The average school choir doesn’t wear shoulder pads or mouth guards, and they do scales, not scrimmages. Still, one of the nation’s foremost choral music educators says a choir is every bit a team as the kind that tackles, punts, dribbles or shoots.
“I believe choir is a team sport, a team effort,” said Jeanne Wohlgamuth, artistic director of the Columbus Children’s Choir.
Wohlgamuth has been tapped to receive the 2020 Outstanding Educator Award from the Organization of Kodaly Educators (OAKE), America’s leading professional organization promoting the application of the Kodaly educational philosophy in primary and secondary music teaching. She will receive the award at OAKE’s 2020 National Conference in Portland, Ore., in March.
Now retired from a 40-year teaching career – including 30 years with the Dublin City Schools – Wohlgamuth has served as artistic director of the Columbus Children’s Choir since 2012.
“Jeanne does amazing work, and that this national organization is recognizing her is very exciting,” said Kerry Haberkern, managing director of the Columbus Children’s Choir.
Kicking It Up a Notch
It’s a Saturday morning under a steely winter sky. The New World Singers, the Columbus Children’s Choir’s most advanced ensemble, are taking a mid-rehearsal break. Teens and parents munch on donuts and swig coffee in the hallway outside the rehearsal room. In the room, nearly 80 high school-age singers wear hoodies and jeans and black leggings and athletic shoes. They sit and stand, chat and stretch and sip water from tall plastic bottles.
Wohlgamuth steps onto the podium and half sings, half speaks a short series of notes. All at once, the singers mimic back what they hear. This type of exchange happens two more times, with different patterns of notes. Then quiet falls across the room, and everyone is standing up, watching Wohlgamuth for what comes next.
In this particular rehearsal, Wohlgamuth fine-tunes the choir’s performance of Stephen Chatman’s "O Clap Your Hands," an energetic piece full of vibrant harmonies and spunky rhythms.
She lets no one get away with anything. No sluggish consonants – “Shout,” Wholgamuth says to the choir, emphasizing the “sh” at the beginning of the word and clipping the end of the word with a sharp “t.” She has the singers repeat that one word again and again until she hears what she wants to hear.
She then leads the choir in a long passage from the piece. The singers are holding black binders with the printed music, but no one looks at the notes. They’ve all memorized their music, and their eyes are locked on the podium.
Wohlgamuth’s conducting is informed by the Kodaly philosophy of musical education, which holds that making music should be an experience everyone can enjoy, and which emphasizes the fostering of musical literacy – fluidity in reading notes on the page and in thinking in every way in musical terms.
Wohlgamuth says developing musical literacy among her singers enables them to master the notes and text of a musical work quickly, leaving precious rehearsal time to refining details like pristine diction and nuances in dynamics and tempos.
Such details can make the difference between a good performance and a great one.
For Wohlgamuth, a devoted adherent to the Kodaly philosophy, the process of a refining a performance begins with the students singing the notes of a piece of music to solfège syllables – the do, re, mi immortalized in "The Sound of Music" – and internalizing the notes and rhythms until they become second nature.
This approach – delving deeply into the notes of a work before singing the work’s text – differs from a common approach to secondary choral education, an approach which Wohlgamuth herself took for 13 years before studying the Kodaly philosophy and applying it in her teaching.
“I ran my choir rehearsals the way most music educators run their choir rehearsals – I sat behind a piano, I plunked notes, I asked my choir to imitate what I was plunking on the piano, and we just kind of built the literature from my work on the piano,” Wohlgamuth said. “And I was the one that was doing all the work, the children were not.”
Wohlgamuth realized that, instead of engaging with the music, some of her students were getting bored.
“You develop discipline problems,” Wohlgamuth said. “They listen to you and they say, ‘I got it,’ and then they start poking Johnny with a pencil.”
She searched for other teaching approaches that could help her help her students connect with music.
“I had heard about the Kodaly concept, so I just started calling universities” in search of a teacher training program, Wohlgamuth said.
Her search led her to the Kodaly Institute at Capital University. During summer breaks away from her elementary-level teaching duties in the Dublin City Schools, Wohlgamuth took coursework at the institute in the first two of the three levels of training in the Kodaly philosophy.
