Choir Spotlight-Brett Carroll and In Sync: Leading By Example



Though In Sync Show Choir is known for their consistently excellent ratings, their numerous awards and titles, and their innovative and groundbreaking shows, the director and Show Choir members and boosters are quick to explain that trophies and titles are not their primary objective.

About Winning

In Sync member Ali Paterson scoffs at the idea that trophies—that will just sit on a shelf growing dusty one day—are the goal for these students. Show Choir parents Rima Schidler and Martha Patterson agree: Winning is not the focus for themselves, their kids, or Carroll. The process—the moments that make up practices and performances—is the focus. Schidler notes, “It’s a much bigger package than winning or losing, and it’s all about unity between the kids.”

Carroll explains, “I’ve always felt that it’s unhealthy and counterproductive to put the emphasis on winning competitions. My philosophy has always been that success is measured not by how many trophies you put on the shelf, but by how much you’ve grown.”
Speaking to the damage that occurs when a group’s sole purpose is earning top awards, Carroll suggests this focus on winning is unhealthy for students who have worked extremely hard just to end up measuring success through competition results. Carroll notes, “Second place (sometimes referred to as “losing”) then becomes an indicator of failure when many times the second place group improved and learned more than the first place group! How sad to devalue and invalidate all those hours of practice and dedication. We have to teach students how to recognize their own successes and not totally rely on awards to make them feel good.”

The Role of Competition

Though Carroll does acknowledge that competition can be a great motivator, and the physical and mental preparation adds intensity to any rehearsal regimen, he also warns about letting a focus on competition take control. “We need to always make sure that the REAL competition is against oneself,” he explains. Carrol also tells his students to just aim to be better than they were at the last performance, and the lesson he ultimately teaches is “don’t let competition consume you.”

Instead of focusing on titles or trophies, Carroll constantly reinforces the idea that working toward personal improvement and a team best is what matters. Carroll adds, “One of the cool things our students learn about growth and achievement is that when you are pushing yourself to be the best you often find more satisfaction through ‘getting it right’ than a few trophies or plaques.”

Their hard work is, therefore, never about “topping” someone else. Carroll wants them focused only on improvement—mastery for the sake of the art and self-pride that comes from achieving something difficult. In Sync member Michael Khachatyan adds that Carroll keeps them invested because he knows how to inspire them. Even if working on one line for ten minutes, or focusing on a specific technique for an extended period of time, Khachatyan says that the choir members stay engaged because they can sense that Carroll wants it for them and not for himself.

Individuals Uniting as a Team

Show Choir members are learning to be effective members of a team, and Carroll keeps the focus on the team. “Everybody is working to make the wheel turn,” Schideler explains; “it’s like synchronized swimming.” As such, every child is of equal importance whether that child is on the front row or the back.” In this team building, she explains, there’s no room for ego because a child might need to be moved to create a better picture, and a parent can’t stomp into the director’s office demanding an explanation. She believes some of the parents are learning as much about teamwork from Mr. Carroll as his students are learning.

Noting the difference between a stereotypical stage mom, and what Show Choir parents are there to do, Schideler suggests that the booster club members need to also pitch in wherever they are needed—setting an example for the kids. If there’s sewing to be done, tickets to be sold, or whatever the task would be, parents should step in and do their part as a member of that team, just as the Show Choir members know to do for their team members. In fact, operating on that principle, Schideler requests that she chaperone kids other than her son on trips because she wants to focus on the kids who might need something that she can give because their own parents couldn’t be there.

Rima Schideler has led a Show Choir family for seven straight years—first with her daughter Chelsea (who has since graduated) and her son Raymond (Junior/current In Sync member). Schideler says it’s a fine balance as a parent of a Show Choir child. She explains that parents new to these performance groups must immediately understand that Show  Choir is more than just “learning a bunch of songs.” The demands on the students’ time are far more than that of a regular choir.

Ali Paterson, a current In Sync member, agrees. Ali notes that Carroll is also teaching them about financial responsibility. Knowing that choir membership can be costly, Carroll expects the students to be responsible for generating money in fundraising efforts. He wants them to “get rid of the ‘my-parents-will-just-write-a-check’ mentality.”

He’s not just building strong performers, Ali adds; he’s building strong personalities and strong people. Ali notes, “He wants us to be the best team we can be. In order to be the best team, we have to be the best individuals we can be.” Among many other lessons, Carroll teaches them to separate emotions from other responsibilities—to put sadness and anxieties aside in order to focus on a task. “It teaches us to be present,” Ali says. “We are not just high school kids. We have to prioritize and become adults.”

