vocal music

An Ode to Edith

by Dianna Phelps

When I was growing up my favorite hour each week was the glorious hour I spent at Re-Creations Musicke Shoppe.  It was a quirky little place, jam-packed with any and everything you could think of that is related to music.  It was literally stuffed wall-to-wall.  At first glance you might think you were in an episode of Hoarders but after taking a closer look, you saw sheer magic. Everywhere you looked you could see an instrument and I don’t mean your run-of-the-mill guitars, pianos, horns and drums, although they were there too. I’m talking about instruments like a harpsicord, several hand-made dulcimers, an accordion and my favorite: a washboard. Every week during that holy hour, my brother and I had back-to-back, 30-minute music lessons.  When I was either waiting for my lesson to begin or waiting for my brother’s lesson to end, I wandered around the store exploring and taking in all of the exotic and fascinating things my small mind had never seen before.  I pretended I knew how to play all of the instruments and daydreamed about a world in which everything seemed possible.

We first began taking music lessons when we were 9 and 10 years old.  We had recently moved in with our Grandmother who knew that we both enjoyed learning to play the recorder while attending our previous school.  Even more, she knew that keeping us busy and engaged in something we enjoyed would help to ease the transition of our move, so she signed us up for recorder lessons.  Enter one Ms. Edith Duhon, the town music teacher.

Ms. Duhon was in her mid to late 50s, rocked the most pristine hair-do consisting of a neat bun with a tightly secured bow fastened directly underneath.  She was an anomaly for our small town.  She was well-educated, well-travelled, had no children and married late in life.  In rural Louisiana that was shocking, unheard of even.  I remember being instantly intrigued and smitten by her.  She was utterly brilliant, playing to some extent every instrument in her store.  Who does that? I surely had never met anyone that talented and I’m not sure I have since.

During one recorder lesson, Ms. Duhon had my brother and I sing a song together with her. She had one good listen and said, “Dianna, you need to find your voice.” What a lovely way of saying I was practically tone deaf.  She was like that. She could love you and make you feel valued while simultaneously telling you the cold, hard truth. After a while, I grew bored with recorder and my brother moved on to piano. She suggested I take voice lessons but I opted to stop taking lessons altogether. She didn’t give up though.  She would see me when my grandmother would pick my brother up from his lesson and would remind me that I needed to work on finding my voice and she could help me do it.  She was very convincing and it didn’t take long for me to begin taking voice lessons.  During high school, she would use this same persistence to keep me in lessons when I wanted to quit.  Each week I would work up the nerve to tell her I’d planned to stop lessons but before I could get around to it, she’d pull out all of my favorite pieces, make me sing them and I would fall in love with singing all over again. By the time I left my lesson I couldn’t imagine a world in which I didn’t get to sing with her and be in her presence for at least 30 minutes a week.

I could spend a lot of time writing about technical things I learned about music and singing during my lessons but, while those things are important and I’m grateful for having learned them, the best learning that I did during that time has nothing to do with actual music or singing.  Ms. Duhon taught me other lessons. Life lessons.  She said to me once, “Dianna, I had been to Europe and back three times before I married. You need to know that it’s important for you to have a life of your own before you share it with someone.”  Growing up in tiny-town Louisiana, I had never heard those words uttered by anyone.  It was a powerful realization that my life could be what I wanted to make it and it didn’t have to look like everyone else’s that surrounded me.  Those words were compelling. They felt like freedom and possibility.

Ms. Duhon didn’t just teach music and life-lessons, she exposed me to life through the arts in numerous ways over the course of our time together.  She took me to my first ballet.  I remember it like it was yesterday. I hated it.  But I remember being in awe of how glamorous she was for the event. She wore a dress and a costume jewelry broach and when we ate dinner beforehand at the buffet she pronounced the word boo-fay. She. Was. Everything.  She took me to my first opera, Samson and Delilah, which I loved.  She also took me to see Handel’s Messiah, which was the first time I remember falling in love with orchestra. These things might seem insignificant to some but these experiences enlarged my worldview exponentially and in ways none of my other life experiences had to that point.

