Teaching to the Choir

Junior Claire Donnellan, a member of the Concert Choir, Chamber Choir and Triple Trio, sang a medley of songs from Anastasia at last year’s Broadway Cabaret.   

Louis Vierne’s Messe Solennelle in C-sharp minor, Op. 16, premiered at The Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris in December 1901, with a full choir and two pipe organs. This challenging piece in five movements was later adapted for a single organ, for practicality’s sake, so many modern performances feature this simplified score in just one or two movements—for example, the Kyrie movement is a popular choice for many ensembles.

Not for Mt. Lebanon High School choral director Ethan LaPlaca, however, who chose to use the entire piece as it was originally performed—with two separate organs in an early French Romanesque-inspired church—for the Mt. Lebanon High School Choirs’ Masterworks Concert last April.

“It’s not just to take advantage of the architecture, acoustics and instruments of the space, it’s about engaging the community, many of whom would not otherwise have a reason to come to a high school concert,” says LaPlaca, who instituted the Masterworks Concert as an annual event when he started teaching at the high school four years ago.

The 2019 concert was at St. Bernard Church, with organists Chaz Bowers and Aaron Sproul accompanying the 155-member ensemble. The 2020 concert will be at Mt. Lebanon United Methodist Church at 7:30 p.m., on Wednesday, April 1, but the featured masterwork was still to be determined at press time.

“Each year, the music for the Masterworks concert is picked later, based on the [abilities of the] kids,” says LaPlaca. “It’s always a major classical work … There’s a balance between finding music the kids can sing that will challenge them but also allow them to be successful.”

Mt. Lebanon High School choral director Ethan LaPlaca has an extensive professional resume, including performances in Europe, that informs his work.

LaPlaca spent one year as the choral director at Mellon Middle School before starting at the high school in 2016. A 2011 Duquesne University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in music education, he is currently working on his master of arts in choral conducting at IUP.

He also has a robust performance resume as an organist, accompanist and choirmaster. In November, he played the organ in the East Liberty Presbyterian Church’s concert series performance of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, featuring strings, horns, harp and a choir. He was recently named among The Incline’s “Who’s Next: Music, 21 Young Leaders Defining the New Pittsburgh Sound.”

“I’ve performed overseas in England and France on some historic instruments. I try, as a professional musician, to bring those environments and expectations back to the kids … I like to use my professional experiences for their own,” says LaPlaca.

Under LaPlaca’s direction, the high school’s choirs have expanded their concert schedule to include four major performances per year—or one per nine weeks. The first quarter concert, held in October, features traditional choral repertoire (“your bread and butter choral music,” says LaPlaca), including classics, sacred music, folk music and more. This year, the program began with J. Rubino’s arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner, before moving through centuries of choral music—from Mozart’s Ave Verum to contemporary composer Jake Runestad’s Please Stay, which was written to offer hope to those suffering from mental illness.

The second concert is the weekend-long Broadway Cabaret show. “It’s one of my favorite parts of the program,” says Mt. Lebanon High School senior Meghan Maselko. “You have to audition for a spot, which allows us to experience the audition process. The show itself consists of around 40 Broadway songs between two shows with a mix of solos, small groups and large groups. It sells out very quickly.”

This year’s Broadway Cabaret concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the high school Fine Arts Theatre on Thursday and Friday, January 9 and 10, and at 2:30 and 7 p.m. on Saturday, January 11.

After the Masterworks concert in the third quarter, LaPlaca finishes the year with the Spring Pops Concert, which will be in the high school auditorium at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 27. Last year’s concert featured music from the Beatles.

“Lots of schools do one concert in December and one in May, and it’s a hodgepodge of music with no focus. We get through everything we need to in one year, but, with four concerts, I can create a program for each that is a little more artistic and meaningful to the audience and performers,” says LaPlaca.

Scheduling rehearsals for such a large choir to prepare for four large performances can be a bit of a challenge, however. With class sizes ranging from 30 to 40 students, LaPlaca must rehearse the choir in mini-groupings of mixed voice parts over five class periods each day. They can only come together as the full Concert Choir a handful of times before each performance.

Out of each class of 30 to 40 students, LaPlaca estimates that 10 to 15 go on to sing in college choirs, and maybe three to six become music majors. “But music is for everyone, even if majoring is not,” he says. “If 500 kids decide they want to join the choir, we will figure it out. If a kid wants to sing, we’ll have a place for them.”

With class sizes ranging from 30 to 40 students, LaPlaca must rehearse the choir in breakout sessions over five class periods each day. They can only come together as the full Concert Choir a handful of times before each performance.

“The choir is a safe place in the high school where everyone belongs. Everyone is accepted and no one is excluded,” echoes Zeke Usner, a Mt. Lebanon High School senior and chamber choir director.

Additional ensembles also offer opportunities for students seeking a more in-depth singing experience. Some of the 155 students who signed up for concert choir this year will audition for the smaller, more competitive groups: The Chamber Choir has 38 mixed voices, The Triple Trio has 20 girls and the Men’s Ensemble has 18 members. Each of these groups rehearse after school.

“Mt. Lebanon has a long and storied history of outstanding choral groups,” says Mt. Lebanon Superintendent Dr. Timothy Steinhauer, whose educational background began in music. “Our community values educational experiences, and being a part of our choral programs has provided valuable experiences for both the students and community.”

Last year seven students competed in PMEA District 1 Choir, and two, Lydia Slater and Graham Ulery, advanced to regionals. LaPlaca also arranges opportunities for each ensemble to perform “beyond the bubble.” For example, last February, the chamber choir performed in the Heinz Chapel Chamber Choir Festival along with choirs from State College High School and Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg.

“I say this with an unhealthy amount of pride in this district that I should keep in check,” LaPlaca continues with a laugh, “But when you come to Mt. Lebanon, there is a legacy of excellence, a community of support and warmth. Here, I can plan and program, and it doesn’t get questioned because the arts are already understood. We have parents and community members who sing with the Mendelssohn Choir, the opera, do community theater. So if I want to plan a 25-minute piece in a foreign language, people might wince in other places, but it is valued here.”

LaPlaca presents Luke Giles, Class of 2019, with a National School Choral award at last year’s spring concert.

“What you see at the top isn’t possible without what comes before,” says LaPlaca, who notes that a major factor setting Mt. Lebanon apart in music education is a distinction between types of instruction beginning at the elementary level. “Our elementary vocal music teachers describe themselves as that. They recognize that their job is to develop the voice—unlike other schools, where one teacher is responsible for all aspects of music instruction.”

From there, the middle school vocal curriculum changes focus to building essential repertoire, singing in parts, performing in different environments and further developing the voice as it changes. Then, when freshmen join the Concert Choir on their first day of school, their experience is immediately different as they learn to blend with mature voices. For this reason, LaPlaca has instituted a buddy system so that older students can help transition their younger peers into the high school program.

“We really try to bridge the gap between the levels,” says LaPlaca. “The voice is such a vulnerable instrument. Other instruments, you can buy better versions of—a better piano, a better trombone—but you need to nurture and find the better voice that’s already within you.”


Photos by Harrison Lilley and George Mendel