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Meet Todd Wedge: Winner of the SFCV Music Educator Award

Mark MacNamara on April 11, 2013
Todd Wedge
Todd Wedge directing students

When he first heard the San Francisco School of the Arts chorus sing at a Chanticleer youth festival in 2008, Todd Wedge was appalled. “I couldn’t believe it,” he remembers. “No sense of quality. You could hear talent, yes, but no quality. They came out on stage looking completely disorganized; some were talking throughout the performance. Others didn’t have their music. The whole attitude seemed to be, we don’t care. This is all a bore.

Wedge leaned over to Jace Wittig, then head of the Chanticleer Men’s Chorus to express his disbelief: “What a mess.” At that moment, Todd Wedge, who had been singing with the 12-member men’s chorus for three years, would have assured you that no matter how much he had always wanted to work in an arts high school, his very last desire on earth would have been to direct the group from SOTA.

But a few months later, at 28, there he was doing it and to this day he can’t quite explain how it happened. “I would say coming to SOTA was not so much a matter of choice as the universe deciding that’s where I belonged. And I have to say, I couldn’t be happier.”

Wedge has just won the inaugural San Francisco Classical Voice Music Educator Award, which is in keeping with his enormous popularity among students who cite his humbleness, inspiration, passion, and his indefatigable desire to see students succeed. He "doesn’t give up on kids," was the way one student put it.

We went to see him the other afternoon and found him leading a class of 80 singers through the asylum scene at the end of Act 3 of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. And you think, what scene better describes the emotional world of his students.

“I’m always looking for age-appropriate opera scenes,” he would say later. “And so we’ve been exploring 'fidelity lost': stories about people who were deceived, unfaithful, or tempted.”

Cleaning Up

When Wedge arrived at SOTA in August 2009, the situation was dire. The school was a physical mess. Trash everywhere; many of the walls were tagged. He literally needed a shovel to clean up his classroom. And underneath the piles and piles of paper, mouse dung, and who knows what else.

And then there were the students. “It was really bad,” remembers Elenna Davis, 19, then a freshman, now studying opera in London at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. “We had three directors in one year. Nothing was organized. No one took it seriously. People came to class high or they were drunk. A lot of people took their place in the department for granted. Sometimes in class students would swear at the teacher. There was this kind of attitude, Oh, you can’t teach me anything.

After the second director left, there were a series of auditions. Wedge easily won the popular vote and on the first day of class Elenna Davis remembers coming into the room; Wedge was playing the piano and asked people to sing along. “He was so open and welcoming, he just made you feel like you belonged there. It became much more of a community than it had ever been. I’ve stayed with opera mainly because of him.”

Watch Todd Wedge in Action:

Watch Todd Wedge in action on YouTube

Wedge attributes his success in part to his instinctual sense of how to create stability and order. He found the students initially jaded, which he read as a sign of fear and uncertainty. He chose not to reprimand but rather to isolate those who wanted to drink and smoke dope. He made his class cool. He made the music cool.

“I didn’t know if I had the chutzpah to do it. Initially there was a lot of opposition. Some of the students were just so jaded and didn’t care who was coming in to teach them. But I made it clear from the beginning that I wasn’t going to take any crap, and I explained the importance of discipline and gradually the idea caught on.”

But along with discipline Wedge has found that by being vulnerable, himself, he can help singers reach the music and a new understanding of themselves. To that end, he occasionally shares stories of growing up in a house with his father’s sister, who suffers from Noonan Syndrome, a congenital genetic syndrome similar in frequency to Down’s Syndrome. In one story he tells how his aunt is forever trying to learn to read and how every night she comes to a family member hoping to learn the secret. It’s her relentless effort that Wedge focuses on, a lesson in humility for those around her, as well as a strange model of endurance and the raw drive of humanity itself.

“I think that’s so important as a singer, to be open, and I would say that singing is the most demanding form of musical expression because you have to open yourself up in a way not matched by playing an instrument. Naturally, this is very difficult for adolescents who want to blend in. The last thing you want is to open yourself up to scrutiny and evaluation. The fact is, you’re being judged and that’s difficult to accept.”

Singing is Life

Todd Wedge grew up in Port Huron, north of Detroit, a town of 30,000, the home of Thomas A. Edison, and twice named an All-America city. His father was a maintenance man in the school district; his mother, an X ray technician. He started singing at 9, in the local Lutheran Church, but then gave up church the next year and took up the trombone. He found he had a good ear and learned to read music quickly; he also found he enjoyed teaching less experienced students.

It was at the Blue Lake Fine Arts camp, in Michigan’s Manistee National Forest, that Wedge, got “bitten by the bug” as he puts it. A faculty member heard him singing in the shower and told him, "I don’t know how good you are with the trombone but you’re a singer," and went on to make the argument that a trombone scholarship might get you into a state school but not into one of the top music schools.

Wedge took the advice and graduated from Oberlin in 2003, with a double major in performance and education. He spent time with the Chicago Opera Theater, got an MA at Northwestern; taught at Notre Dame, and then, in 2006, found his way to Chanticleer, where he met Joe Jennings, the legendary director of the chorus.

“When I got to Chanticleer I didn’t know diddley,” Wedge remembers. “I was humbled. Just being in the room with Joe Jennings was like nothing I’d ever experienced. He’s a genius and I will never use that word again. He completely changed my life. He saw music in a completely different way. There were no rules. And you never knew what he was going to do that day. But he was also very fatherly; he gave you a lot of love. As for music he sang things the way he felt them. And sometimes it wasn’t a hit but he didn’t care. He was always willing to risk.

