May 10, 2019 - 4:30 PM
Okay friend! This keeps circling in my head - so here I go:
A HUGE part of our Roosevelt Community and culture right now is INCLUSIVITY. And it is organic... grown from the hearts of student leadership. Let me expand - which means WARNING.... long STORY-filled email coming your way:
We have had inclusive choirs in all of my time at Roosevelt. I have had a number of students of all abilities (including but not limited to Down Syndrome, Autism, Anxiety Disorders, significant learning challenges, wheelchair confinement, etc.) in my non-audition Mixed Chorus classroom for all of my years here.
One of my favorite choir stories, as a matter of fact, was just a year ago. We had a senior named Ryker who had sung in choir all of middle school and high school. Ryker has Down Syndrome and a heart of PURE GOLD. When he sang as a 6th-11th grader, he sang ONE note loud and proud with a smile on his face which was contagious to all around him. His note didn't tune, but it was easy to "hide" when he mumbled it in a choir of 180 voices. Then, in the middle of his senior year, not only did he begin to sing the actual words and rhythms of the songs - just a beat behind - but he also while doing sirens in warm-ups surprised himself and found his upper register! The whole room stopped and looked at him... he smiled and did it again... and from that day forward, sang everything with his "high" voice - a beat behind - with never ending satisfaction with himself! This was a little harder to disguise, of course, and as we prepared ourselves for contest, we had a conversation as a choir. Do we ask Ryker to sing more quietly in an effort to check off the ratings boxes, or do we decide for ourselves as a community how music is defined for us and what we chose to celebrate? Well, the answer was a no brainer. The community chose to embrace the milestone of their singing brother and smile with him as he sang his praises at contest. I approached the adjudicators before the performance and let them know of the situation and what the choir had deemed important that day and welcomed them to rate us as they felt necessary. They loved it. The choir department also voted for Ryker to win our coveted "Heart of Ben" award last year - given to a singer in the department that makes a difference for others.
Last year, our student council approached administration about the possibility of Roosevelt starting a Best Buddies program. It pairs students of all abilities together twice a month - so students in the special education setting have a social life with those in regular education classes. They can do activities together, dine together, some have even gone to games together, etc. It is like a mentoring program, but with the goal of the pairs being more equals. The program became wildly popular very quickly and the student body here (who have also voted for homecoming kings that represented students with special needs on more than one occasion) are very inclusive by nature. There have also been pep rallies that have featured air guitar players and "dancers" from the special education department as a feature! We Are Roosevelt. We Are One. This been our school mantra for the past three years.
Because of the inclusive culture currently being sewn here, student council again approached administration this most recent fall with the request of piloting Roosevelt as an "Integrated Sports" school. The objective is creating sports teams including athletes of all abilities, with a coach, practices and games. Volleyball and Basketball jumped on board and tried it on this year with some practices and one game each. The other department to jump on board and pilot an idea was choir... we started an integrated show choir called "Unity, Inc." We had an overwhelming response of around 60 students of all abilities, paired up for about eight rehearsals and two performances. This was a year of trying on dancing only, but next year, we plan to rehearse October through January learning vocals and choreography and register them with our other three groups at Best of Show across town at WHS during the regular season. Students and families are SO excited! We were honored to introduce the spring pilot performance of Roosevelt's newest show choir, "Unity, Inc." The humans of ALL ABILITIES put this choreography together in three short rehearsals!
So... deep breath... as I think of innovative and inspiring programming that falls under the North Central/Central ACDA conference theme of "Joining Voices," giving and voice to the underserved and wonder what that authentically means to Roosevelt, I can't help but wonder what it would look like to collaborate on a creation that presses us (and others) to consider joining the voices of a choir striving for perfection and the voices of those wanting to be included? What would it sound like for an advanced choir to include/feature guest artist(s) that would be singers of all abilities? When is music no longer music - who determines that - or when is something that initially disguises itself as less than musical actually beautiful music? Where is the line? What happens when tonal center - healthy breath - pure tone and one perspective of story has a conversation/dialogue/relationship with another context, a challenge, dissonance with heart and desire for belonging? Is the tension musical? Is there resolution? Acceptance? Appreciation? What does success look like when one or more instrument is perfectly imperfect? Aren't we ALL perfectly imperfect? Is that was musicians, HUMANS, of all abilities have in common?
How many choral conductors are faced with this on a regular basis? How many are unsure of how to include "that" singer(s) in the choir? How do they learn to openly talk WITH the choir about it (instead of behind their backs)? How do we communicate openly about inclusion in music when we are such perfectionists?
Can we compose for an assumption of imperfection? Can we plan for it? Incorporate it? Make it beautiful? Poetic? Powerful?
And just what if? What if a singer or singers with different abilities surprise us? What if they rise? What if WE rise?
Words and phrases that swim in my head:
We Speak... WE SING.
Things that have stayed with me from my own experiences. When I was an artist in residence for the SD Arts Council, I would travel all over in teach in schools for anywhere from a week to a month at a time. When word got out that I was willing to teach dance to students with special needs - no matter how severe the needs - I got a lot of residencies in schools with special ed "clusters," or specialty schools like the mental health facility in Yankton, the School for the Blind in Aberdeen, or what was the Children's Care Hospital in Sioux Falls. I taught dance at every level from to students on ventilators in hospital beds to adult college professors in inservice settings. Regardless, there was a common outcome for everyone. Self discovery and expression. When I started the first dance program in South Dakota for students with Down Syndrome, I quickly became close to the parents of my dancers. The common desire for their children was to be treated like everyone else, and the common desire for them as parents was to be able to go support their child at events like any other parent. I remember a dad saying to me, "I want to sit in the front row of a dance recital with a camcorder in my hands, too."
So why not an award winning concert choir at a major ACDA conference JOINING VOICES with an underserved and UNDERESTIMATED community of musicians with different abilities?
While I don't have a degree in special ed, I feel I have a lot of experience in the area... 15 years of hands on teaching and my masters program had a significant focus on being a master teacher to ALL abilities. Our newest colleague (and our third choir director) at Roosevelt, Randi Van Der Sloot, has an undergrad in Recreational Therapy and is also well versed in the area. She teaches the music classes for the special ed department and together, we are directing the new integrated show choir. I can't help but think with the culture of Roosevelt and this team, that this is the time to create something powerful, thought provoking, beautiful, joyful, inclusive, emotional, innovative, inspiring... we might have an interested session to propose as well.
It's a thought.
What is your reaction to this?
May 10, 2019 - 9:57 PM
What is my reaction, you ask?
Well....for starters...I was reduced to a pile of emotional goo. An absolute puddle. But now that I'm at least functional...of course I'm all in. It's beautifully daring, and seems both extraordinarily simple and complex at the same time. We're talking a lot about the spirit and calling at my church right now...and I have a sense that we are being invited and called to say "yes" to this.
Side story: My church choir has a new member this year, who has Down Syndrome. Boy does she love the choir, the choir loves her, and she brings a spirited presence to our Lutheran choir that we have never had before.
I would be honored and excited to invest myself in this with you.
I also can't think of a more interesting or profound or timely interest session than something like this.
Well....back to being an emotional puddle for a while...
I'm incredibly grateful that you have invited me into something so important.