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The Suburbanite
  • Student interest in the arts waning, but Manchester’s programs hang on

  • As members of the Manchester Singers select choir performed at the final 2012 meeting of the Manchester Board of Education Dec. 18, it was obvious even to an untrained ear that the group is a step above. In particular, sophomore Shannon Myers’ solo was emotive in a way seldom heard at the high school level.

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  • As members of the Manchester Singers select choir performed at the final 2012 meeting of the Manchester Board of Education Dec. 18, it was obvious even to an untrained ear that the group is a step above. In particular, sophomore Shannon Myers’ solo was emotive in a way seldom heard at the high school level.
    “That is a select group. They have worked in small groups and audition for it a year in advance,” said vocal music director Richard Harper. “I’m proud of what we do here. The choir here is small and we are doing all styles of music, from Broadway shows to our ‘legitimate’ repertoire.  But I have never bought into the idea that we can’t do things because we are a smaller school. Because we’re smaller, that means we can’t sing?”
    Harper has been at the helm of the high school and middle school vocal music programs, along with the high school drama club's two productions a year, for the past 28 years.  For the past two years, he has also taught students in the 5th and 6th grades.
    “The good thing (about teaching the younger students) is that they know what to expect when they come into the classroom,” he said, adding with a chuckle, “and there are some who like that and some who don’t.”
    The school district’s decision to add the younger grade levels to Harper’s teaching duties was both an instructional and fiscal one. And while Harper said that time will ultimately tell if the earlier exposure will make for bigger and better choirs at the high school level, his pride and trust in all of the students he teaches is as obvious as those students’ vocal and acting abilities.
    “The arts is getting to be a harder sell,” he said. “From a certain standpoint, choir sizes are going down, and of course, developing a choral sound is different than what you hear on the radio.”
    A self-professed pop-music aficionado, evidenced by the British Invasion posters adorning the walls of the Manchester High School music room, Harper's opinion is mixed when it comes to this generation’s Glee-American-Idol-The-Voice exposure.
    “I like pop music, but a steady diet of that is not the same as developing a choral sound,” he said. “It has brought solo vocal stuff to the forefront, but I'm not sure what it’s done for a choral sound.”
    Ironically though, Harper said that moment of discovery is the biggest payoff for both himself and his students.
    “When they don’t do it all the time - singing with a group – you can see them thinking ‘Why am I singing off key all of a sudden?’,” Harper said.  
    In fact, exposure to the arts alone is far from the only part of the choral program that can be effectively “sold” to students and parents.
    Page 2 of 2 - “I try to emphasize what the arts can offer as far as mental development,” Harper said. “I think it is very important, and I truly believe in it. You don't get millions of music majors - some go into music education, most continue singing in community and church choirs. But for most of them, one of the things they most look forward to is this class.”
    Harper said that sentiment is also shared by supporters outside the classroom.
    “We have gotten so much wonderful support over the years from parents and the boosters,” he said. “And on the drama department side, we have had some great people on board like Karen Ford and Justin Elders.”
    Pointing to a banner-covered wall devoted to Manchester choirs being named grand champion at music festivals in 1991, 1998, 2006 and 2008, Harper recalled one in particular.
    “The 1991 Manchester Singers were among 50 groups at a huge festival at Kings Island,” he said. “I remember that at the beginning of that year, the kids thought the class was going to be a study hall. At that festival, we did George Gershwin - whom I love - in this outdoor stadium. When our name was announced, it was like they won the Super Bowl.”
    Those are the types of moments that keep such programs thriving, even in the most trying of times.
    “The most difficult part, of course, is when you have to tell someone that they didn’t get a part,” Harper said of both the music and drama programs. “After they put all they have out there, I wish I had parts for all of them. I don’t know if they realize that. But even then, they learn to say ’Things didn’t work out this time, now what am I going to do?’ ”
    The payoff, he said, are the times when a student recognizes that he or she has surpassed what even they themselves thought was possible.
    “Sometimes they don’t see it, but it is like any other family, it has its ups and downs,” Harper said.

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