Because of a singing grandmother, Middletown High School choral students had the opportunity to learn from a university choral director earlier this month.

Dr. Tony Thornton, director of choral studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, conducted a workshop for Middletown High School students in the advanced chorus and chamber choir Sept. 12 before presenting a workshop for members of the Delaware Music Educators Association Sept. 13 as part of DMEA State Music Day.

The special workshops all started with a family connection.

Middletown High School vocal music director Rocky Tejada was once the director of a church choir in which Thornton’s grandmother sang.

“Rocky asked me if I would be able to offer the workshops for his students and the DMEA,” said Thornton. “I always love working with talented students. I started out as a high school teacher and I miss it.”

“The teachers at the elementary, middle, and high school levels put a lot of time and effort into teaching the students and we reap the benefits at the college level,” he said. “I’m always thankful for the students they send to us. Their work often goes unrecognized.”

Thornton started the workshop at Middletown High with the basics including how to stand and how to breathe for the best singing results and then moved on to lessons in tone quality, phrasing, articulation, balance and blending.

“Any time you have another person in front of your ensemble, it reinforces the things the director has been talking about because the students are hearing it from another person,” said Thornton.

After the choral instruction, Thornton held a question-and-answer session with the students.

“I want to tell them what to expect at the university level if they plan to major in music, and if they’re not majoring in music I want to tell them all the ways they can stay involved in music,” Thornton said. “Even if you’re not majoring in music, there are ways to still be building your skills. I hope singing is something they pursue for a lifetime.”

He said he wants non-music majors to have positive experiences in the arts because they’re going to be the politicians and community leaders who will be deciding what gets funded.

“When arts programs are cut, we become in danger of losing a little bit of our souls,” Thornton said. “Artists help to propel society. They lift us up in times of joy and help us in our healing after tragedies. It is so important.”

He said while music is intertwined in so many people’s lives, to others it is one of the main things that makes life worthwhile.

“I think it is critical for students to sing and find their voice. As a youngster I often felt lost, but music was the one thing that saved me and inspired me,” Thornton said. “I hold it in high regard.

Tejada said he’s thankful to Thornton for taking the time to help him and the students.

“I learn from the experience just like the students do,” said Tejada. “It’s a great opportunity to hear from someone who’s respected in the field and to hear things from a fresh perspective.”

Tejada said workshops like this can help students reach new heights.

“Participating in a master class creates an exciting environment where breakthroughs are likely to happen,” he said. “When that ‘ah ha’ moment occurs, it's thrilling for everyone – the choir, the audience, and of course the teachers – because it validates the work we’ve been doing with students throughout the year.”

Student Kylie Boggs said she enjoyed the lessons in how to stand properly, hold your head properly, and how move to improve your singing.

“He showed us motions that complimented our sound,” said Boggs. “I also loved how passionate he was about the music.”

Student Josh Freeman said, “I loved the warm ups he did with us. He tried to get us to sing with confidence. He helped us change our sound through voice placement and other vocal techniques.”

The students also said the workshop helped them feel more confident about college-level opportunities.

“You don’t have to be a music major or music educator to sing beyond high school,” said Boggs. “He gave me insight into the college choir scene, which will be helpful as I am applying for college.”

Freeman said, “He taught me a lot about the audition process to get into college music programs, and about the scholarship opportunities, and how choir can help put me through college.”