West Hills choir director hits the right note for successOct 21, 2020 03:00PM ● By Jet Burnham
By Jet Burnham | [email protected]
West Hills Middle School’s advanced choir earned high marks at the district choir festival in March. Their expressive performance also earned them an invitation to perform at the Utah Chapter of the American Choral Directors Association fall conference.
“It was one of those rare moments where you don't need someone to tell you how you did; you know how you did,” choir Director Michael Draut said. “Our choir actually sounded organic rather than a practiced rehearsal. We didn't care what the judges gave us as a score afterward—we were all beaming; half of us were crying.”
Their performance set included difficult pieces that ranged from four to eight parts. But what set them apart was the heart and emotion the students put into their performance, especially a piece called “Requiem.”
“This was the song where we needed to give up everything we had to the audience if we didn’t want it to be just another ordinary choir song,” said ninth grader Katerina Aguero. “I think the message of the song ‘Requiem’ is that it’s OK to ask for help. We all have low points in our life, and we need to accept that we can’t do everything on our own.”
Draut said the goal of the performance was to console someone who's lost a loved one or bring peace to somebody who is troubled. Draut often chooses songs for his choir students that will connect meaningfully to their lives. This year, he is teaching them a song by Pink Zebra about overcoming challenges, which ties into what the students are experiencing with quarantine and COVID-19.
Draut encourages students to connect through music and to stretch outside their comfort zone.
This year, that includes learning a more diverse set of songs from a variety of cultures, including a traditional African piece written by a Black female composer and a Canadian Native American gathering song. Students are also learning the song he wrote for his grandmother based on an old Irish blessing that includes Irish phrases.
With a class motto of “it takes a village” and a class slogan “better together,” Draut emphasizes the importance of the individual in a choir group.
“Everybody's voice is so different; nobody has a voice just like theirs, so I think they need to feel valued for their contribution rather than judged,” said Draut, who discovered his own love of singing in his middle school choir classes.
Katerina said Draut’s teaching style unifies students.
“He taught us that choir is not about how good of singers we are,” she said. “It is about what we can give to the audience and how we can give joy to someone if they hear our music. We all wanted to create beautiful music together that can inspire someone instead of wanting to be the best singer in the choir or other selfish things.”
Ninth grader Lily DeWitt, who was in advanced choir last year and again this year, said Draut creates a safe space where students can express themselves.
“Being part of a choir means a lot to me,” she said. “It means being with other people who are serious about and love to sing. It means working as a team to make a song beautiful.”
This year’s choir classes look different due to COVID-19 safety measures.
“It’s harder than normal because you can’t really hear everyone with their masks on, and we’re spaced out in the auditorium, so we really need to trust Mr. Draut and what he hears,” Katerina said.
Draut said he must be flexible, using the large auditorium when he can or rehearsing outside under shade canopies when he can’t. He relies on assistants to help him work with the 75-person choir in smaller groups. Because class time is limited and may abruptly switch to online learning, this year’s pieces are less technical than usual.
The ACDA conference will be held virtually at the end of this month. Draut is remaining flexible with options of how to record the performance for the event. The sound quality might be muffled due to singing in masks, so he’s considering adding subtitles to the recording. Other options include having the students sing outdoors, spaced out on the echoey basketball court or around the edge of an outdoor pavilion or amphitheater for better acoustics and ventilation. The backup plan is to submit the recording of last year’s performance, which is what originally earned the choir the privilege of performing for the conference.