Waubonsie Valley choral director offers his students lessons in music and life
Now that classes are out for the summer at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, choral director Mark Myers is doing what he loves best — teaching kids to sing together.
He does it in show choir camps instead of school and works with kids from all over, not just the local area. If that sounds like a busman's holiday, Myers isn't complaining one bit.
"It's really what I do all the time and what interests me," he said. "It truly is my job and my hobby."
Myers' dedication to kids and passion for teaching choral music has won him the respect of students, parents and his professional peers. This spring he received the National FAME Aspire Award, a Vocal Vanguard Award based on the number of online nominations he received from fellow members of the Academy of Show Choir Professionals around the country.
His colleagues see his work when he takes Waubonsie Valley choral groups on the road to competitions and festivals. His students have sung in the opera house in Sydney, Australia, St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and in New York and Los Angeles, among other places. They perform more than the traditional show choir numbers.
"Show choirs in general do pop music and musical theater genre, but we try to explore other world music," said Myers, choral director at Waubonsie for the past nine years. "We're blessed with such a diverse school already, it becomes kind of show-and-tell for kids."
A couple years ago, he had two Indian students perform Bollywood numbers. This past school year, he began introducing students to urban, contemporary gospel music — a genre Myers came to appreciate when he taught African-American students in a charter school in Chicago.
"It's a very unique genre. It's very moving and inspiring to students," he said.
More than music
Myers is consciously teaching far more than music, and cultural diversity is one of the lessons students learn, he said. He credits his two years of teaching in Chicago with bringing that lesson home to him.
"It was the first time in my life I was a minority. It completely changed my perspective on teaching and education," he said. "(I saw) the power of music as a unifying force and as a way to demonstrate, as human beings, we all inevitably have differences, but we also have commonalities that are undeniable."
Students learn about themselves through music as well, he said.
"Music, to me, just encompasses everything. It's our life record," he said.
Parent Cathy Schwieger, who has chaperoned choral music trips, said Myers teaches students by example to live up to their potential, work hard, have confidence in themselves, support one another and manage their time well.
"They never want to be late for him," she said. "He just goes literally above and beyond. They're constantly learning, growing, developing and enjoying it."
Schwieger's daughter, Stephanie, agreed. An incoming junior, she's been a member of the show choir and Mosaic choir for two years and had Myers for a freshman class.
"He's really talented, but during class, he doesn't show off his talent. He brings out the student's ability," she said. "He's really helped me come out of my shell and improve. He doesn't just focus on singing, but the overall performance."
Myers is all business when it comes to teaching, but he has a lighter side as well, Stephanie said.
"H can joke around a lot. He's just a fun teacher," she said.
Recent Waubonsie graduate Tyler Neenan — a member of the show choir and Mosaic choir for all four years of high school — said Myers is respected throughout the student body.
"It's a universal recognition, from freshmen walking through the doors to seniors walking out, that Mr. Myers is an extraordinary talent. And that, under his direction, we can make music that is just as extraordinary," he wrote in an email.
Myers said that he believes in the ability of every student.
"I don't like to use the word talent. I think it's all about hard work," he said. "There's not one kid in my classroom who I don't push to be better than what they are or what they think they are."
Kristine Marchiando, retiring principal of Waubonsie Valley, said Myers hears and corrects words that aren't enunciated properly and tones that aren't quite right. That attention to detail shines through in the concerts the students perform.
"Every event he touches is a major event that is exciting to watch," she said. "They just sing their hearts out."
Myers credits his own high school choir director, Shelley Johnson, in rural Auburn, Ind., with inspiring him to teach choral music.
"She taught not just about music, but about life in general," he said. "She had a genuine connection and concern for all her students and empathy toward all her students."
Myers also had supportive parents, who drove four hours from Indiana to attend all his concerts while he was a student at North Central College. His dad and mother, who recently passed away, continued to make that trip to attend the concerts he directed at Waubonsie Valley.
"I probably wouldn't call them musicians or musical," he said. "(But) they both enjoyed and appreciated music a lot."
Myers shows that same dedication in his teaching. He estimates he puts in 60 hours a week during the school year, teaching classes and working after hours to help direct the school's seven choral groups. He makes a point of getting to know the roughly 300 students involved with the music program.
"I care about my kids and hope they know that," he said. "It comes down to something as simple as giving every kid a smile, taking time to give them a compliment or ask how they are."
He takes satisfaction in watching kids grow and cites his only frustration as not having time to do everything he would like to do.
"Being with kids energizes me every day," he said.
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