A Conversation With Tony Pavao
James B. Kinchen, Jr., WMEA Vice President, Southeast District
I recently had an extended conversation with Antonio Rodrigues-Pavao, who spent almost a quarter century as choral director at William Horlick High School in Racine. At Horlick, which sits in a modest neighborhood on Racine’s northside, Tony built an amazing program – six choirs – with his Chorale sitting atop the pyramid. During his time there, the Chorale toured extensively (including international destinations), produced annual madrigal dinners, and was well respected for its artistry, which featured a mature sound and a large, varied repertoire of challenging pieces. Tony and I talked about his career, the path that took him into choral teaching in the first place, some of his most special memories, and the values and guiding principles that shaped his career. On a snow-blanketed, mid-January Sunday afternoon in the chapel of the DeKoven Center near the Racine lakefront, some of Tony’s former Horlick students came together, some from out of town, to celebrate Tony and offer him what was perhaps the most fitting tribute – music. I was honored to conduct these Horlick alumni in a program of some of their favorite songs from their years with Tony, which they sang with lots of love and some amazingly beautiful sounds after only about 10 hours of rehearsal over two days. Tony, who a few years ago was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, was in the front row raptly listening to the people who were in so many ways a reflection of his own work and his own love pour out their love for him. Perhaps, however, the most special moment of all came on the final number, “Verbum Caro Factum Est,” a simple setting of that text, which Horlick choral students from the 1970s to present all learn and sing at the close of concerts, joined by Horlick choral alumni in the audience. In a completely spontaneous moment, Tony started conducting, tentatively at first, from his seat. Then he stood and magic happened as “the master” was once more leading his faithful, loving troupe! Here are some of the highlights of our conversation, which took place a couple of days after the concert.
The start to Tony’s career. For starters, you would think that Tony Pavao had been singing all his life. You can easily imagine him as a boy chorister who, having started singing in his youth, simply could not stop. But, not so fast! Tony Pavao never sang in choir as a youngster! So, how did he get into choral teaching and conducting? “It came on me,” he explained – and in a pretty indirect way. As a young man in his late teens, Tony was in the United States Air Force. He was stationed at Keesler Air Force Base, a rather large base, in Biloxi, Mississippi repairing the ground radar that aircraft used for landing. He was also playing “baritone bugle” in the base’s drum and bugle corps. He started to be asked by fellow corpsmen to write parts to supplement and harmonize with existing bugle parts. One thing led to another. Soon he was writing arrangements for the group. His arrangement of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” was a favorite. “It was very successful. In fact, they used it the entire time I was there, and then afterwards every time they marched in the New Orleans [Mardi Gras] parade,” recalled Tony. He became the base drum and bugle corps arranger. He said, “This got me interested in going into composition.”
But most immediately, Tony needed to get further training and credentials that would allow him to earn a livelihood.
Tony’s improbable path toward choral music. His work with radar was very successful. At age 19, he became an Airman First Class. After leaving the Air Force, Tony studied electrical engineering: “I wanted to get my electronics down.” He used his GI eligibility to get the equivalent of an Associate’s degree in electrical engineering. At this time he showed special abilities in math, but not necessarily an affinity for it. After taking an advanced calculus course, he realized that he “hated doing the math” that the course required. He then decided to go in a diametrically opposite direction – music. “They were just so astounded that I would get out of a high paying field!” He attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which had a fledgling music program in grossly inadequate facilities at the time.
Tony’s training. Tony did undergraduate studies in vocal music and vocal music education, even though at this point singing was fairly new to him. “I found out that I wasn’t that experienced at singing. I didn’t sing in a choir all through my four years of [high] school …. Nobody ever told me that I could sing,” he recalled. He says that they were pretty discouraging to a then 22-year-old who had no singing experience. Besides, he was further motivated to pursue singing because, as he tells it with a little laugh, “I got tired of carrying my tuba around!” He also wanted to pursue composition studies, but was told, “No!” So, he chose theory and worked toward a double degree –vocal music education and theory.
He subsequently enrolled at University of Illinois really wanting a doctorate, but “this was never to be because I did not finish the degree.” He did lots of opera there – singing and coaching. He sang in several operas there, including, the Mozart masterpieces, Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. He also sang in the choir under Harold Decker while at Illinois as well as the U of I Collegium Musicum, where he was one of only two “real” basses. “I found out I had a voice there,” said Tony.
Tony also did graduate studies in music at UW-Madison.
