Rod Baggett, maestro of Nevada Union High School
June 27, 2008
The Baggett family’s mark on choral music at Nevada Union High School on Ridge Road in Grass Valley is indelible. Two generations of choral conductors are represented in Don, the father, after whom the school’s Don Baggett Theatre is named; and Rod, the son and present choir director.
Under the Baggett’s tutelage, Nevada Union’s reputation in the choral field has soared. They’ve received honors and have sung in European cathedrals. Concerts – especially those at the school – are packed with enthusiastic fans. The songs range from playful to profound, easy to complex. Speaking as an appreciator of choral music myself, it’s always a treat to attend and watch all the seven sub choirs perform separately and then all together.
Although I’ve always admired Rod from afar, it was at a party at composer Mark Vance’s house last June that we actually met and talked. I asked him if he’d be interested in doing an interview with me. We both agreed that e-mail would be the best vehicle, giving Rod a chance to put some real thought into his answers. While it’s long, it’s also complete – a primer for a successful choir program.
PROSPECTOR: In round figures, how many students have experienced singing under your direction?
ROD BAGGETT: I just finished my 12th year at NU and we have between 250 to 270 students each year in 7 different choirs. At our concerts all 7 choirs combine and sing together which gives us an 8th choir called the “Chorale.” (Editor’s note: That’s about 3,000 in total.)
PROS: Why do so many students at NU want to be in choir?
RB: With about 2,500 students at NU, I have about 250 students, totaling about 10 percent of the student body. I believe there are several reasons students at NU take choir.
o I heavily recruit by going out to the Jr. Highs and doing assemblies for the 8th graders. I bring my advanced singers to sing and always try to feature the boys doing something that is upbeat, MANLY AND FUN!. This is the number one goal… RECRUIT BOYS! Boys need to see and be convinced that it is cool and masculine to sing. It’s not sissy or feminine.
o Most of the students that I have in choir start as 9th graders and stay in for all 4 years.
o There is a long history of a quality choir program at the school so some join because they’ve either have heard about us or heard us at one of our concerts. They also have seen the large group of guys (usually about 75) sing the national anthem at the home football games.
o Many of the students are in the program because either an older sibling or even a parent was previously in the choir. Some had been in choir at the Jr. High level.
PROS: Why are the concerts you put on so consistently good? What’s your secret?
RB: All I can say is that there really isn’t any secret, it’s just a lot of hard work. I have gone into a little more detail in some of the other questions below. Some of the main ingredients would be:
1. Section of good quality music. There needs to be a good variety that the students get excited about and is entertaining to the audience. If the music is exciting it’s a lot easier to motivate the students.
2. Teaching the students musicianship and professionalism – not an easy task when dealing with 250 teenagers.
3. The hard work is a day to day thing. Trying to be firm and consistent in how I rehearse and deal with disciplinary issues is an ongoing challenge.
4. Trying to get the kids to sing musically and passionately is paramount. Learning the notes is only the beginning, like preschool or kindergarten. Excellence takes much, much more.
5. When it’s all said and done and we are performing at our concerts, I try to relax and just enjoy – again not all that easy to do. The students can testify that I get quite intense as we grow closer to performances.
PROS: You have your Chamber Choir tackle some challenging music. What is the process you go through, from choosing the pieces to performance. What are some of those challenging pieces.
RB: The most important hurdle in making a choir successful is choose good quality, exciting, interesting literature that is appropriate for each level of choir. I choose the choral repertoire in a number of ways.
o When I take my choirs to festivals where we get to hear other choirs perform, I hear the other choirs repertoire.
o I attend conferences and workshops that have a major focus towards presenting new choral literature.
o I have a huge library of many years of wonderful music to choose from as well.
As for the learning process, regardless of the level of experience and expertise, the process is basically the same.
1. When beginning a piece we rely heavily on our piano accompanist Linda DeMartini, to play the perspective parts for us. In each section there are hopefully some good sight readers that lead the section.
2. Learning the notes is only the very beginning. As we are drilling the various parts (tenor, alto, soprano, bass) we pay attention to all the other aspects of the music; i.e., the tempo, the tone, timbre or mood of the piece, the dynamics and the accents.
3. The sooner we can the music memorized the better, because then the music becomes a part of the singer and they can begin to sing more expressively. This is where the “real music happens.”
4. It is my job to teach all the choirs from beginning and intermediate to advance how to sing with professionalism. This involves everything from standing appropriately (posture), staying attentive and focused on the director, to the music itself. Our job as performers is to try to interpret what the composer intended. This is where the things mentioned above come into play – the tone, mood, the tempo and the dynamics.
5. We work hard on blend, balance and tone. All of the voice parts need to listen and match vowels and tone. Each song may be different depending on the “mood’ of the piece.
PROS: What is your choral department mostly know for in the world of choral music?
