By Kym Reinstadler, SCN feature writer, June 2012
I love the dramedy Glee. A bit of Broadway. Lots of pop music. And on TV for free. Now, that’s entertainment!
Glee also connects with me because it’s about a high school show choir with complex characters that take their differences in stride and make beautiful music together.
In this choir all the students have disabilities, though none are wheelchair-bound like Glee character Artie Abrams. They’ve got Autism Spectrum Disorder, cognitive impairments, or learning disabilities. For them, performing became a way to transcend some of their limitations.
Who doesn’t yearn to promote good stories like this? And, if you’re a program decision-maker, who doesn’t yearn to set stories like this in motion?
Twinkle, twinkle . . . New big stars!
Honestly, this choir got me gaga! It was formed in fall 2011 with a dozen 18 to 26 year-old special education students at the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Regional Educational Services Agency’s Young Adult Program (YAP – I know, another acronym. But that’s our world.)
Anyway, Principal Deb Wild dreamed of one day entering a student choir to sing in the Southwest Michigan Recreation and Leisure Choral Competition. Most entries in this event are from schools serving students with special needs, and many attempt only lip dubs. Nevertheless, Deb moved forward. She made one of her YAP staffers an offer that couldn’t be refused, and with a director now enlisted, the student choir was formed with the one provision: They would sing with their own voices.
You Are Not Alone
It’s a lofty goal, for sure. Four students have speech impediments. Several others prefer their own company to groups. One usually eats lunch – social time in most schools – with her face mere inches away from a brick wall with her hoody pulled over her head. Getting these students on stage singing and connecting with an audience is the stuff of miracles.
On-key credentials. In tune with students
Deb knew she made the right choice in selecting Corlis V. Watkins, a special education paraprofessional for 25 years, to be the YAP Choir Director. Deb knew Corlis moonlighted as a music ministry consultant and had sung backup for some big names in gospel music. Plus, she knew about Corlis’ passion for students first hand.
Preparing students for individual auditions would take some doing — and that’s just how Corlis wanted it. Corlis saw an opportunity to teach the young adults to advocate for themselves. She required them to seek her out to obtain recorded tracks and lyric sheets for the two songs they’d need to audition. Auditions were held in front of a panel of three judges – a nerve-wracking scenario for most of the students.
“They didn’t have to be great,” Corlis said, “but I had to see initiative and potential.”
Specifically, the young adults needed to be able to take direction without becoming upset, and stand without engaging in behaviors their audiences would consider unusual. They had to be able to match notes and blend their voice with others. Regardless of their reading ability, they had to memorize lyrics. They had to be able to manipulate a microphone. They also had to commit to two-hour rehearsals twice a week as well as practicing with recorded music at home.
The students learned. So did Corlis. And others.
Corlis discovered that students learned best in layers. So, as a group, they would memorize the lyrics and discuss what a song meant first. Then Corlis would introduce the melody and begin work on timing, which was always the Mt Everest of learning a new song.
Practice didn’t always make perfect. Far from it. Occasionally a student would walk out of a rehearsal in frustration and complain that Corlis worked the choir too hard.
“It’s O.K. to have high expectations,” Deb said. “Just because people have disabilities, you don’t have to say ‘it’s all good.’”
Some parents of the 13 students who auditioned, but were not selected for the choir, complained. There were even objections on philosophical grounds to roster trimming from the YAP staff. Deb and Corlis held firm, committed to the belief that singing isn’t every person’s special talent.
Was it all worth it?
Many adults with disabilities have grown accustomed to being “invisible,” but Corlis and Deb were hoping that the school choir would help their students buck this reality. Singing in public could help students feel more comfortable in the public eye. Some might even choose to join a church or community choir.
Over the course of the school year, the YAP choir stunned the community by winning the Southwest Michigan competition. They went on to learn 18 songs and perform eight more concerts during he school year, including one paid gig where the choir’s rendition of “Imagine” left many in the audience teary-eyed.
The choir achieved maximum exposure with their performance of “Seasons of Love” before 500 people at the Michigan Council for Exceptional Children’s annual conference in Grand Rapids. State Director of Special Education Eleanor White bowed to the choir during a standing ovation.
Corlis says the concerts attended by the students’ families were the most emotional and meaningful.
“Some of our parents had never before had the joy of seeing their son or daughter on stage performing as a member of a group,” Corlis said. “And there their child was, right up there, confident, and part of something good. No wonder the parents bawled.”
Singing solo – but not alone.
No student blossomed fuller than the handsome 20 year-old Cer Bolton, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder. Deb said choir was the first time Cer stood out among his peers and assumed a leadership position. He had heart-rending solos in covers of the Michael Jackson hits “You Are Not Alone” and “Earth Song,” which helped catapult the YAP choir to in-school celebrity status.
Cer was presented the state’s prestigious “Yes I Can!” Award, which acknowledges the achievements young people with disabilities. Even today, Cer gets recognized on the street from people who read a newspaper story about him. Students with autism rarely achieve such notoriety. (So, top that, Glee hunk Finn Hudson!)
Four factors made a difference.
All nice stories aside, I asked Deb and Corlis how they launched such a successful new program at their school. They offered four pointers:
1) Tap into skills and interests the students already have.
2) Communicate openly and often with parents.
3) Maintain high expectations, even when there’s pushback.
4) Get the right leader.
A leader’s inner passion is essential to any startup, be it a choir or a chess team. “Sometimes the person is the program,” Deb said. “We probably wouldn’t have a choir if we didn’t have Corlis.”
Principals are wise to know the various talents disbursed among their staff and try to match them with the interests of students, she said.
It doesn’t matter, ultimately, if a school has the talent to do a choir, a band or a bowling league. The goal is finding activities that students care enough about to stretch themselves by learning skills that can last a lifetime.
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