In my case, music lessons didn’t produce a performer or a musician.  The totality of my music career consisted of singing at church and in college choir, and even then I had a strong apprehension to solos.  For me, music and singing is solely personal; something I have for myself and my enjoyment.  Ms. Duhon’s music lessons did help me find my voice and make me a singer but more importantly they instilled a deep, profound love of the arts, which makes my life richer.  They excited curiosity in me and made me seek understanding of the world in a new and more diverse way.  They gave me a much needed outlet to express my feelings and if you know me, you know I have ALL of the feelings.

On a recent trip to NYC to visit my brother, we were taking a train uptown and began reminiscing about Ms. Duhon and her influence.  By the time we reached our stop we were both crying.  We were crying because we felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. We were crying because she was a magnificent human and through relationship and the gift of music, she changed the trajectory of our lives.  That isn’t something you take for granted. That’s something that you hold close and sacred. I’m not a musician but what I know with absolute certainty is that the arts are so subtlely and thoroughly woven into my life that the implications are long-lasting and far-reaching in ways I’ve yet to even understand.  Thank God and Ms. Duhon for that.



Dianna Phelps is a school-based mental health professional with a proven track record of success in providing evidence-based supports and interventions.  Her areas of expertise include School Climate & Culture, Positive Behavior Interventions and Support, Social Emotional Learning, Behavior Intervention & Discipline and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. Dianna currently lives in Atlanta and works for Fulton County Schools where she coaches teachers under the Disproportionality Project, which is aimed at plugging the school-to-prison pipeline by providing behavior intervention, restorative practices and support services to students in need.  Dianna holds a B.S. in Sociology from Southern Nazarene University, a M.A. in Counseling from Louisiana Tech University and has completed post graduate work at Loyola University Chicago in Advanced School-Based Mental Health Practice. 

It's ok to be odd

by Adrienne Nyamsi

The story goes that my mother, tired of the loud 6-year-old singing Debbie Gibson songs in the house, finally asked ‘Why are you SO loud?’ But 6 -year-olds don’t understand rhetorical questions. So, I earnestly I explained, ‘because I need to hear my voice.’

I’m grateful that my mother heard and invested in the intent behind my throwaway response; what followed was a lifetime of vocal and piano lessons; my teens, singing in an award-winning children’s chorus and a specialized arts high school and my early twenties pursuing a BA degree in Music Theory and Performance.

The experience in itself birthed an apparent skill set; I’m a classically trained vocalist. I can read music (albeit slowly, these days). I have access to a part of my brain that non-artists perhaps do not.

What I did not realize was that there would be other less tangible but vitally important gifts that I’d receive, reference and most important, share with others for the rest of my life.


  1. I saw the world and expanded my idea of my potential


By the time I was 16, singing took me to London, the Czech Republic, Austria and much of the US. I’d sung at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and had been on the cover of the Art and Leisure section of the NYT.

I am the first, first generation American in my family. I am the child of two Cameroonian immigrants. I grew up in the 90s. Although my family made it clear that I had (and was required to reach my)  infinite potential, when I left my family’s warm embrace, I existed in a world that whispered a relentless counter message of low expectations for girls like me. But my experiences with music kept that message pianississimo, so to speak.

Everyday, access to art reminded me that absolutely anything was possible and that I was worthy, brave enough and talented enough to access such fortune.


  1. It’s ok to be odd


I was a strange art kid. You know, one of  those kids that came to school an hour before first period to have access to the piano and create 4-part harmonies to pop songs on the radio; Those kids who went to the Nederlander Theatre every Sunday morning to try to get cheap, front row tickets to RENT; those kids that once got reported to the police on the train for being loud trouble-makers, and when they came to investigate, they found six kids singing the 9th movement of the Bach Motets in E minor (we were, indeed, loud though).

We made perfect sense--to each other.  But a quick interaction with kids that had different high school experiences reminded us that we were as weird as possible.  

