SSM’s Vocal Performance Program Director Shares Insights on Vocal Education in the age of COVID During “Musician Talk” Interview

October 15, 2020

Shattuck-St. Mary’s own Pete Schleif, Director of the Vocal Performance Program Center of Excellence, was recently featured on KYMN’s “Musician Talk,” in which Northfield artist Pauline Jennings interviews local musicians.

Jennings has worked in theater as producer, educator, director, writer, stage manager, actress, and a singer in a number of regional pop/country/rock bands for the last forty years. They began the interview (which took place over Zoom) talking about the ways in which teachers have been re-inventing how they teach with new technologies, particularly in the arts. How does one give voice lessons over Zoom or host a virtual recital?

“I’m a bit of an optimist, maybe too much so sometimes,” said Pete. “How are these skills going to be used on the other side of this, how will that enhance our lives musically, how will that be good for students, how will that be good for the musical world going forward…From an accessibility standpoint, I can see this really being great for kids that maybe don’t have access to the best teachers or geographically aren’t as close to those teachers.”

The interview went on to cover Pete’s own musical journey, beginning with piano lessons at the age of five, and how he grew into the musician he is today with 25 years of teaching vocal music under his belt. He has since directed choirs all over the United States, as well as in Austria, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Finland, and Sweden. “We’re all kind of a combination of our teachers. I’ve had the good fortune of having these amazing mentors in my life, and to kind of pick and choose the best of all of them and then add a little bit of myself.”

He also spoke about the Vocal Performance Program at SSM and how COVID-19 forced everyone to adapt to extraordinary circumstances extremely quickly. By the time SSM fully transitioned to distance-learning, Pete was teaching to seven different time zones. “Trying to find a way to connect every kid to every piece is probably the biggest challenge.”

Finally, Pauline asked him how he picks what songs individual choirs will sing.

“There’s no short answer to that. It depends on the ability level of the group, what the group has sung in the past. It depends on what direction you want the group to go towards,” said Pete. “A rule for me is variety and diversity, especially with the cultural awakening we’ve all been going through this summer. Personally, I’ve been trying to put more emphasis on underrepresented composers, trying to balance out the dead white guys with a little more contemporary literature because there’s some really great choral music being written right now. The poetry, the lyrical quality of things has to be of high quality. The compositional style has to be both musically and academically sound, meaning that there are pedagogical things I can teach my choir.”

In conclusion, “Music draws us together,” said Pete. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a trained musician or someone who just likes to rock once in a while. It’s about these connections. It’s what keeps us going, what keeps us searching for more.”

To hear the full interview, visit “Musician Talk” with The Entertainment Guide. To learn more about the Vocal Performance Program or Pete himself, you can visit our website. You can also discover Pete’s brand-new interview series with VPP alumni, such as Lisa Lilyerd ’19, a sophomore at the University of Minnesota Music Program and a double-major in English, who discusses how VPP provided her with the background in piano and music theory that has helped her continue her degree.