RB: The two groups that Nevada Union is mostly recognized for are the advanced choirs, namely the Concert and Chamber Choirs. We are recognized for consistently having top quality choirs that sing classical literature. We attend various festivals and regularly receive superior ratings. This reputation is well known in California but even in other parts of the U.S. and even Europe. We regularly get invitations to participate in various festivals and events all over world. Twice Nevada Union has performed at the American Choral Directors Association Western Division Convention. This event is attended by choir directors in California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and Hawaii. Concert Choir performed for this event held in Anaheim last February.
PROS: What is your level of job satisfaction?
RB: I no doubt enjoy my job. Many people say to me, “Wow you must really love your job!” There are times that this is true, especially when the students share my excitement and passion for the music. When all the hard work pays off and the students really rise to the moment and sing their best and we, the choir, the audience and myself all experience the music in almost a spiritual way – this is incredible.
With all of this said, there are definitely days when my job is really a struggle. Spending the entire day with teenagers definitely comes with its challenges. They are not always passionate about the music, focused on the rehearsal and attentive to their director. It takes a tremendous amount of work, to get a choir full of 45-100 singers to all unify their efforts and be a collective team. The job is extremely stressful in that all of our efforts will eventually be put on stage in front of a live audience. What they do in performance, both good and not-so-good, reflects on me as their director. There is a common saying among the various performing arts teachers that jokes: “We directors put our artistic integrity in the hands of teenagers!”
PROS: Have you ever had an especially happy (or rude) surprise on stage? Any funny stories? Any especially poignant stories?
RB: Throughout my 20 years of conducting I have had quite a few “events” happen on stage that may or may not be considered funny. I have had students pass out or faint, throw up, pass gas and yes even wet themselves. But the real memories are the big concerts, prestigious festivals and the Europe tours. For me the highlights are these performances, especially those in the Gothic Cathedrals of Europe. These building were architecturally designed and constructed 500 to 1000 years ago with a cappella singing in mind.
PROS: What are your plans for the choral department this year? For the next couple of years?
RB: I have no specific plans to do anything different. My main goal is always to maintain the quality that Nevada Union is known for. I have just finished 12 years at NU and I am 45. I don’t plan on leaving, so I’m looking still at 15 to 20 more years before I retire.
PROS: What do you feel will be your legacy to NUHS?
RB: The legacy that I hope to leave behind is…… for all the students that have gone through my program to develop a life-long appreciation for choral music. I hope that in their adult lives, they will continue to sing in either college choirs, adult and community choirs, church choirs or even professional ensembles. At the very least I hope they will listen to recordings and continue to attend concerts (either locally or wherever they happen to live). Most people probably would not become choral music enthusiasts if they had not at some time in their life been exposed to it through a school director or perhaps a church music minister. I hope that I have helped instill this in my students.
Secondly, I hope that through our travels to Europe that we take every other year, I have helped open the door to travel and cultures of the world. Each time we take one of these trips, I like to ask the students how many of them have been out of the country (or even state!). Most of them have never been until the NU choir trip. On most of these trips there has been one or two who have never been on an airplane before. In the years after the trips I often talk to students who have since returned to Europe on their own, either just to travel or in many cases to study, work or even live. I really believe that our trips have played an important role in encouraging and inspiring them to see the world.
PROS: Please give us a brief history on your father, Don.
RB: Don Baggett started at NU in the fall of 1960. He replaced Marion Libby who had been at NU for quite a few years herself. She had built a pretty decent program that culminated with the choir’s performance at the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley.
When Don Baggett came in the fall of ’60 he remembers having a pretty good program that he continued to build upon. In 1985, after he completed 25 years of service the school board surprised him at one of his concerts by renaming the theater after him. He continued to teach full time for another 11 years and retired after the Spring of 1996. I came in the fall of ’96 and he taught with me part-time for another 5 years. Don Baggett taught a total of 41 years, 36 of which were full time.
PROS: Something personal?
RB: I’ve been married to my wife Juli for 21 years. We met in college at San Francisco State Univ. She had grown up in Saginaw, Michigan and left the cold Midwest winters to come to sunny California. We have 3 children: two sons, Jordan 19 and Dylan 18, and a daughter Paige, 15. All three are musically inclined. Jordan and Dylan both are pretty decent guitar players. Dylan sang in choir all 4 years and went on the last Europe trip with the choir. Paige sang in choir her 9th grade year and plans on continuing with hopes of going to Europe herself.
As far as relaxing and hobbies, when on vacation I love to go camping and travel with my wife and family. I often do various projects around the house which for me is relaxing because it is completely different from what I do at school all day. I play guitar and piano and even do a little composing once in a while. The high school students know I’m a huge Elton John fan and can often be heard asking “Hey Mr. B, play ‘Rocket Man’ for us!”
Rod Baggett’s phone at Nevada Union High School, 11761 Ridge Rd., Grass Valley, is (530) 273-4431 X2106.