Creativity, talent shine in elementary music program

With a large percentage of the school’s population enrolled in the Central School Stingers Choir and a trend that shows increasing popularity, Director Dan Venner wonders what the future might hold.
“We’re sort of out of risers,” he said. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do.”
But, that’s not a problem for Venner. He tends to focus on opportunities and possibilities, rather than obstacles.
There are 135 fourth- and fifth-grade students who are part of the choir — the largest enrollment to date. The Stingers choir also happens to be the school district’s largest extra-curricular organization. This year’s number is more than double the number when Venner first started directing the choir a several years ago.
The Stingers choir meets twice a week after school for six weeks in the fall and six weeks in the spring, and performs both a Christmas concert and a spring concert. Additionally, the choir makes several other appearances during the choir seasons.
Emma Rule, like many fifth-grade Stinger members, joined the choir as an incoming fourth-grader.
“My dad is a really good singer and that kind of pushed me in that direction,” she said. “I have always liked music and singing and it felt right to join Stingers. It was fun, and a bunch of my friends were in it.”
Although, participating in Stingers is enjoyable, it isn’t always easy. And that’s the message Venner tells the singers.
“He said it’s going to be a lot of work,” said fifth-grader Braden Constant. “It’s not going to be easy. You’re going to have some stumbles, but you’re going to get back up and try again.”
The Stinger experience begins with an audition.
“Part of making the commitment is auditioning,” Venner said. “I think it is important for them to feel that an audition is not a guaranteed spot.”
Additionally, Venner implements a fairly strict attendance policy.
The Central School choir began many years ago as the Mini Choraliers, modeled after the high school show choir, the Choraliers. The Mini Choraliers gave students who were interested in singing an opportunity to develop their skills and perform outside of the school setting.
“I always felt like it was their first opportunity for outside activity and they really were eager to join,” said Debra Brick, who took over the Mini Choraliers program following Mary Willis. “Getting to perform outside of school and perform for the public and at parties was special to them. They enjoyed doing that.”
Brick now teaches vocal music to younger students.
“Debra Brick does a really good job getting them ready for me,” Venner said. “When they come into third grade, they are already singing really well. It’s just building on what she has done in kindergarten, first and second and developing their skills.”
Each student has a particular strength.
“Some of them are very good at melody, some are very good at rhythm, some of them are fantastic readers on the recorders, and some are really good with ukulele fingerings,” Venner said. “Kids will surprise you at what they’re good at.”
He challenges the students and encourages creativity.  Much of that comes from allowing the fourth- and fifth-grade students to create their own Christmas and spring programs — including writing the scripts and designing the sets.  
“Buying a program from somebody when you have all the creative energy that these kids can provide just doesn’t make any sense to me,” Venner said.
Additionally, the students benefit from self-created script is uniquely tailored for them.
“Programs that you buy from people underestimate what [the students] can do,” Venner said. “They’re good to a certain extent, but they are capable of doing so much more than most of those programs give them credit for.”
Emma was on the script team for this year’s Christmas program. Although the program had no words, the story was told through rhythm and instruments.
“There were 12 kids and we would meet during lunch and throw out ideas and see which one sticks... which one everybody kind of likes, enjoys and something we could add on,” she said.
“I will tell them that no idea is too crazy,” Venner explained. “Then, about two weeks into it, I’ll say now we have to jettison any ideas that are too crazy. At the beginning you want every idea, then we need to look at it and see what is possible.”
Some ideas for this year’s Christmas program eventually fell to the cutting room floor before the group settled on the story about a child’s dream of Christmas. In the program, a night elf awakens the child and leads him through scenes filled with songs and rhythms. Inspired by Lost and Found Orchestra and Stomp, the Christmas program was non-traditional.
Each fifth-grade class was responsible for a scene. One used bouncing balls to create a rhythm, another blew through instruments made from PVC pipes and balloons to create a Christmas melody, another class had pipes in buckets of water and banged on the pipes to create a melody. Bucket drums and a xylophone were also used to create musical interest.
Despite the unconventional approach, the program was musical.
“Music just isn’t music,” Braden said. “It’s creativity.”
For both the fourth-grade spring program and the fifth-grade Christmas program, classroom teachers are involved in the process. They select the script team, based on the students they believe are among the most creative writers. Art teacher William Ford selects some of the most talented artists to be on the stage design team.
Student enjoy being a part of the creative process and their interest shows in the end result.
“You can get them to work on a program that they created a lot harder than a program you gave them,” Venner said. “They are invested in it.”
Venner has started including pianists for the Stinger performances, rather than using only recordings.
“This is something I want to grow,” he said. “Singing with a pianist requires a lot more maturity in listening than it does with a recording.”
This year’s Christmas program included pianists Pam Gabel and Jamie Pauls. This was the first time Pauls, an accomplished pianist who has been blind since birth, played for a school program.
“He came in and did one rehearsal on Thursday and that was as perfect as anything I ever could have imagined,” Venner said. The Stingers got to sing through the song “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,”  just once before performing on stage.
“They did a great job focusing,” Venner said. “I had a student tell me the other day, ‘I felt like I was floating in the air...  I felt like I was going to fly away.’ I said WOW... that just the energy of his playing.”
Venner anticipates more accompaniment from Pauls in the future.
“What a remarkable musician.”
Venner also anticipates more challenges in the future.
“We’re going to do some very difficult stuff in the spring,” he said. “There have been a couple pieces I have had my eye on for years. It’s about the neatest thing you’ll ever hear.”