There are many interesting things that came to be true about ‘those kids.’ Perhaps the most interesting is that whether life took us to Broadway, the front of a classroom or a boardroom, that singularity and comfort with being left of center continues to be the secret to our success. We never did what everyone else did. And that was ok.

I wonder, what might life be like if more kids were affirmed for being different? Whom might they be brave enough to become?


  1. Discipline was regular part of my childhood


From the ages of 11-18, Tuesdays and Thursdays afternoons were devoted to choir rehearsal. And so I, along with about 60 young people, fresh from eight hours of school, would shuffle into our rehearsal space. We sat like overcooked noodles in our chairs. Limp. Insolent. Over it.

In response to a room vibrating with teen apathy, our choral director simply said ‘Sit for singing.’’

Like alchemy, every back slid forward and our feet found firm ground. Regardless of what happened during the school day, what followed my choral teacher’s call to action was two hours of physical, mental and artistic focus.

‘Sit for singing’ is a declarative statement but it was never, ever a demand. No one forced me to do this work. No one forced me to keep poring over my music binder long after rehearsal was dismissed. But I learned early on that access to music required an investment of my time, mind and body. And so, I did it.


  1. I think creatively about my work and find unique solutions to tricky situations


Like many musicians, I have tons of stories about that ‘one time’ the show did not go as planned. That time when I was 11 and a soprano fell off the riser (she’s ok!). That time when my college friends and I sang a quick Messiah for Christmas money and someone fainted just as we got the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ (she’s ok! Handel probably isn’t too pleased, though). That one time I sang background vocals for someone, she couldn’t hear the key, came in completely off-pitch and whole band had to figure out how to either get her back on pitch or transpose to meet her, mid-song.

Here’s what I know now; often, life happens in between the plans you make about how life will unfold. At work, things can fall apart. But ability to trust that they will resolve,  that there is always a solution and that the solution may be an unexpected one is a lesson I learned as a child, on the stage.

The experiences I had as a young artist were profound. I am, without a doubt, a better, smarter, human because of it.



Adrienne Nyamsi is a political and issues-based campaign operative and education equity advocate. She has worked on hyper-local, city and state-wide political and issues-based campaigns in leadership capacities across New York State. Currently, she is the Senior Director for Community Impact at Democracy Prep Public Schools. In her role, she leads the scholar recruitment and enrollment process and designs the hyperlocal community engagement strategy  for DPPS schools across the nation.  Adrienne holds a B.S in Political Science and  a B. Mus from Hunter College.   She is a Coro Fellow and has received campaign operations training through Emily’s List and the New American Leaders Project. She’s also a recovering fashion blogger and life-long singer that doesn’t sing much these days and thus, she’s kind of angsty.


MAGICAL UNICORNS: Artists & Teachers

by Jerry Phelps

Throughout my career as a classroom and private music teacher, and now as an arts education supervisor, leader, and consultant, I’ve often heard others say that arts education helps raise test scores. I realize that most people who say this do so in honest and genuine support of arts education. They think that if they comment on how arts education improves test scores, somehow influencers and policymakers in public education will understand that we should keep the arts alive in public schools.

While I like this sentiment, I also find it highly problematic. To me, the arts are not to be used as a tool for the other—that is, the arts are worth the study and pursuit because they function as stand-alone academic subjects. I have never once considered what I do as extra. Sure, I could tell you about the countless research studies that have clearly shown that schools with quality, robust arts education programs have higher standardized test scores, graduation rates, engagement in the school and surrounding community, and positive impact on school culture, but that relegates arts education to solely being used as a tool to solve the world’s problems. I like to think of it more as a tool to understand the world’s problems, not necessarily to solve them.

I started CORE Arts Consulting in effort to expand my work into multiple schools, communities, states, and even countries. I deeply believe in the power of arts education and that it should be a right to every child in public schools, regardless of socioeconomic background. Access to quality arts instruction changes lives. I speak from personal experience. I grew up in a small, rural town in Louisiana where little to no arts education was happening. I was fortunate to encounter Ms. Edith (Duhon) Wilkerson who ultimately changed my life through the study of piano and singing. I frequently think of all the children (and adults!) across our great country that never are so lucky. They rely almost exclusively on public schools and churches to receive education and experiences in the arts. But, what happens when those institutions are no longer doing the work?

