Creating a Middle School Choir Rock Concert with Jeff Costello
Today’s guest blogger is Jeff Costello, a middle school choir director based in West Michigan. Jeff received his certification in Somatic Voicework™ The LoVetri Method in 2008, and served on the faculty of the CCM Institute at Shenandoah Conservatory. Jeff has performed in pop/rock bands (Paris Blue, Cos & Cos) since 1985, playing drums, guitar, and keys; singing; and running sound. He brings his popular music knowledge and experience into the choral classroom, where he and his students focus primarily on contemporary commercial music (CCM). Today, he’ll be sharing some tips and ideas for creating an all-popular-music Spring Concert similar to the one he and his students presented this past May.
Choosing to Focus on CCM
My choirs sing about 70-80% CCM music throughout the year, which is VERY atypical for my geographic area. West Michigan is still very steeped in classical choral tradition where hooty, overly-darkened vowels are the expectation. The first ten years of my career, I did my best to fit in. I took my groups to Choral Festival (Contest) and had my kids performing about 80% classical choral literature, saving the CCM stuff for only a few songs on our end of the year Spring Concert and an occasional Holiday Pops number. In 2008, after receiving my Level I certification in Somatic Voicework™ The LoVetri Method with Jeannette LoVetri, I immediately changed my teaching approach. Ms. LoVetri demands that ALL genres receive equal respect, and hearing her say that was the tipping point for me. It felt like I had come home. Finally, someone was presenting material at the national and international level that resonated with what I had been feeling in my heart for years pertaining to respect for CCM (an acronym she coined). The very next school year, my approach changed. I discontinued my membership with the Music Education Association in my state and I immediately stopped taking my groups to Choral Festival. My gift areas simply did not lie along that path. What my students get from me instead is a real world CCM performing experience.
This Spring, we presented a 90-minute all-popular-music concert called “Rock of Ages.” It was the first time we had performed with a full rock band, and it was a HUGE success.
Here’s how we prepared for that performance:
I like my school concerts to be student driven. We start each concert season by (raising hands and) generating a list of about 30 songs for consideration. This is a GREAT way for me to stay current and keep up on what my students are listening to, some of which is from YouTube and not actually even on the radio. From there, I narrow the scope based on many criteria:
- Is it available in octavo format?
- Is it age appropriate?
- Is it musically appropriate?
- Is it singable? (Screamo and Rap don’t always work great with choirs)
Often, the most popular songs of the day will end up on all three of my choirs’ lists. It’s up to me to then decide which choir best fits which particular song.
For the Rock of Ages concert, there was a bit more involved with repertoire selection. The goal was to have each choir sing two of their five songs with the band. There was also a goal on my part to not overburden the guys in my band by asking them to learn a ton of new material that we wouldn’t end up using for our own shows. Compromises were made and the band ended up learning six new (to us) songs and the rest came from our setlist of 80s Rock. I generally have a rule of only allowing one “Karaoke version” per choir, per concert. With a Karaoke version (no octavo), we will arrange the piece for choir in class by adding harmony when appropriate. For the Rock of Ages concert, there were many more songs performed that did not originate from choral octavos. This made it much more like a real rock band situation where most of the music is learned by ear and is often not written out (other than lyrics).
Because my choirs sing more CCM material than would a typical middle school choir, they need to all be able to sing in chest register. My vocal instruction is all based on registration by using Somatic Voicework™ The LoVetri Method. My kids make chesty sounds, heady sounds, and mixed sounds. We learn by doing and by listening. We apply the terms to the sounds we’ve already been making as a way to promote vocal and physical awareness. We listen to recordings of singers both new and established, and we discuss what’s either great or not so great with their technique.
Building Mic Technique in Class
Because my classroom is equipped with two high quality wireless microphones and a nice sound system, my students get regular practice on mic technique. We often sing Karaoke for the last 20 minutes on Fridays if they've earned it with good work and behavior. Throughout a given school year, nearly ALL 225 of my students get invaluable experience with a microphone. It’s important for them to learn how to handle a mic. For notes that are low in a singer’s range, it’s beneficial to move the mic closer to the mouth. For louder, belty-er notes, it’s wise to pull the mic farther away from the mouth. This is a skill that is developed over time. Experience is key for developing the feel of good mic technique.
Practicing with Tracks
When I started teaching in 1996, due to less than accompanist level keyboard skills, I programmed all my accompaniments via MIDI. I continued to do this until about a decade ago when all the music publishers began also offering accompaniment tracks on CD. Even for my Classical concerts, my kids often sing to tracks (I sometimes hire an accompanist). It’s what we rehearse to every day and the tracks are professionally recorded and are almost always of a very high quality. Having experience with this proved to be a nice go between to stepping it up to a full rock band.
Stepping Off of the Conductor’s Podium
I play drums in my band, Paris Blue, which is the band that played for the concert. This meant that for the first time EVER in my twenty year career, I would not be standing in front of my singers conducting them. This was terrifying for me! Middle school kids are not great when it comes to focus and concentration, but we pulled it off! I think the choreography helped keep them focused. I used backing tracks on the two to three songs per choir that the band did not play on, but I decided not to go out front to conduct on those, either.
For this concert, I hired a choreographer to work with the kids for about 8 rehearsals. Typically, if my choirs do movement of any kind, it’s also student driven/led, and refined and approved by me. My choirs are a lot less dictator-like that way and the kids feel much more ownership in the performance and the material.
