New choir director joins upper school performing arts

Eric Gault will direct the upper school choirs following the departure of Rodger Guerrero, who ran the choral program for the last 15 years.

Gault received the position after consideration from both a board of Harvard-Westlake performing arts teachers and the students in last year’s choir classes.

The search committee for the upper school choral position, led by middle school Choral Director Nina Burtchaell, consisted of performing arts department Chair Reese Pugh as well as jazz band director Shawn Costantino, upper school symphony director Mark Hilt and piano accompanist Sara Shakliyan. The committee reviewed over 100 applications, ultimately narrowing down the selection to three finalists, including Gault.

As a finalist for the position, Gault interviewed with the rest of the performing arts faculty, the administration and teachers from other departments. He also led rehearsals with students in Chamber Singers and Bel Canto.

“While managing his time very well and introducing us to nuanced, helpful tactics, Mr. Gault seemed to be a genuinely nice person,” Bel Canto member Alexa Frandzel ’18 said. “His personality meshed well with what I know the choir program to be, and I look forward to getting to know and working with Mr. Gault this year.”

From the three finalists, all of whom were described as superb musicians and conductors by Burtchaell, Gault stood out with his character and personality.

“In addition to his superb intellect, innate musicianship, expansive knowledge of the choral repertoire, what stood out to me about Eric Gault was his humanity,” Burtchaell said in an email.

The committee said Gault would not only help the students improve musically, but shape them as people as well.

“He is the kind of human being that makes the world a better place, and I believe that Harvard-Westlake and the students that I send to him from the middle school, will not only be better musicians and singers and scholars, but they will be better people for having had him as their teacher,” Burtchaell said.

Gault attended New Trier High School in Chicago and went on to study at Oberlin College where he completed his undergraduate studies in voice and voice pedagogy. He earned his Masters of Music in Choral Conducting and Music Education at the University of Oregon.

He comes from Colombia, where he has spent much of his musical career. Prior to Harvard-Westlake, he served as guest conductor at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, Colombia and head the development of a new Colombian national choir training program.

In between his work in Colombia, he has worked in the United States as director of choral activities at the Waterford School in Salt Lake City.

Gault first heard about the school through a colleague who worked with him at Waterford.

“She spoke so highly of Harvard-Westlake, that it always peaked my curiosity,” Gault said. “I got an email in January, I believe, from [her] saying the position at Harvard-Westlake is open, you have to apply, and I thought this is the one job I would go back to the states for.”

Gault said that it was the desire for excellence within Harvard-Westlake students that drew him to the school. He said that like Guerrero, he values that quality and feels like Harvard-Westlake kids can achieve that without needing an overly strict approach.

As the new director, Gault plans to integrate much of the music he learned in Colombia into the upper school choirs’ repertoire, including several of his own arrangements. He also aims to create a better dynamic between the three choirs at the Upper School.

“What good about the culture I’d like to keep, what I think can be improved upon I’d definitely like to change, and one of those things is getting Bel Canto to feel special and welcome and equal right off the bat,” Gault said.

Gault said that with Bel Canto being a non-auditioned choir, he didn’t want the girls to feel and be seen as inferior in the program.

“I understand that competition is sometimes part of music making and sometimes it can help, but it can also hurt,” Gault said. “I think that we can achieve excellence and go beyond that while having everyone understand that the work they are doing, no matter their group, is of equal quality and value”.

His goal is to set up a culture where the different choirs are seen as equal competitors and separation is based off sound color and texture as well as how the singers blend, rather than an individual’s ability.

“I want them to feel that if they’re in this room, they’re doing amazing work.” Gault said.

Gault is excited for the challenge to sustain the choral program’s reputation and eager to make his mark at the school.

“I like to look at it more as if we’re changing shoes, not filling shoes just changing shoes,” Gault said. “You’ll find that I’m in many ways similar to Dr. Guerrero but you’ll also find that I’m different in many ways, and that’s what makes music and teaching valuable.”

Gault said he liked meeting the students and looks forward to continuing the tradition of excellence in the choral program at the school.

 

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