In the article, Study: Music Education Could Help Close The Achievement Gap Between Poor and Affluent Students, the author, Rebecca Klein, explains the results of a study from Northwestern University in which researchers “looked at the impact of music education on at-risk children’s nervous systems and found that music lessons could help them develop language and reading skills.” The study was conducted over two summers in Los Angeles in a program where low-income students received free music lessons through the Harmony Project. This study reiterates that which many of us already understand: Arts education matters! We are better off having studied and experienced the arts. So, why do we continue to have to explain this to naysayers? Why are school leaders and administrators having to make scheduling decisions based on whether or not arts classes are taking away from the already increased literacy and math blocks? Why do we always attempt to support our work by first saying that it helps growth in other areas? What if it only helped children grow as artists and thinkers and doers? Isn’t that in itself enough?

My favorite line from the article is, “These findings are a testament that it’s a mistake to think of music education as a quick fix, but that if it’s an ongoing part of children’s education, making music can have a profound and lifelong impact on listening and learning.” Listening and learning. Now that’s something we could all stand to get better at! As you begin your school year, I encourage you to stop justifying your work in the arts as merely a means to assist schools in teaching literacy and math. Rather, I ask you to consider that your work is important and worthy for what it is. You teach the arts for the arts' sake. You teach it because it alone is worthy. Cross-curricular connections are inherent in the arts. You don’t really have to spend much time searching for ways to incorporate them. If you teach theatre, teach your students theatre. If you teach visual art, teach them visual art. If you teach dance, by all means, teach your students to dance! Our society is depending on us to do this work. They may not always be grateful for our work in the moment, but they certainly will in the long run. Artists and teachers, YOU ARE MAGICAL UNICORNS. Keep creating magic with your students! I’m wishing you the best year yet.



With more than a decade of classroom teaching experience and a proven track record of arts education program development nationally, Jerry Phelps is a sought-after arts education professional specializing in curriculum, program development, professional development, teacher coaching, and organizational sustainability. In addition to a variety of classroom and private teaching experiences, Phelps most recently served as the Director of Arts Education and eventually the Director of Co-Curricular Programs for Democracy Prep Public Schools. In these positions, he managed and oversaw the development and growth of dozens of school-based arts education programs, national award-winning speech and debate programs, and physical education and athletic programs across the nation. Among his awards and recognition, Phelps was named a quarter finalist by the RECORDING ACADEMY© and THE GRAMMY FOUNDATION© for the inaugural Music Educator Award. As a seasoned singer and performer, Phelps can be seen on stage frequently throughout New York City in a variety of solo shows and one-off performances. Phelps currently serves as the Principal Consultant for the New York City-based arts education consulting firm, CORE Arts Consulting. 


Matching Pitch in Middle School (and other true stories!)

by JoAnn Struck

Choir in middle school seems to be the meeting place for every student who loves to sing but has difficulty matching pitch.  The choir program at my school excludes no one.  Everyone who wants to sing can join.  It’s my job to help them become better singers.

It’s a misconception that middle school boys are the only ones who have trouble matching pitch.  Don’t get me wrong, they and it’s obvious when their voice becomes its own alien being.  Even though my feeder school music teachers do a fabulous job of teaching kids to sing, there are still some who just can’t do it.  It’s not anyone’s fault…it’s just what it is.

I’ve been to countless workshops on the boys changing voice.  They all had wonderful things to offer and I use many of them.  There are many physiological reasons for the boys voice change that I won’t go in to here.  Please check out the list of books at the end of this article if you want to further dive into that aspect. 

Over the years I’ve created my own hybrid method of working with these unpredictable voices using everything I’ve learned from workshops and the experience I’ve gained working with my students.   I have also found that this works great with girls, too!  At the beginning of the school year, this is one of the first warm-up exercises I use with the whole choir.  It’s rather magical.

This method came from my good friend Dr. Steven Curtis, retired choral professor from Oklahoma University.

