When Ryan Main arrived at Nowlin Middle School in Independence to teach music five years ago, he saw a challenge.
“There were only 40 kids participating in our school’s sole choir,” said Main. “Overall, the achievement level was low and students were lacking confidence.”
Main needed to turn things around – and he did just that.
These days Nowlin Middle School’s choir programs have exponentially grown from the meager 40 to more than 200 singing students. The rising popularity of the school’s flagship Black and Gold choir has caused the creation of several other choir programs, including an exclusive sixth grade choir debuting this year. Some choir concerts even have to be relocated at the larger Van Horn High School auditorium in order to accommodate audience capacity.
How Main, the choir director and a music instructor, transformed Nowlin’s original choir program, Black and Gold, was a simple approach. “I felt strongly to pick music that was engaging, fun and educational.”
During Main’s second year at Nowlin, he was inspired by the TV show “The Sing-Off,” which features performers singing a cappella, and therefore introduced students to the style. Without the instrumental accompaniment, Main said “the students really loved the challenge.”
“A cappella presents a challenge that drives kids to perform better and become more confident,” Main said. He added that Nowlin students rose to the occasion and “they became tremendously better as a result.”
Increased visibility was another component that contributed to the Black and Gold choir’s success. “For the first time in a while, we began performing in contests and singing at events,” Main said. “The confidence in their singing ability greatly improved.”
Once choir students had exposure in front of a public audience, their confidence gained and it later could be heard in their singing, Main said. At each of the concert contests at venues such as Graceland University or in the town of Richmond, Mo., the choir has earned a superior “1” rating every time.
“Honestly, the Black and Gold choir is on par at either a high school or collegiate level,” Main says.
As each year progressed, Main says he saw a steady increase in students wanting to join the Black and Gold choir program and new ones were created in response to the demand. “A lot of students expressed interest in performing, but only a handful are picked (to join Black and Gold).” Main said the Women’s Choir, Mixed Choir and Sixth Grade Choir sprang out due to Black and Gold’s school-wide popularity and high level of performance.
A number of a cappella songs the Black and Gold choir perform are from contemporary popular artists such as Coldplay and Rhianna. They also perform songs from the hit movie “Pitch Perfect.” Main elaborates the pop songs are in their original arrangements and even some talented students demonstrate their human beat box abilities during performances. “They are fantastic to watch,” Main said.
Despite the fun song selections and enjoyment the students have participating in the choir, Main said there are, however, expectations each student must maintain. “In order to participate in our Black and Gold choir, you have to maintain good grades and a good attendance record.”
Word about Black and Gold’s requirements was spread throughout Nowlin to students interested in joining the program. As a result, the school has an increase in student achievement and attendance. “In Black and Gold, expectations have been higher and our students are striving higher in order to participate,” said Main.
Reflecting on his choir programs at Nowlin Middle School, Main said, “Students are drawn to our choir programs not just because of the music we sing, but because of how we perform, how our students hold their heads high and how they share their excitement with family and friends. Our students want to be part of something excellent.”
“Black and Gold is my favorite part of the day,” says eighth grader Sierra Yutzy. “We are all like family.”
Nowlin’s Black and Gold choir will perform their holiday concert at Van Horn High School on Dec. 19 beginning at 7 p.m. They will also be performing at a Missouri Mavericks game on Jan. 4.