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Oakdale Choir Classes Expand Musical Repertoire
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Students of the Oakdale Junior High Choir, receiving virtual instruction on ukuleles, the instruments a new addition to the school music program. Photo Contributed

As the campuses of Oakdale High and Oakdale Junior High schools remain empty, so to do the choir classrooms. The vacancy, however, hasn’t stopped Choir Instructor Bryan Mills from doing what many have been motivated to do this school year: think outside the box.

Mills, a veteran at teaching choir at both campuses, shared he began thinking of the coming year last summer when it became apparent he would likely be teaching Choir in an on-line format. The longtime teacher admitted he felt it would be tough to teach singing on-line.

As a music enthusiast himself, Mills did some research which resulted in finding funding to purchase 50 guitars for the high school and 50 ukuleles for his junior high students.

“With singing, we sang the whole first semester, but it’s hard to put the music together,” Mills said of the virtual experience. “So what we did was ordered the guitars and ukuleles. The kids seem to like it.”

In addition to the instrument purchase, the choir teacher also purchased books and cases for the ukuleles. Instruments were distributed at the school sites early in the second semester.

“They’re learning how to read music through the ukulele,” Mills said of the junior high students, noting this is not something normally taught in choir.

“It’s a way to actually learn how to read music, but through an instrument. Not just through your voice,” he added.

Using the opportunity for additional learning in the second semester, the Oakdale High School students were given 10 weeks of virtual instruction with their guitars, which led to a performance for a grade.

“High school kids have been at it for 10 weeks so now they will perform, playing a song of their choice for the class, playing guitar and singing as their final,” Mills shared of the second semester learning. “Some of them are struggling. They can play guitar really well. They can sing really well, but putting the two together; their brain hasn’t connected yet.”

Overall, the teacher shared, while some have struggled with taking up the instruments, he continues to encourage them to have fun with it and not get discouraged.

“It’s a life skill,” Mills said. “I started playing in high school and have played my whole life. It really expands their knowledge of music and then being a singer you can learn to accompany yourself. You just become more confident also.”

Not one to be frivolous with district or school site money, the Drama and Choir teacher shared his intention is to expand this beyond the COVID school year, noting a goal of adding a guitar and piano class to the high school elective schedule in the 2021-2022 school year.

“Next year I’m going to have a piano lab for the high school. It’s just finding the right funding, but now we have the space for it,” Mills said, acknowledging the transformation of the former wrestling room to a theater and choir space.

With delivery times varied between the two instruments, OJHS students are now in their fourth week of 10 week instruction. An instruction time which has gone well, yet has presented challenges as the students “mirror” what they see on the screen.

“The junior high kids are a little hesitant to do it live,” the teacher shared.

Working hard to maintain an encouraging atmosphere the teacher shared he simply requests to see the students’ holding, strumming and technical aspects of utilizing the instrument.

“I don’t want them to be stressed about it,” he said. “But it’s fun. They’re having a good time.”

The idea is also to give the students a showcase for their newly acquired skills.

“The high school is ready to perform a song,” Mills stated. “If we get back before May, we’re going to have a concert outdoors and you’re going to hear some of the ukuleles during the choir section and some of the guitar players. That’s my goal, at least in May for the parents, to do an outside concert maybe in a park.”

Oakdale High students are all smiles as they hone in on their guitar skills. The addition of the instruments is thanks to teacher Bryan Mills, who added the curriculum to his choir class in the second semester. Photo Contributed