For any student that has trouble matching pitch, have them talk to you until you find their speaking pitch on the piano.  Use that pitch as a starting point.  Have them sing ‘ah’ on do-re-mi-re-do.  Dr. Curtis explains that if a boy (or girl) is having trouble matching pitch, they will have a much better chance of matching 3 pitches instead of a typical 5 (do-re-me-fa-so-fa-me-re-do) that we would use as a standard vocal warm-up.  I use ‘ah’ because I can hear them better and I can hear when their voice changes into their upper register or (for boys) pops and cracks or just plain disappears.  Have them sing this moving up by half steps until they run out of notes and do the same descending by half steps. This gives you their current range.

Now the real work begins.  In my classroom we are very comfortable (even with girls present) talking with the boys about what pitches they can or cannot sing.  (this is a subject for an entire different blog post).  I explain to any student having trouble matching pitch that they must use the daily warm ups as a chance to broaden their range.  I am careful to include the 3-note warm-up for quite a while until I feel most of my students are matching more and more pitches.  Sometimes I will ask an individual section to do a warm-up so I can check their progress.  I will also have students come individually to work with them and their unique vocal issues.

True story #1:  I had a 7th grade girl that constantly sang way too low.  Sometimes an octave lower that the music was written.  I had her come in before school and discovered that her elementary teacher had told her not to sing.  GRRRRRRRRR!  This girl loved to sing but no one took the time to help her.  Within 5 minutes of a few warm-ups and a quick reminder of how to produce a good sound, she was singing on pitch. She had no actual vocal problems, just a lack of instruction.

True story #2:  Last year I had an autistic girl who sang in the stratosphere no matter what I did.  I had her begin coming in once a week for a “lesson” (15 minutes).  I started her with the 3 note warm up and discovered she could match pitch by herself.  We started singing simple songs like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and I would change the key each time we repeated it and she could match pitch.  One of her vocal problems was tension.  I would constantly tell her to relax and her pitch matching improved immensely.  So we made a signal between her and me to help her remember to relax during a rehearsal or performance.  Part of her issue though was the need for repetition.  Most autistic students need lots of repetition for everything they do.  By the time we were ready to perform for the concert she had learned the music well and could sing on pitch most of the time.  It was so fun to watch!

True story #3:  I had a young man join choir for the first time in 7th grade.  He had a bit of an advantage because he had been in orchestra since 4th grade and already had a strong idea of performing in-tune).  He literally had 5 notes he could match.  I took him through the process I mentioned above and told him if he wanted more notes (larger range) he was going to have to work for it.  I explained that he should never sing anything that was painful but it was OK to stretch his range each time we warmed-up.  Daily, I could see the look of concentration on his face as we did warm-ups.  It was delightful to watch!  By the end of the year, he had increased his range to over an octave.  I was so proud of him!

Can every student match pitch? I believe they can.  It takes work from you, the teacher, as well as the student.  It won’t happen overnight and sometimes it might take longer than you have them as students.  Put in the work. It’s worth the effort!


Check out the following resources for voice building:

Strategies for Teaching Junior High/Middle School Male Singers

The Boys' Changing Voice

Working with Adolescent Voices

Finding Ophelia's Voice, Opening Ophelia's Heart


JoAnn Struck has begun her 33rd year of teaching music in the public schools.  She has taught music for K-12th grade and has spent the last 25ish years teaching middle school choir at Capps Middle School in the Putnam City School District in Oklahoma City, OK.  She earned her B.M.E from Southern Nazarene University and her M.A in Choral Conducting from the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.  She continues to question her sanity but truly loves teaching middle school.  She can be reached at jstruck@putnamcityschools.org



Singing in Tune (Yes, in middle school!)

by JoAnn Struck


The first few choir rehearsals are important in so many ways.  One of the first skills I teach is tuning.  If a choir doesn’t know what “in tune” sounds like they will never be able to understand it or recreate it.

