BUILDING THE FUTURE
By Virginia Eckert
Director says music education is teaching to the soul
Tony Araujo, the director of the Spirit Alive choir, has a vision of music education that is shared by his students. He describes his work as teaching to the soul. His non-auditioned senior concert choir has repeatedly won gold at the U.S. national invitational Festival of Gold competitions in several U.S. cities.
Araujo believes adolescents need a safe place to access their feelings where they will be accepted, and he intentionally creates such a space. He encourages students to access their emotional intelligence when expressing their deeper responses to the music, and he sees music as a container through which singers can express themselves.
“When adolescents become estranged or deviant, they may turn to substance abuse and have deviant relationships which are harmful to their souls. Music can calm a young man down and change his present disposition; it is healing. Singing engages the cell level of a person and involves molecular transformation.”
Russel says it is hard for a guy in high school to express his feelings; he needs an outlet to be himself.
“When I sing in choir rehearsals, I forget everything else. I am able to explore how I am feeling in a healthy way; it is so positive. A few songs relate to my life such as Tabula Rasa, by Don Macdonald. This Spanish piece helped me realize all my parents have done for me, and how it is now time to let go. The lyrics tell a story about a boy engulfed in his mother’s arms; when the child enters the great unknown, he doesn’t experience the same warmth and support, but does embrace a new freedom.”
Russel’s response to choir is echoed by a female Grade 12 singer who has also been part of the choir program for five years. Kathleen offers that the choir experience changed her. She says she had a sore throat from the hard work which reminded her that her voice was an instrument and a gift from God.
“I love choir, and being part of a strong community really changed my life; the students were not just from my grade and I was able to connect in a meaningful way with people in Grades 10, 11 and 12.”
The Coalition for Music Education in Canada says “music makes you smarter.” Because you engage both the right and left sides of the brain simultaneously, according to Araujo, you can educate the whole person. “When playing an instrument there are intellectual benefits when you are reading music, counting and interpreting the rhythm, however, you are exercising your creativity when accessing the emotional and expressive dimension of the piece,” Araujo says.
One technique which Tony employs is called Pick Up Chair. In this exercise the singer sits in the chair in front of peers to share thoughts and feelings about a piece he or she is working on.
“A lot goes on mentally for me in choir” Kathleen says. “I think a lot about technical stuff when approaching a piece, but my deep emotional responses to the literature and poetry really stay with me. I like how we sing music from many cultures and a variety of genres. The spiritual music we sing helps me centre myself. A piece like Ave Maria arranged by Franz Biebl, helps me to reflect on my faith; I have it on my iPod and listen to it quite a lot.”
This summer the Spirit Alive choir was in Portugal; 64 students were on tour for three weeks. The singers were mostly Grade 11s and 12s and Araujo went ahead to make all the arrangements. Formal concerts were held at basilicas, national monuments and UNESCO world heritage sites including castles and monasteries; students also sang masses in English, Latin and Portuguese. Audiences were overwhelmed by the beauty of the students’ voices and many in tears described how their experience of the holy was heightened by the musical experience.
MUSICAL EXPERIENCE — The Spirit Alive choir from B.C. is pictured at Batalha Monastery, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Batalha Portugal. The mostly Grades 11 and 12 choir toured there for three weeks this past summer. (Photo by Ruth Yuswack)
“It is not just the quality of the harmonies and technique that people respond to,” according to Araujo, “but people are touched on a deep level by how the teens sing and their performances are transformative. This transformation occurs for pilgrims, staff and students alike. Making God present in sacred spaces is a form of liturgy that puts believers in contact with their God. The marriage between technical expertise and the choir’s vulnerability to the work of the Spirit empowers them in their ministry; it reminds us all of God’s presence and gives us hope. This is a work that has been blessed.”
Eckert holds a MEd in counselling psychology and has been a teacher/counsellor at a Catholic high school for 27 years. She lives in Vancouver and is married with three adult children. She can be reached at email@example.com