When she made the move from teaching elementary music to teaching middle school choral music in 1998, first at Dublin’s Grizzell Middle School then at Karrer Middle School, Wohlgamuth applied her elementary-level work with the Kodaly philosophy to the middle school level, radically changing the way she teaches.
“The typical middle school setup is the teacher, the piano and 80 kids, and I thought, how can you have a handle on what’s going on with those 80- kids if you’re stuck behind a piano?” Wohlgamuth said. “So I pushed the piano out of the way and started adapting the methods that I had learned in the elementary program to my middle school.”
And she did a similar thing when she started teaching choral music at Dublin Jerome High School in 2004.
“I just kicked it up a notch,” Wohlgamuth said.
“What kid doesn’t want that?”
You might expect teens to push back against the exacting standards Wohlgamuth brings to her work with the students in her choirs. But judging from the results Wohlgamuth gets with her ensembles, her students thrive on being pushed.
Those results have earned Wohlgamuth abundant recognition for her work. In addition to the Outstanding Educator Award from OAKE which Wohlgamuth has been tapped to receive, she has four times received the Teacher of the Year award from the Dublin City Schools for her work in elementary, middle school and high school music education. She has also received the Dublin Schools’ Golden Shamrock Award for excellence in education.
Wohlgamuth is often invited to guest conduct choirs around Ohio and in other states and to lead the New World Singers in performances at noted venues in and beyond the U.S. Under Wohlgamuth’s direction, the New World Singers were invited to perform in Spain and, in 2017, to perform in Austria with the Vienna Boys’ Choir and at the International Choral Symposium at the Kodaly Institute in Kecskemét, Hungary. In 2018, the New World Singers joined the Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestra in a performance in New York City’s Carnegie Hall.
In June 2020 Wohlgamuth and the New World Singers will perform at the International Musical Eisteddfod in Llangollen, Wales, and then will give a performance tour of England.
“(Wohlgamuth) knows where she wants to go with students and then is very prepared to guide them and bring them to the best place that she can,” said Dr. Sandra Matthias, artistic director emerita of the Columbus Children’s Choir, founder of Capital University’s Kodaly Institute, a former president of OAKE and a past recipient of OAKE’s Outstanding Educator Award.
Mathias continued, ”She works so hard at planning – studying the music and preparing for the rehearsals – and then brings the kids to a level of excellence. What kid doesn’t want that?”
The singers also know that Wohlgamuth believes in them.
“People will say to me, ‘Oh, your kids absolutely love you, they absolutely love you,’ and I say, ‘Really?’” Wohlgamuth said. “I am a true believer in that success breeds success, and I’m also a true believer in that anything that’s worth doing is worth doing to the best of your ability,” Wohlgamuth said. “Those are the mantras that I take on with my students. I don’t know that they would call me the most warm and fuzzy choral conductor, but I think they’re proud to be a part of the choirs that I’ve conducted, because they do have that feeling of success and of worthiness and of time well spent.”
“Choir is a Team Sport”
Wohlgamuth’s success in applying the Kodaly philosophy in secondary music teaching has extended well beyond her rehearsal rooms. At Mathias’ invitation, Wohlgamuth developed an innovative curriculum for the first level of a track in secondary choral music education at Capital University’s Kodaly Institute.
“The Kodaly philosophy is not near as widely used at the secondary choral level as it is at the elementary level,” Mathias said. “And I would say that Capital was the first program in the United States to offer a choral track in the Kodaly philosophy.”
Wohlgamuth has also been instrumental in developing sessions for middle school music educators at OAKE’s annual national conferences, and she continues to serve as a leader in music education statewide, including as Vocal Affairs Chair for the Ohio Music Educators’ Association.
Wohlgamuth filters all of this experience back into leading her choirs, whose successes speak for themselves.
“I very much believe that every single person in a choral setting is important to its success, no matter how strong a musician you are, or how weak a musician you are,” Wohlgamuth said. “The outcome is based on everyone’s participation and positivity.”
Disclaimer: author Jennifer Hambrick serves on the board of the Columbus Children's Choir