“But above all, he was emotional, and he wasn’t afraid of being vulnerable. He particularly liked being with the common people. It literally moved him to tears to work with people who weren’t great, or didn’t think they were great, but he would always find a way to bring out greatness. And for that he was greatly respected. Not because he said, in one way or another, ‘you will respect me,’ it just came out of who he was. If I model myself after anyone, I take it from Joe.”

Drawing Lines

On you get the back alley view of teachers: Students unfiltered, as it were, for better and for worse. Teachers are rated on Clarity, Helpfulness and Easiness. Of the five students who have rated Wedge, all give him five stars and the consensus is that he’s “amazing”, “incredible”, and “militant.” And he can be moody.

Last July one student also wrote this…

Todd Wedge is a very talented man and teacher. I learn from him everyday. But I cannot trust him. He is so detached and unwilling to let you in. He let's [sic] his students fall in love with him yet when you need him most, he will show no sympathy and will not stand by your side. On one hand, I love learning from him and I feel I have improved so much, but on the other hand, I would never look to him for compassion or love. I wish I had a teacher who I learned from but also wouldn't be afraid of.

I read the comment to Wedge who smiled and nodded. He went on to explain how he’s become nearly obsessed with keeping up borders with his students, but how enormously complicated that is, especially when you have so many “emotional kids”, not only artists by temperament but often kids at wit’s end. There are students in SOTA who live, or whose family members live, in homeless shelters. Fully 70 percent come from lower income families.

And like so many public schools in urban America, teachers must play, ever an improv, the delicate role of therapist, substitute parent, and human repository for all that’s confusing and heartbreaking about life as a teenager.

Of course it’s a tremendous burden. At the end of his first year, Wedge didn’t think he could go on. And to think he’d given up a plush position in La Jolla at a school full of wealthy kids and an office overlooking the ocean. Even now it’s a struggle, more than he is sometimes willing to admit. The situation in the classroom has improved and, along with improvements throughout the school, things are immeasurably better. And his class now draws twice the number of students from when he started. But there is still the daily wear and tear, trying to reach out but not too far, to encourage but not too much, to be friendly but not a friend, to be relentlessly open, be vulnerable, but not to the point of losing yourself or inadvertently enabling a student to lose himself or herself.

Wedge describes one of his students who lives in Visitacion Valley. He has a learning disability, and only got into the school by the skin of his teeth — his father came after the audition date and asked that someone hear his son sing. The boy has no real friends in the school and will be the first person in his family to get a diploma. “Frankly,” says Wedge, “if he gets a D, we’re all happy.”

“But this is what I'm talking about,” Wedge went on. “There’s enormous pressure from the kids that drop out to pull others down; to say, why don’t you skip school today and we’ll go downtown or we’ll go hang out at the beach, He could so easily have become a drug dealer or in a gang, or dead.”

Wedge shook his head. Over the intercom came news that the day’s faculty meeting was cancelled. On his cell phone one of his students was calling to make an appointment. He’d had two classes back to back, and then an hour interview. No break. For a moment he stopped, looked away, and then picked up his narrative.

“But then at the senior recital we just had in February, here was this boy on the edge singing three art songs, in German, French, and Italian. This is high art I'm talking about, expensive, intellectual art and he’s connecting to it, and he’s so proud of himself. And that’s how I can go on.”

(Mark your calendar: Fidelity Lost: Opera Scenes. Friday, April 19, 2013, at 7:30 p.m. at the Dan Kryston Memorial Theater at the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts. Adults: $20; Student/Seniors: $15. Featuring scenes from The Rake’s Progress; Così fan tutte, The Old Maid and the Thief, The Magic Flute, Dialogues of the Carmelities, The Ballad of Baby Doe, The Tender Land, and Don Giovanni.)

In January, 2014 Wedge’s vocalists will debut a new work by composer Karl Jenkins, in Carnegie Hall. 

And the Runners Up: Nick Vasallo

Nick Vasallo teaches music at CSU East Bay and at Gavilan College in Gilroy. He was the most-nominated teacher in the SFCV Music Educator Award: 27 of his students wrote in to give him the nod. It’s easy to see how Vasallo makes such an impression on his students: He’s indefatigable and always available, and he can relate to the age group. Students come to his classes wary and leave enriched, having really learned the material. He teaches as much as 23 units (that’s five or more full classes) in a semester and brings the same high spirits and energy to every one of them.

One of his fellow alums, a friend from CSU East Bay writes:

Nick and his wife are about to have their first child. Both of his institutions are granting him paternity leave and he is happy to take it. But he wants to continue teaching at home! Why? He tells me because he has come so far with his private graduate student composers that he doesn't feel good about fully leaving them.

Vasallo still plays in a metal rock band, heads the Composers Inc. composing collective, has written several pieces for the Watsonville Taiko Drummers, among many other works, and he also is able to teach Digital Audio from experience. His wide range of contemporary reference helps make this born communicator, a riveting presence for college age students, who end up knowing much more classical theory and history than they ever thought they could learn.

Second Runner-Up: Arkadi Serper

Arkadi Serper is a teddy bear of a human being, famous at the Crowden School for his hugs as well as for his chamber music coaching and piano and composition classes, which he has taught at Crowden for 21 years now.

Serper teaches on a high level, for young musicians who are getting serious about their craft, but Serper’s ability to communicate music “on a cellular level” as one alumnus put it, inspires extraordinary achievement and devotion, turning interested students into music lifers. Long before Crowden’s young composer program began, Serper was turning out excellent, well-trained composers, whose ranks now include Samuel Carl Adams, Matthew Cmiel, Allegra Gabriella Smith, and Audrey Vardenaga, among many others.

One of Serper’s former students, now a parent of a Serper student, says of him, “Arkadi doesn't teach music. He is music. And he doesn't play piano. He is the piano.”

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