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"Doreen Rao is a dynamo--a vivacious, energetic, dedicated choral director."
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Doreen Rao

Interviews

Here are some excerpts from an interview conducted between Doreen Rao and Janet Day of Music Express Magazine, where they discuss Dr. Rao’s philosophy for music education and her teaching career.


JD: In your book We Will Sing! Choral Music Experience for Classroom Choirs, you advocate "music performance as music education." Would you tell us more about this concept?

DR: When I started teaching music in the schools, the emphasis in music education was still on developing concepts of music. As a young singer, I intuited that music was a performing art, dissimilar to the fine arts model where music was listened to like paintings are observed from a distance. In the fine arts model (called “music education as aesthetic education”), the student’s understandings were expressed verbally or in writing, not sung or played. I decided I would find a way to teach musical understanding through making-music, through classroom singing as the basis of the curriculum.

As I experimented in my own classrooms, I started teaching music listening through choral singing. Singing symphonic excerpts and song-related musical materials inspired and motivated my students. Listening to one another singing focused their attention in listening to recorded performances. The children were active and happy, they were participating in the music from the performer’s perspective.

I learned then that when children sing, they are more likely engaged in a personally meaningful and “real life” musical practice; they are performing their knowledge through singing with varying degrees of skill and understanding. Children don’t always need words to demonstrate their understanding.

In my choral textbook We Will Sing! this is what is meant by “music performance as music education.” I do not use the term “performance” in the narrow sense of producing a public concert. While singing for an audience can be an exciting part of the educational experience in music, I speak of “musical performance as music education” as a verb, a singing approach to music teaching and learning through music-making with skill and understanding.

Empowering the child’s musicianship through the context of authentic musical material (the repertoire) is a way educating children musically. I think all children need the opportunity to sing as a way of knowing themselves better, as a way of doing something joyful and constructive and as a way of being happy and productive. Happiness counts!

JD: Do you have any suggestions for teachers who have non-select choirs with regard to music selection, rehearsal techniques and such, or should one approach a non-select choir in the same way as a select group?

DR: I approach all children as “young artists” guiding them from wherever they are (beginning level, intermediate level, advanced level, “gifted” or “challenged”) toward their full potential relative to the unique teaching and learning environment. My goal in all classroom and choir settings is to empower the children’s self esteem, social identity and sense of shared humanity.

Using this performance approach, we help children to find their singing voice and to use their singing voice expressively in the meaningful context of the musical repertoire. Key to the CME performance approach is the teacher’s ability to select the appropriate musical materials for each group of children.

That is exactly why We Will Sing! is made of up repertoire organized into “performance projects” for beginning-level choirs (select, non-select, classroom and choirs). The lesson plans take the form of “rehearsal guides,” completed by the authors for each piece. The teacher can opt to use this repertoire with or without the text’s lesson plans. The recorded performances that accompany the textbook provides listening material related to the repertoire.

The choice of repertoire is tricky and time consuming, especially for busy teachers. If a teacher selects all advanced-level repertoire for a beginning-level choir, the children will be anxious and frustrated. If the teacher selects all beginning-level repertoire for an advanced-level choir, the children will be restless and bored. Expertise in choral teacher education requires the ability of the teacher to select a carefully balanced musical repertoire that will serve the goals of music education.

I think We Will Sing! is the best example of this performance philosophy and teaching practice. There is really no other textbook that helps teachers teach musically, building skill and understanding from the musical context of the repertoire.

JD: I read on your web site that CME Institute for Choral Education has joined with the New Millennium Festival Concerts. Would you please describe these entities for our readers and explain what this merger means?

DR: The CME Institute is dedicated to the professional development of the choral teacher. The New Millennium Festival is dedicated to the performance of new music and the music education of children and youth through professionally produced concerts. These organizations are interdependent – they work separately and together.

The Institute for Choral Teacher Education was founded in 1986 when I was then Music Director of the Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus (a village suburb of Chicago). This professional development and choral teacher certification course is offered annually during the summer months as a one-week residential program for music educators and choral conductors.

As the first certification course of its kind dedicated to teachers and conductors seeking the skills associated with performance teaching, course participants study a wide range of choral repertoire, singing, conducting, voice education and rehearsal pedagogy.

In the year 2000, the New Millennium merged with the CME Institute. As a performance education paradigm, the Institute’s professional development program is richly enhanced by a series of demonstration rehearsals and concert-performances with exemplary choirs, guest artists and orchestra. Teachers enjoy singing in a conductor’s choir, reading and performing new repertoire, renewing their own musicianship while they study to improve their conducting and teaching skills.

Teachers, conductors and composers enroll in the CME Institute for Choral Teacher by application only. Choirs apply to the Festival by audition. The combined Institute and Festival gives participants the opportunity to hear the work of accomplished colleagues whose choirs exemplify the CME “music performance as music education” philosophy and practice.

JD: Your career in music education has been described as "extraordinary." Is there one aspect or achievement which gives you the most satisfaction?

DR: I think of performing and teaching as a “way of life” rather than as anything I would comfortably describe as a “career” or as an “achievement.”

Given the last seventeen years of my life conducting university and professional choirs and orchestras, teaching conductors and choral teachers, writing and editing new music for choirs in education, I count my work with children as the happiest and most fulfilling work of my professional life.

So many children are now singing in choirs and classrooms today! In schools, in communities and in churches and temples, children are singing. Isn’t that the good news?

JD: On a personal note, how do you sustain the energy to keep up with such a demanding, productive career?

DR: The joy of performing and teaching has never been greater for me.

Growing as a professional musician, teacher and scholar demands a lifetime of study, practice and continuous self-examination.

With gratitude, I am now benefiting from years of continued practice, plenty of failure and a fair dose of success. The combined gifts of failure and success have brought with them a certain wisdom, a wisdom that has transformed my professional passion into personal compassion. I am at home with myself, for better or worse.

As you have ended this interview with a personal question, I will finish with a personal reflection that looks to the future.

I recently dedicated my career to peace education, a newly developed research, teaching and performance initiative that examines the notion of teaching and performing as peace-making. As part of this personal initiative, and as an advanced announcement for those interested in music and peace, plans are now being finalized for a world peace choir along with a series of new publications.

For more information, please contact Janet Day, Editor-in-Chief of Music Express Magazine at the Hal Leonard Corporation, 7777 West Bluemound Road, Milwaukee, WI 53213. Tel: (414) 774-3630 ext. 316; Email: jday@halleonard.com