Current In Sync member Megan Delbarian says, “We all come together and play off each other to stay focused.” She also notes how she’s learned about managing her time. Explaining that they must learn quickly to plan ahead, Delbarain says there is not much time for being unfocused or lazy: “You really have to go home, do homework, and go to choir rehearsal.” Carroll says, “I like to think we have a higher calling and agenda when we choose to work with high school students. It’s such a critical time in life and choir is such a great opportunity to help them develop as mature, responsible people.”

The Performer, The Person

Carroll knows that most of his students, upon graduating, won’t perform regularly again. His desire isn’t in teaching ‘song and dance’ routines but to “give them an experience that affects the rest of their life no matter where they go or what they choose to do in the future.”

Carroll says, “Teaching character and integrity should be inherently part of what we do as we teach students how to work well together, support each other through tough times, develop a hearty work ethic, and learn how ‘doing the right thing’ can be cool. I’ve always approached teaching from this direction and I believe, in the end, that it produces better people.”

Martha Paterson says this of Carroll: “Some of Mr. Carroll’s magic is that he can see the potential in the individual.” He creates a space where everyone can bring their best and let “their best art move through them.” Rather than focusing on the result, he focuses on the experience. Paterson believes that anybody involved in the choir—whether a singer/dancer, pit member, stage crew member, or parent—gains pure joy from those moments and is always expanding, stretching, and self-reflecting. All of them, she says, will “be a little bit better for that moment.”

The Multi-Dimensional Student

In addition to commenting on his engaging and creative analogies, that help them understand choral techniques and apply those to practical knowledge, his students also frequently mention that Carroll teaches life lessons—not just about show choir. He teaches them how to communicate with others, make new friends, and manage their time and commitments without having to give up anything they want to pursue. Khachatayan echoes Ali’s and Megan’s comments about Carroll’s support of their other interests, noting how Carroll encourages AP and Honors classes, as well as extracurricular activities like sports and clubs.

Carroll explains how troubled he is when hearing of directors who discourage other activities—to the point that the student can’t participate in anything beyond schoolwork and the choral program without facing great difficulties. “I’m just gonna say it,” Carroll quips, “there IS more to life than choir!” He believes high school students must be multidimensional, adding, “I think the phrase ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ really degrades the idea that a comprehensive and well-rounded experience produces more balanced students at this age level.”

Though he acknowledges that scheduling rehearsals around various activities can be challenging to say the least, Carroll says, “I like to think that when my students are involved in other activities on campus that they are going to bring what they’ve learned to our choir. I know that many of the skills they have learned in choir have helped them find more success in their outside activities.

How could I ever find difficulty in letting them pursue that which makes them stronger?”
He’s seen lives changed for some, witnessing dramatic transformations from students overcoming difficult family situations, learning disabilities, and even homelessness. He’s watched those students find support and safety, while learning the value in “being part of something bigger than self.” Carroll believes Show Choir ultimately serves as a vehicle for character growth, adding, “What could be better than getting to learn and perform great music with close friends while becoming a stronger, better, and more balanced young adult?”

Lifelong Champions

When asked what advice he would give any directors or boosters, Carroll simply suggests people remember their motivation: “Really take a hard look inside… If you are in this to finally prove to everyone what a great choral director you are, or if you want to be a booster because you don’t agree with the director and want to show everyone how the program should really run, you don’t get it. The real power and glory comes not from a few Grand Champion trophies but from creating lifelong champions.”

“That is my tip,” Carroll adds, “Be about the students. Do it and you will get back more than you ever dreamed.” Carroll begins every year by telling his students that he knows the school handbook contains a lot of specific policies, but he’s not really interested in that listing of rules. He tells his students that to be successful they only need to do two things for him: work hard and treat each other right. “For me,” Carroll adds, “that’s how I describe success. Work hard—Be nice.”

If you are unfamiliar with In Sync’s work, click here for a YouTube clip of a competition show.

About the Author
Rachel James Clevenger, M.Ed., Ph.D, is the Editor-in-Chief of Productions Magazine. After teaching middle school and high school for several years, she earned her doctorate in Composition and Rhetoric. For fifteen years, she taught and directed the Writing Center at University of Alabama at Birmingham and Birmingham Southern College.