For my middle school choirs, this is the procedure I follow for teaching basic in-tune singing in the first few rehearsals:

I first have to explain the mechanics of vocal production:

1. dropping the jaw-this can be done by putting two fingers (one on top of the other) and slipping it between their top and bottom teeth or when their jaw is dropped they can place their finger in the ‘hole’ next to their ear.  The hole only appears when the jaw is dropped.

2. lifting the soft palate- I have the students use their tongue to feel the roof of their mouth just behind their front teeth.  I explain that this is called the hard palate.  Next I ask them to use their tongue to feel the back part of the roof of their mouth.  They notice how soft and squishy it is and we talk about it being connected to the uvula.  Then I ask them to pretend to yawn (which always turns into a real yawn for them and me!) and ask them to describe to me what direction the soft palate moves.  Surprise!  It moves up!  Some teachers tell their young singers to “create space” in the back of their throat or “open the throat.”  Most students don’t know how to do this without some instruction.  I have found this little exercise makes much more sense to them and is quickly successful.

3.  Mouth shape - keeping the corners of their mouth from spreading.  I teach in Oklahoma and our school is very ethnically diverse.  So the singer “spread” is a daily battle.  I have my students start with singing while dropping the jaw, then experience what lifting the soft palate feels like (yawning), then paying attention to the shape of the mouth.

After some practice with the basic mechanics, then I choose a pitch I know most of my girls AND boys can sing…usually B or A below middle C.  It’s not necessary to have them sing with a lot of gusto at the beginning.  My goal for them is to experience singing in tune. 

We start by singing the vowel ooooo because it’s the easiest to tune.  The first time the students sing in unison, it’s pretty much all over the place.  The boys are still trying to find their voice, the girls are checking out the boys and there’s at least one student trying to read their book without me noticing.  You’ve got to love middle school!

As we they are singing I use motions to remind them about the three things they are focusing on in order to sing in tune.  I drop my jaw and run my hand down the jawline, for the soft palate I raise my hand up in the “la” position and for the mouth shape I ask them to sing as if they have a cheerio or life saver in their mouth and they are singing through the hole.   I stop them and explain to them that if EVERYONE is singing with the correct technique then they will be able to hear the pitch “straighten out.”  So we try again.  They sing the pitch until it becomes “in tune”, all the while I am using my motions to remind them of they things they need to do to make it “in tune.”  It usually takes a few seconds but it will finally get there.  We celebrate!  I say things like: “Did you hear that?  Did you hear how the pitch was all jumbled and ragged and then it straightened out and became smooth?”  They actually get excited!

I explain to them that the goal is to have that ‘jumbled’ time decrease each time they sing.  So we do it again…..and again….and again.  Unbelievably, after a few times, they can sing in tune, they can recognize what in-tune singing sound AND feels like. 

We have to do this process with each vowel sound because each vowel has it’s own shape and challenges.  Once the students have experienced the in-tune sound, then adapting it to the other vowel sounds goes very quickly.  Eventually we sing through all the vowels (on a single pitch, then changing pitches) without stopping to teach them to keep the mechanics in place as the vowels change.

I have found this process to be simple, quick and very successful for my middle school students.  Proper singing has many, many layers…..singing in tune is just one of them.

Very few, if any, of my students have the luxury of taking private voice lessons.  So my choral warm ups at the beginning of each rehearsal is a mini voice lesson.  What an opportunity for students to get this kind of instruction every single day!  So it’s important to make that time count! 


Here are a few of my favorite warm-up books.  They all include exercises in tuning as well as many other important vocal techniques. 

The Complete Choral Warm Up book - Robinson & Althouse

The Choral Warm Up Collection - Albrect

Building Beautiful Voices - Nesheim & Noble


JoAnn Struck has begun her 33rd year of teaching music in the public schools.  She has taught music for K-12th grade and has spent the last 25ish years teaching middle school choir at Capps Middle School in the Putnam City School District in Oklahoma City, OK.  She earned her B.M.E from Southern Nazarene University and her M.A in Choral Conducting from the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.  She continues to question her sanity but truly loves teaching middle school.  She can be reached at jstruck@putnamcityschools.org