Preparing the Space for Sound Amplification
Any choir director considering attempting a concert like this needs to first assess the acoustics of the performance space. The auditorium where we held this event is a very "live" room (lots of reverberations). Because of this, I purchased an acrylic drum shield (can be seen in the video), to help control the volume of the drums, which are all mic’d. Drums sound best when they are mic’d and EQ’d properly through a sound system (another completely separate post and topic of discussion).
If the performance space has an acoustic shell, insist that it be removed. Rock guitars and drums need acoustically "dead" spaces to sound their best. Ask for the thickest, most sound absorptive materials available for backdrops and legs/curtains surrounding the stage.
Selecting the Right Sound System for the Space
Considerations must also be made for the sound system. Many (likely, most) school auditoriums do not have an adequate sound system to accomplish what you see in the Rock of Ages Concert video. The sound system I used was a combination of the system that my rock band uses, and a system I purchased for my school, AND the auditorium house system. If you are fortunate to be able to use a facility that has a Line Array System, you will be more than adequately equipped to do a full CCM concert with your choirs.
If you do not have the knowledge and experience with performing to amplified CCM sounds, find a good local sound engineer to bring in and help you. That person probably also would be a great resource for locating musicians, as well. Start with your local guitar shop or music store, or even by asking local friends on social media.
Mic-ing the Choir
If you look closely, you’ll see five choir mics on stage. In the video, you are only (for the most part) hearing the mic’d choir sound and are not hearing the choirs acoustically at all. This (and the fact that I wouldn’t be out front conducting) was the aspect of the concert that scared me the most. Would we be able to get enough sound out of the kids, and get the mics loud enough, without causing feedback (when the mics squeal from being turned up too loudly), to pull this off? The answer is that with the exception of a few spots in the concert, when the parts were on the lower side of the kids’ vocal ranges, we pulled it off and the choir was heard well and in a good balance with the instruments.
Amps vs. In-Ear Monitors
A unique characteristic of my rock band is that we don't use guitar amps or monitor speakers on stage. All the guitars go directly into the sound system and we all use in-ear monitors to hear ourselves, which is becoming more and more common. This helps control stage volume wonderfully (if the guitars and drums are too loud on stage, it's more challenging to get a decent sound for the audience without it being WAY too loud). If you bring in a guitarist (or two) and a bassist, and they insist on using amps and wedges (floor monitors to hear the vocals), your concert will end up being louder than you might want it to be. Use caution to keep the volume of the instruments to an absolute minimum. The drum shield is a huge help with this. The choirs did have monitors (wedges) to hear what the band was playing, as with no guitar amps on stage, the only sound from those instruments was going through the PA system out front. We set up monitors to put a little of the band into, so the kids could hear the full band sound. Caveat: Do NOT put the choir mics into the monitors/wedges. Choir mics are super sensitive and very susceptible to feedback.
Rehearsing in the Space
We were fortunate enough to be able to set up all the staging and lighting on a Sunday afternoon for the Monday evening concert. Monday, during the school day, the kids all bused over to the auditorium and we rehearsed on stage for about two hours. This was incredibly helpful and served as a two hour sound check for the band and the choir microphones. This is a MUST if you are to attempt a concert of this nature. It’s vastly different from walking onto a stage in an acoustic hall and balancing the sound of the voices against the sound of the grand piano.
The audience was ELECTRIC!! It was a very exciting evening accompanied by lots of cheering. About a month before the concert, I came up with an idea (actually, I borrowed it) and began searching online for bulk glow sticks. I purchased one for every audience member and one for every choir member. It was a nice added touch of excitement and was truly a visual treat for the performers on stage (sadly, I didn’t think to snap a pic from behind the drum set).
The concerts was live streamed thanks to my techie fifteen year old son. This was obviously helpful for family members who live out of our area (I had one student share with me that his father, away on business in England, watched the concert from his hotel room!), but was also extremely helpful in the area of babysitting. I set up each holding area so that the concert could be viewed live as it was happening on stage! Anyone who has supervised middle school aged kids (especially LARGE groups of them) knows that it’s NEVER FUN. Add to that the fact that they are nervous and wound up for the concert and you have a behavior disaster waiting to happen backstage when the other groups are performing.
This concert garnered a LOT of local attention. The venue was completely sold out, as I had predicted. The Superintendent of my school district described it as, "A Home Run! Best concert I've seen all year." My Principal is basically insisting that I make it an annual event. The response from parents was amazing! They LOVED it! Much of the music was from the era when they were in high school or middle school, so that certainly helped. I kept telling the kids this was going to be the biggest concert in the history of our Middle School Choir concerts. They were sure it would be fun, but really didn’t have any past experiences to draw from, so most of them really had no idea how awesome it was going to be. The school was all abuzz in the days following the event!
We even attracted the attention of the local media! Here's a clip from the local TV station that did a story on us.
I feel completely blessed to have had the life experiences, the knowledge, the equipment and the team around me to have pulled off what ultimately became Rock of Ages! The 20th Annual Creekside Choir Spring Concert. I truly feel that in another twenty years, there will be many, many more concerts like the one discussed here.
Do you present CCM concerts with your school choirs? Please share some of your experiences and tips in the comments below!