Windsor secondary’s senior chamber choir have earned themselves a place in the national spotlight, finishing in the top 10 in the high school category of CBC’s Music Class Challenge.
The results rolled in at around 3 a.m. on Dec. 9 and choir director Adam Kozak says it was big news for everyone involved. For their first year submitting an entry to the contest, the senior choir was thrilled to have their work recognized out of 73 other music classes from across the country.
The group performed an original arrangement of the Tragically Hip’s “Ahead by a Century” at their fall concert in early November, then submitted their raw video to the contest later that month, which received positive feedback online almost instantly says Kozak.
“We’d like to think that it’s the music that we produced with the choir for this competition, it’s the music itself that stands alone,” says Kozak, who found that many of the other video submissions were heavily edited. “They played a segment on national radio of the choir with a small bio . . . we’d like to think if you’re going to be playing something on national radio it’s not going to be the video that made the difference, but the music.”
Kozak was able to draw from a wealth of experience while arranging the a cappella version of “Ahead by a Century.” For 10 years after graduating from Windsor himself, he sang with the a cappella quartet Me and the Boys which formed out of the North Vancouver high school in the 1990’s.
“That’s kind of where I learned to arrange songs . . . So having sung with them for 10 years after high school, the North Shore News did lots of stories on us in that day, when I had hair,” he says with a laugh, and adds that the progression into teaching music was natural.
“It’s kind of neat to come full circle and for people to know what happens at Windsor. How it’s a bit different from most high school programs that do already arranged music by professionals that they’ve just purchased. I’d say 90 per cent of our music is new every concert, just like the two arrangements that I did for this contest.” Kozak also arranged a version of Sarah McLachlan’s “Adia” for the junior chamber choir’s submission.
Stepping into a music class at Windsor definitely looks a bit different than most. One obvious difference one might notice at first glance is there aren’t binders full of paper or loose leaflets of sheet music lying around. Kozak teaches with a new method he’s devised to help students learn their parts with ease and efficiency using screens and software.
Kozak graduated with his master’s degree from St. Mark’s College at UBC in May and his thesis focused on bringing computer assisted technology into traditional choir classes.
“The difference that it’s made in the year that I’ve implemented it, kids learn 17 songs in the space and time that they used to learn five. They learn music much harder, much more complicated without having to necessarily train them in classical music theory,” he explains.
“So if a kid can’t read music, they can’t sing Handel’s Messiah, the Hallelujah chorus.
What I’ve developed is ways that they can. Instead of making it impossible to teach, they can learn most of their parts in about 35 to 40 minutes.”
His screens vary in size from about seven inches to a big 120-inch screen that he says the kids love standing in front of to rehearse. The software shows notes, rests and words as well as accompanying sound, like a detailed karaoke screen.
“They kind of see and hear, they don’t look down at their piece of paper when they’re singing they look up at the screen, which improves their posture immediately, but they also hear, more or less, if they’re fitting in with the part that’s playing,” he says, adding that it allows him to spend more time polishing up the piece in rehearsals rather than spending that time teaching them their individual parts.
“Ahead by a Century” was chosen for its current significance in Canadian musical culture as the Tragically Hip have just completed their final tour. Kozak has found that the students, and the community they present their songs to, get the most out of tying their work to relevant events in the world.
During his first year teaching at Windsor in 2009, Kozak arranged “Man in the Mirror” and “Earth Song” in honour of Michael Jackson’s passing.
“It tends to mean a lot more to everybody in the process. The parents, the students, the community and myself,” he says.
The passion Kozak sees come alive in his students reaffirms that he’s on the right track with his musical career and, with spontaneous inspiration, he calls the class “an unintentional leadership training program.”
“I can see it in their eyes, when they hear that song coming together and you can see this light and they’re so excited about what’s being created live. It’s not two white earbuds in your ears from your iPhone, it’s real, it’s authentic and it excites them in a way that keeps them wanting to continue with choir.
“Seeing them become on fire for music, and on fire for choir is what I like to say, they’re able to take the confidence that they’ve developed in music classes in general and apply that to other things. I watch my students coming in like a mouse and coming out like a lion at the end of their Grade 12 year.”