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Doing choral a different way… EHS students excel even with a much different competition setup

BY IVAN SANDERS
STAR STAFF
ivan.sanders@elizabethton.com
The 2020-2021 school year has just a few weeks remaining until another school year will be put in the books and just like the 2019-2020 school year everyone faced many, many challenges from the way school was attended to how graduation took place.

Even though changes were needed, those in the school system found ways to make events that students looked forward to reality even though they had to be done a completely different way.

One of those events was the regional and state competition in the choral competition that schools like Elizabethton High School have competed in and done quite well over the years.

Mrs. Debbie Gouge who has served as the choral director at Elizabethton High School for many years said that even though the traditional way of competing couldn’t be done, the state choral department came together to formulate a plan for students to once again have the opportunity to compete.

“The traditional way that we do this is of course having live auditions from all the Eastern time zone in Knoxville in September,” said Mrs. Gouge. “They start learning music and then we score them – it’s a big deal.

“We had schools that weren’t even in person until after the first of the year from our district. So for the first time ever, we did online submissions which was very much the same thing.”

For the virtual competition, some things changed but the most important thing was that those who competed still had to perform at a top-level to be above those who entered the competition.

Gouge took the time to explain the new process for those students who entered the competition this school year.

“You have five teachers judging each student,” said Gouge. “They have two prepared pieces and a scale that they have to sing and they get a total score. We submitted through a company called Submittable where we submitted their auditions online.

“We still have judged them the same way. Instead of using Scantron sheets now, we are using an electronic format. Nobody knows who they are – they are completely anonymous – they know they are in our vocal association but they don’t know what school that they are from, what grade that they are in. It’s a true picture of what this kid can do.

“They get a score which a maximum score is 100 from each judge and a perfect score is 300 but that means that you would have to have four perfect scores because the highest and lowest are thrown away and the middle three are added,” she continued.

“After that is done, then we rank each student from first to wherever and there is a line of how many students will make All-East and how many will make All-State and we were pretty fortunate in Elizabethton this year to have as many students as we did.”

The way that the students auditioned was not the only new thing that changed for the auditions as this time around a different group of singers were allowed to participate in auditions.

“We also auditioned freshmen this year for the first time. This was our pilot year anyway and that worked out okay. Our original plan was to do this in November when we traditionally have the clinic. There was so much stuff we had to learn on how to do this,” Gouge stated.

Gouge said with the surprising success that this year brought after getting the show on the ground, that she doesn’t see that it will change in the near future.

One of the reasons is that by having the auditions submitted in this manner, the teachers who were doing the judging had the opportunity to sit at their homes and listen to each one with the ability to go back and review if needed before scoring the student which is a much better way to do it according to Gouge.

With the accomplishments for the Elizabethton students including All-State students Gabriel Short and Klacie Watson and All-East Klacie Watson, Sydney Jenkins, Hannah McDonnell, Audrey Holland, Jonah Furches, Gabriel Short, Conner Johnson, and Corey Green, just having this many students make it past the hump this year was pretty exciting.

“My two All-State kids, one is a senior and one is a sophomore, and I told the two All-State kids before I told everybody. You would hope they hear it from you before they read it from wherever and a girl broke down and cried,” Gouge said.

“I said are you okay and she said you don’t understand. In my freshman year, I wrote my goals for high school and one of them was to make All-State before I graduated. Oh my gosh, that is the kind of kid that you want this to happen for. I was so pleased.”

Gouge said all except one student came into school on a Wednesday and did the recording in the music room where she stood and observed but didn’t give any input.

Instead, she allowed the students to record and listen to their performance and then asked them if it was their best one that they have and gave them the opportunity to redo if they didn’t approve of what they had done.

The students did three recordings each consisting of a scale along with a prepared Piece A and prepared Piece B.

In judging, the audition is pretty rigorous and the students were judged in tone and diction among other things.

The long-time teacher was asked if she felt that this new method allowed the students to be a little more relaxed and therefore more comfortable with their auditions.

“I think for the students we are getting a truer picture of what they can do,” Gouge said. “Anytime you are put in a situation with people where they don’t know you and you don’t know them it’s like this. There are people every year that get there and will say, “I am not doing this,”. It’s a lot more calming for the student for that initial contact. I think personally it would be so much easier.

“Traditionally also, you don’t know which part of the song that you are going to have when you go to the live audition until you get in the room. When we were talking about this, we had all agreed statewide on a conference call because I am the President of the East Tennessee Vocal Association this year and next year.

“One of the points of discussion that we had – our state president said, “So you mean if we give them that, that they wouldn’t practice if we give them where the cuts are?” Gouge continued.

“Does anybody have a problem with your students practicing if they know where the cuts are to do the best they can?”

Cuts were done during that window according to Gouge, but instead of doing it that day, there were a couple of weeks to work on that portion of music and then the students recorded it and submitted it by the given deadline.

The process seemed to make everyone feel better about themselves. It gave the students who had once tried out before and struggled to even get a sound out to come back and present the best sample of what they could do which Gouge felt put the kids in the winner’s seat and after all that is what they are after.

And not only did the students enjoy the new method but those who were on the nuts and bolts side of the auditioning felt good about the way things worked out.

“The girl who is our Executive Secretary said that she was never going to use the Scantron sheets again because this way was great,” Gouge shared. “And the teachers who participated this year have all been very positive. We are very excited that we had something going on that you can still get this mark.

“If you are an All-State student, you get a Graduation with Distinction mark on your diploma so it’s a big deal.”

Gouge shared that on Saturday, April 10th there will be a Virtual Day for the All-State students where there will be breakout rooms, speakers, and there is even talk that they may get to do a virtual choir.

The Elizabethton music teacher said if there was one motivational factor that came from this setup was the fact that some of the students who made All-East maybe for the first time are going to say, “Hey, I got this figured out,” and will be driven to chase All-State the next year and even start working toward that.