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Carnegie Hall Choral Institute: ''I Had a Clear Place to Start with My Kids''

We recently met with two participants in our Carnegie Hall Choral Institute (CHCI) program: Lisa Gwasda of Celia Cruz High School of Music and Melissa Williams of Banana Kelly High School in New York City. CHCI fellows participate in a yearlong series of workshops and musical activities aimed at giving music educators at all levels an opportunity to renew their artistry and incorporate best pedagogical practices in their classrooms. Here's what Lisa and Melissa had to say.

What is your background as an educator? Why did you apply to CHCI?

Melissa: I am primarily an instrumental music teacher and have experience teaching band in suburban Texas. Now, as the only music teacher in my Bronx high school, I felt it was important to have a choir in addition to instrumental and general music. I am excited to develop my understanding of vocal pedagogy so that I can teach kids how to sing with solid fundamentals. With this foundation, I can transfer many of the skills I've developed as an instrumental educator to a choral setting, giving my students a more rigorous and hopefully rewarding choral experience. 

Lisa: I had the honor of being hired upon the opening of Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music 10 years ago. Coming from a family of music educators, I knew that this is what I wanted to do with my life from an early age. I am constantly seeking learning opportunities, as we never stop learning as musicians and teachers. I was especially excited about being a part of CHCI because studying with staff associated with Carnegie Hall was sure to prove an outstanding learning experience all around. 

What are you most looking forward to this year in the Carnegie Hall Choral Institute?

Lisa: As a teacher, we know that there is no one answer to music or teaching.  While something I use in my rehearsal might be effective, I know that there are many other ways to get there! I am excited to work with others in my field and learn new approaches to teaching, rehearsing, and all around musicianship.  It has been said that teachers "borrow" from one another, and I am looking forward to borrowing (as well as sharing) with all of my peers and facilitators in CHCI!

“[Carnegie Hall Choral Institute] promotes the exchange of ideas but also sustains teacher motivation and encourages introspection on best practices.”
—Melissa Williams

Melissa: I'm very much looking forward to learning from the wealth of experience and knowledge of all the other educators in the program. Developing a strong network of colleagues is so important in music education because we are often somewhat isolated from other arts teachers in a school-based setting. Through this program, I hope to learn more about other educators' challenges and successes in the classroom and develop ideas to address my own challenges.

What was the most helpful thing you learned or experienced in the CHCI opening weekend?

Melissa: Besides the wealth of specific and structured information related to the voice, I really gained a sense of confidence. Despite the fact that I don't personally have much experience in choral settings, the clear and concise presentation of topics such as vocal anatomy, range, warm-up techniques, and solfege really left me feeling like I have a clear place to start with my kids. 

Lisa: Opening weekend of CHCI has been a tremendous experience. Sometimes it's especially important to know that there are many other people in the same position as you! It's nice to have a community of people who have the same passion, excitement, fears, concerns, and proud moments that you do. Jumping right into Cross-Choral TrainingTM workshops with Dianne Berkun and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus was a great way to encourage everyone and learn about new approaches! 

Why do you think it's important for Carnegie Hall to be offering this sort of program?

Lisa: We, as fellows, all come from different musical backgrounds, as well as different jobs. The common thread we have is that we are all passionate musicians, with the desire to teach, and learn. Having support from an institute as renowned as Carnegie Hall gives us the level of professionalism, confidence, and education that we, as artists and teachers, need.

Melissa: Carnegie Hall has historically been dedicated to providing musical opportunities through education in a variety of forms. A program like this is making an investment in New York City's arts education community. This program isn't like typical professional development scenarios where an expert is imparting knowledge to be passed on. Rather, Carnegie Hall has provided the right conditions for talented and dedicated music educators to come together and learn from some of the best choral pedagogues in the city while simultaneously strengthening a network of teachers. This not only promotes the exchange of ideas but also sustains teacher motivation and encourages introspection on best practices. I am enthusiastic to see the many ways this program impacts our students in meaningful ways throughout the year and into the future.

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