Whether he’s mandating proper abdominal breath, teaching sopranos their part by singing it for them or replicating accompaniment sounds with seeming ease, Rodger Guerrero is constantly at work.
Guerrero, who has directed Harvard-Westlake choirs for 12 years, can’t remember when he began singing.
“My mother was a regional opera star and concert pianist,” he said. “From the time [my siblings and I] were old enough to make pitches, she had us at the piano.”
Raised a devout Catholic, Guerrero went to church with his family every Sunday. These days were a constant source of religious, musical celebration in the Guerrero household.
“We’d go to church, and then we’d come home and have a huge meal,” Guerrero said. “For the rest of the day there were no phone calls, no black and white television and no going outside. We would all gather around the piano and sing.”
Guerrero’s passion for music would crescendo in his high school years under the tutelage of his demanding choir director.
“My high school teacher was extremely passionate,” he said. “As a junior, we sang a Bach motet, and that [composition] was incredible.”
As he sang increasingly complex and professional music, Guerrero not only realized that he thoroughly enjoyed singing, but he had talent. Directly out of high school, however, he could not afford to go to college.
After a few months in community college, his father let him drive the family station wagon across the country to Los Angeles.
While in L.A., he attended the Pacific Southwestern Choir Festival, where a close friend at California State Fullerton was singing. There he was dazzled by the Loyola Marymount choir.
“The best choirs in California were featured,” he said. “There were 20 college choirs, and the last group was the men’s choir from Loyola Marymount. They sang three songs and received two standing ovations. I looked at them and I thought, ‘I want to go there.’”
That day, Guerrero made an appointment with Loyola’s dean of admissions.
The next Monday, with his transcripts in hand, Guerrero marched onto campus, ready to interview. After his interview, Guerrero was taken to the choir director, for whom he sight read music.
“He said to me, ‘I think we can get you a full ride,’” Guerrero said. “That experience, just that one day, probably changed my life. I was numb, completely numb. I came from a family in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Coming to the city was completely different, not to mention that the choir director, Paul Salamunovich, was like a god among directors.”
Up until that point, Guerrero hadn’t considered singing as a profession. He originally wanted to venture into medicine, but his acceptance to Loyola – in addition to a phenomenal director to guide him – made what Guerrero called “unbelievable opportunities” available.
As a result of his participation in the Loyola men’s choir, he became a tenor section leader in the 1984 Olympics choir.
Guerrero knew that he wanted to teach music.
“I just loved being able to share music with other people,” he said. “I wanted to open their eyes to the subliminal messages behind notes and rhythms.”
Since then, Guerrero has taught music, but he strives to keep learning alongside his students.
He currently has a MA in music and balances his directorial duties with classes at USC, where he is working towards a DMA in choral conducting.
“It’s a performance degree,” he said. “With this, you are conducting, singing, playing an instrument. However, you are also researching and writing essays. ou have written exams. You then have to defend these written responses orally. After your oral exam, you have to write a book, a dissertation. It’s pretty intense.”
His work in and out of the classroom sets an example for his choir students.
“I spent the last three years with Mr. Guerrero, and I think that it’s incredible and inspiring that he manages to give us so much attention and teach us so effectively while also pursuing his own studies,” Ben Gail ’13 said. “I think that he is an excellent director.”
Guerrero will likely earn his degree at the end of the year, conducting Bel Canto, Chamber Singers and Wolverine Chorus as part of his final exam.
“How can we, as teachers, tell you guys to be lifelong learners if we aren’t exemplifying that in our own lives?” he said. “We all want to be what we expect you to be. More knowledge is never bad. There’s no reason not to teach an old dog new tricks. Why not?”