacher exposes students to theory concepts, different modalities, varying time signatures, rhythmic complexity, melodic and intervallic complexity, and voice arrangements. The goal is to provide a well-rounded choral experience.
One thing that both Shaler Area and Pine-Richland share is the inclusivity of their choral programs. While students must try out to be in the chorus, there is always a place for every student who loves to sing.
“One of our proudest aspects of our curriculum is that there truly is a place for everyone and every ability, from the novice to the future music professional,” said Rickard. “We never turn anyone away who wants to sing.”
Shaler Area offers both credit and elective choral options, Tepshich said. “Choir is a place for everyone and anyone. We have auditions in which students perform advanced repertoire and are given credit for an honors-level course. Our nonaudition choirs are a credit class. All choir classes are considered electives.”
Community members interested in checking out local choral groups can attend their traditional winter and spring choral concerts.
Additionally, Pine-Richland’s choral groups perform at major concerts throughout the school year. “Depending on the group, we perform at various community functions or outside venues, including spring performance trips to Disney or New York City,” said Rickard. “Our middle school annually performs at a choral competition each spring, and we have a number of students who participate in the high school level of PMEA District/Region/State Choir.”
North Allegheny’s student choirs perform at two major concerts each year at the school, with additional performance opportunities. “These include adjudications through invitationals and on spring trips, performances at Disney, and district banquets and events,” said Schmiech. “Our students audition to place and perform with PMEA district, regional and state festivals, as well as NAFME All-Nationals.”
Each year brings a different set of performance opportunities for Shaler Area choral group members, said Tepshich. “We try to give our students as many opportunities to serve the community and school as possible.”