A Tale of Two Choruses

Similarities and differences between youth and adult vocal groups

Chad Putka is Lower School’s indispensable Music Director – working with students nursery through 5th grade in music classes, directing the Lower School Chorus and guiding musical productions (Lion King will be presented in January!). He’s not just great at directing music, he’s also adept at directing traffic! (see video at bottom)

On top of all of that, Chad is the director of Voices United (website), a Providence-based adult barbershop chorus. “Voices United is an all-gender barbershop chorus, which is in itself an exciting thing. Barbershop is historically thought of as all-male or all-female, and in the last few years mixed barbershop has been gaining in popularity,” says Chad. The group is always looking for new members, and he invites any community member who is interested to contact him.

Recently Chad shared some reflections on directing chorus youth and adult choruses, and how each activity influences the other.

-How does your work as an elementary teacher impact your work with adults?

As a teacher working with very young students, I’ve learned that you can only expect success from people when you’ve made those expectations clear and when you’ve given them the tools they need. This applies whether you’re talking to a class of preschoolers or an ensemble of experienced and skilled adults. In my work at MB, I have had to pay very close attention to how things are presented, sequenced, and communicated. Sometimes the littlest word out of place can cause confusion in the classroom. That discipline has helped me to be a much clearer and more thorough chorus director when working with adults, and has helped me to consider every opportunity to make things easier for people who really want to do well.

-What are some differences between children and adult learners/performers you have observed in your teaching/chorus directing?

Truly, adults and children are very similar. Both groups want to do well, they want to have a good time, and they want to be seen and valued as individuals. Sometimes music directors forget this about adults and end up treating the ensemble like a dictatorship and the singers like instruments to be played. The “my way or the highway” approach. This doesn’t work well in the classroom if your goal is to inspire and bring out the best in individual students, and it certainly doesn’t help to build intrinsic motivation in adults.

Sometimes the work we do is different in terms of complexity. Elementary students are always building the most fundamental musical skills: hearing music in their heads before they make sound, keeping a steady beat, accessing different parts of their voices, etc. But the thing about working with adults is that when something goes wrong, it’s usually because some aspect of the fundamentals needs to be revisited. So although the two contexts can look and sound different to an observer, the work is in many ways fundamentally the same.

-What are some influences that Friends education has had on your teaching and experiences outside of MB?

In Voices United, we have three core values. “Every Voice Matters” speaks directly to the value of each individual community member regardless of their assigned role—much akin to the Quaker belief in every person’s unique and powerful inner light. “Getting Better at Being Better” speaks to the constant drive to improve upon what we’ve done before, which I think is tied to the progressive values that Friends education often helps us embrace. And “Active Inclusion” speaks to the values of community and equity, both held close by Friends schools. It’s been wonderful to be able to extend my educational philosophy that I feel is so supported at MB to my work in other areas of my musical life.

-Who are the MB community members who contribute to the chorus you direct?

For the first time this season, Director of Friends Education Jen McFadden and her daughter, 7th grader, Ada are singing with the chorus. It’s been really fun to see them enjoy making music as mother and daughter, and I’m looking forward to their continued work with us. In fact, Jen has accepted a Board Member At Large position with us, and I’m excited to add her voice to our leadership team. Beyond those two, I’ve been working on recruiting several more MB faculty, staff, and parents. Look out for more MB singers soon!

-How is singing a lifetime pursuit, how is it the same and different as a young person as compared to an adult performing?

All people want to express themselves, to be heard, to be seen for who they are, and to feel valued as part of a community. Singing in a chorus, at its best, is a great extension of those themes. Whether you’re an MB third grader in your first season of the Lower School Chorus, or an adult coming back to music after some time away, you’re seeking those things—as well as a fun time making music! I see the ways that being a hobbyist musician transforms the lives of the adults with whom I sing, and I only hope that my work in the Lower School is planting the seeds for that ongoing transformation in my students.