GOSHEN — One of Bethany’s best departments is the performing arts. Local community members will gladly testify that the school continually generates quality productions, concerts and performances. Why has the program been so successful? A deeper look into the department reveals the answer.
“Through the years, Bethany has tried to put a great emphasis on music and the arts because of how it is bred in Mennonite roots and in Mennonite traditions,” says Nathan Swartzendruber, director of choral music at the school. “And it’s a very good thing that Bethany values the arts so much. They really make it accessible to students.”
Indeed, one of the greatest reasons for success in the department has been Bethany’s high participation rate. The school makes it possible for students to be involved in choir, orchestra, theater and the Emmaus performing arts troupe- all at once, if they choose.
Swartzendruber is in his third year of teaching at Bethany and is beginning to realize his vision for the school’s choirs. Ultimately, his goal is to advance singers in their musical ability, regardless of what previous experience they have. Exposing students to private voice study and solo singing helps them develop their talent, and experience with different genres (ranging from classical to musical theater to pop) makes them well-rounded musically. Diction, language, and culture are also major components of Swartzendruber’s curriculum.
Bethany choirs have been participating in ISSMA contests since 1997. The school’s most advanced group, the high school concert choir, has received gold ratings every year since then. In addition to this honor, the concert choir has received gold ratings in the sight-singing portion of contest every year since 2000.
Instrumental music at Bethany has also enjoyed success. Director Barbara Slagel has worked hard to establish consistency within the program. When she enters her seventh year of teaching this fall, she will be tied for the title of longest tenured orchestra teacher in the school’s history.
“Part of the last number of years has been getting stability under us and rebuilding the program,” says Slagel. “We’re getting there. The future looks bright with the younger students… They are very strong and passionate about music making.”
During her time with the program, Slagel has sought to bring more professionalism to her orchestra and Bruin Jazz, the school’s jazz band. She began taking instrumental ensembles to contest just recently. The orchestra has also benefited greatly from the experience of orchestra festival, which Slagel is excited for Bethany to host this spring.
Brook and Jessie Bennett are instructors for the strings section of the high school orchestra, which has saved Slagel from having to constantly divide her attention between the strings and winds sections. String and wind instrumentalists practice separately three periods a week, with the full instrumental ensemble meeting together two periods a week.
Retreats, competitions and trips are just a few of the things that Slagel wants to add to the program over the next few years. She hopes such ventures will establish more camaraderie within the ensemble. A pep band is also being established, which will play at home basketball games.
Nevertheless, the orchestra is going strong. “Our music students go off to college and can easily pass music theory entrance exams,” Slagel says with a grin. “The instruction they receive here helps them excel wherever they go.”
Vocal and instrumental music programs represent the academic side of Bethany’s performing arts department. However, students are also able to participate in theater productions and the school’s performing arts troupe, Emmaus. Two mainstage productions, a drama and a musical, are staged each year in the high school, while Emmaus works on a themed show and performs at various venues throughout the second semester of the year.
Talashia Keim-Yoder is the director of high school theater at Bethany. Now in her ninth year here, the progress made within the department is fairly evident. “When I first arrived, there was not a lot of continuity in the program,” says Keim-Yoder. “Plays and musicals were directed by different people and their sets were built by different people.”
Over time, Keim-Yoder has worked diligently to build up Bethany theater- pooling budgets, improving the theater facility, and unifying the school’s production team. Increased parental involvement has also played a large role in Bethany’s theatrical success.
The program is now enjoying tremendous success within the community. Mainstage performances consistently sell out and receive strong reviews. These accomplishments can be attributed to Keim-Yoder’s work and her philosophy with high school theater: It’s all about education. Keim-Yoder seeks excellence in her actors, helping them to hone their skills through character development, dramaturgy work, and notebook projects. “Process is emphasized over product… Students learning from their experience is our top priority.”
Emmaus has also furthered Keim-Yoder’s vision for educational theater. A small ensemble of auditioned students piece together a themed show, which is performed for local elementary schools, churches, and public venues, such as The Electric Brew coffeehouse in Goshen. The ensemble is in its fourth year and is largely student-directed, with Keim-Yoder serving as a guiding presence along the way. This gives Bethany students with a higher-level interest in theater a chance to work at it in a different, more technical way.
The troupe has been well-received by its audiences. Elementary schools and churches continue to request performances year after year and public performances are well-attended. “We are fortunate,” says Keim-Yoder. “Well-rounded students who are willing to explore and learn are what make the kind of theater we do possible.”
Clearly, the performing arts are thriving at Bethany. The department is headlined by experienced and qualified directors who know how to produce results from their students. The future looks bright for this program as it continues to grow and develop.