Tony’s most important teaching positions. Tony taught at William Horlick High School in Racine from 1977-2000. He taught at Carroll University for ten years after retiring from Horlick. Prior to being hired at Horlick, he did a brief stint at Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam. And before being in Wayland, Tony was choral and general music specialist at Southview Junior High School at Danville, Illinois. Said Tony, “That was probably my most successful teaching, because I had over half the school in choirs.” He drew many of his choir students from his general music classes, which were pretty challenging. He fondly recalls assembly programs where quite literally half the student body was singing to the other half his eight-voice arrangement of “Silent Night.” He left Danville and moved to Wisconsin so that he could be closer to UW-Madison.
When he first went to Horlick he found two “swing” choirs, a “drop-in” chorale, and a 70-some voice beginning choir. He turned it into a program with six choirs, including the feted Horlick Chorale and a men’s group. His group did some jazz pieces and other occasional “popular” offerings (he remembers fondly Ward Swingle’s residencies with his singers), but really led students in learning and singing challenging literature, including many of the gems of the choral repertory.
Choral pedagogy. Tony saw his choral work deeply influenced by what Robert Shaw was doing. He liked how Shaw would take singers who were strong in their individual vocalism and would use those sounds, sounds that some might describe as “soloistic,” in his ensemble’s singing, rather than trying to tamp them down. Similarly, Tony encouraged his choristers to realize the full potential of their own instruments. He wanted them to use natural vibrato. He wanted them to become comfortable with their own singing, with their own voices, which, in turn, allowed them to listen better. He taught relaxation and freedom in singing. “This allows you to get your most resonant sound,” he said. He sought blend of voices, not by “matching voices,” but by way of matching overtones as he let each voice be its own sound.
The touring opportunities that he gave his students were important in their growth. To go to different places, find kindred spirits, and see how they compared to other choirs was beneficial and educational. His choirs toured with a one-and-a-half-hour program. He largely eschewed memorization, instead opting to have them learn and sing more repertoire. Tour destinations included places in the U.S. like Atlanta, Austin, Denver, Seattle and New York City, where they sang in Carnegie Hall, and abroad to places like Prague in the Czech Republic, England and Denmark.
Guiding values. More than anything else, Tony said, “I loved teaching!” He also liked the kind of independence and autonomy that he had in his rehearsal hall. “They let me find my own way.” He worked to get his students to sing with “adult” technique without forcing an “adult” sound on them. His first choir teaching opportunities were at a halfway house in New Salem, Massachusetts and at North Hampton Vocational School. It was there that his love for teaching was kindled. He also considered himself a salesman. From his studies of the “psychology of salesmanship” at Harvard, he figured out how to “sell” the kids – how to get them in, how to get them going, and how to keep them coming back. He believed in singing as a “core activity.” “I believed that I should teach everybody to sing first…. I was their first voice teacher.” This was both for the value of vocalism as a primary and deeply internal form of music making and because teaching students to sing well allowed them to have success singing challenging choral literature. Tony believed deeply in teaching musical independence. He would often sit his singers in a circle without a piano and force them to sing “a cappella” as a way of fostering vocal and musical self-sufficiency. Arguably more important than anything were the values that he brought from his Unitarian-Universalist background: he believed in his students first and foremost as human beings. He always strived to make his rehearsal hall a place where students felt safe and welcomed, even when it was jut hanging out during lunch hour!
Would he do anything different were he teaching today? “I would work more individually with students,” he said. One of the ways that Tony extended his concepts of vocal production when he taught at Horlick was by working with students beyond the rehearsal room. He taught private lessons to many of his students, often extending “scholarships” to students who could not otherwise afford the cost of lessons. One example of a “scholarship” was that he would give a student lessons in exchange for them helping to tend his garden. If he were still active today, he would do that even more of that kind of thing (though Tony still maintains a small studio of vocal students in his home).
Is there advice Tony would offer today’s teachers and teachers-to-be? “Don’t frown! Be enthusiastic. If you’re not enthusiastic about what you do, then teaching is not the job for you!” One is not surprised to hear these words of wisdom from the man who so dearly loved what he did. He admits that choral teaching can be a “wild ride” – i.e., uncertainties from year to year. But he showed in his career the creativity and resiliency to continue to teach choral music with high standards and expectations, and with excellent results. Tony also advises attention to health and fitness, even touting the advantages of lifting weights, working out, and keeping the body strong. (Even now that Parkinson’s has diminished his mobility, one is still struck by Tony’s overall sturdiness, a fact that is attributable to his own physical strength!)
Tony Pavao inspired generations of young people through his choral teaching and artistry, students who still appreciate him and his impact on their lives, as the recent concert in his honor so impressively showed.