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Portage vocal director asks his students to ‘explore’ ahead of Cabaret

October 8, 2018

Vocal Music Director Stephen Rodrigues-Pavao leads the Portage High School Concert Choir, made up of sophomores through seniors, through rehearsals Wednesday for the school's Cabaret performance that takes place Nov. 3-4.

Stephen Rodrigues-Pavao tossed the baton over his shoulder and feigned disgust.

“The stick keeps the beat,” he told his Concert Choir after it finished singing “Good Night” by the Beatles. He indicated a section needed some work, but nearly 70 Portage High School students were talking all at once — some of them still amused by his flailed baton.

A student joked she’d been in the flight path of his instrument, and Rodrigues-Pavao told her, “Frankly, it couldn’t hurt you.”

Their chattering continued.

But Rodrigues-Pavao had a serious message for students that morning, soon after the giddiness of their Cabaret rehearsal had subsided.

“Congratulations,” he told them Wednesday. “Your group is the first to really nail that section.”

The Concert Choir is one of seven choirs involving approximately 175 students that will perform songs of the Beatles for the school’s Cabaret Nov. 3-4 — Rodrigues-Pavao’s first concert as an instructor in Portage. He worked internationally as a freelance musician for 26 years before he began teaching music at Palmyra-Eagle High School/Middle School in 2014.

He joined Portage in the fall and lives on a soon-to-be horse farm in Verona. He holds his bachelor’s degree in voice performance from Lawrence University in Appleton, his master’s of musical arts in opera production from University of Wisconsin-Madison and his teaching certification from Edgewood College.

“Breathe together,” he had told his students Wednesday as they executed a tuning warmup for the song, “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Together they built a wall of sound.

“Let’s hear the middle,” he said, seeking a higher level of precision.

“There it is.”

Rodrigues-Pavao’s professional experience runs the gamut, including singing, directing, conducting, managing opera productions, teaching master classes and more — a career chock-full of 12- to 15-hour days and no weekends or holidays, he said. His career switch gave him more time for his personal life, which includes hobbies like equestrian martial arts.

“I do drills and games that involve martial arts on horseback,” he said matter-of-factly. Rodrigues-Pavao and his wife work with horses on their 20 acres of property in Verona. His wife is a champion dressage rider — also known as “horse dancing” — and he does horse archery, too.

“Basically,” he said, “this is trading out your legs for the horse.”

Though he didn’t mention horses, Concert Choir bass singer and senior Seth Reilly said he’s benefiting greatly from Rodrigues-Pavao’s diverse background. He commended the previous director, Holly Atkinson, who’d worked in the district for nine years, but he said learning from two professionals is better than one.

“It’s really interesting to have someone with bass range: He can sing every part you’ll hear in the show from soprano to bass,” said Reilly, who expects to study engineering in college but will keep singing in some capacity.

“He brings his experience into the classroom, talking about all of the things he’s done in the past. He writes a lot of his own music and tries things that are not very common.”

At one point Rodrigues-Pavao had arranged for his baseline to sing higher notes than the tenor line, Reilly said, “making some really interesting sounds.”

His approach in the classroom centers on students taking ownership of their work, Rodrigues-Pavao explained. He recently encouraged his choirs to name themselves. His jazz choir had just named itself the “The Elite,” while the men’s choir named itself “The Sentinels,” for example.

“Why can’t we have a cool name?” a Concert Choir student had asked him Wednesday, in jest.

Members of his Concert Choir — the vocal department’s flagship group — is handling themselves well in advanced repertoire, he said. Its Cabaret performance of “When I’m Sixty-Four” is rated on the collegiate level.

“They learned it and had struggled with it early on,” Rodrigues-Pavao said, “but within three weeks, they got it down and we’re making some real music out of it.”

Every day he emphasizes independent musicianship — “students being responsible for their own learning and making their own decisions about what they’re doing,” Rodrigues-Pavao said.

“When I came in, they had all these wonderful raw materials that Holly (Atkinson) developed and I’m letting the kids build something new out of what was there before,” he explained. “If you listen to them, you know she was doing great work here, but I still wanted give them fresh start.

“My style is pretty much letting the kids explore. I hold high expectations for them because I know if they do that as well, they’ll always exceed them, and they’ve been growing very quickly.

“They’ve stepped up and done amazing things.”

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