By Jennifer Powell (Photo/Jeff McEvoy)
Theodore Thorpe III is now in his seventh season as the director of choral activities at T.C. Williams High School. Thorpe is widely regarded as a disciplinarian who gets the most out of performances from students.
The T.C. choir recently sang at the biggest of stages: the opening ceremony for Smithsonian’s new National Museum
of African American History and Culture. But the man who orchestrated the 200-member performance with only a few weeks to prepare was modest despite the plaudits.
“I’d like to say the choirs have done great things and they’ve tolerated me as their leader,” he said.
T.C. Williams represents Thorpe’s first public school teaching position after stints at private schools and the Washington Youth Choir, a regional after-school group. It was there that Thorpe met and befriended Joyce Garrett, who founded the organization after retiring from teaching in D.C. Public Schools and leading the Eastern High School choir for 30 years.
When Don Mischer Productions, who organized the museum’s opening festivities, called Garrett looking for a youth choir, she called Thorpe and local gospel group leader Patrick Lundy to put together a group made up of students from T.C., Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda and Suitland High School.
“This was such an incredible experience,” Thorpe said after the performance. “We feel honored to be selected to be a part of it. I am truly proud of the way our students perform and rise to every challenge.”
Thorpe’s own music career almost wasn’t. His parents were both musicians in their own right — his father was a former conductor and choral master, and his mother was a leading soprano who sang at Carnegie Hall. Music was woven in the background of his family.
Thorpe studied piano from the age of 4 and practiced the instrument until he was a teenager. Then he took a slight detour.
“I went to college to study biology,” he said. “I was a biology major before I made the switch to become a music major. I still kept my biology and it became my minor.
“I actually got into dental school. I was on my way to go to dental school — there were several schools I was looking at — and I just decided to make the switch and go to grad school for music and pursue my passion.”
Thorpe’s said when he arrived at T.C. Williams in 2010, the school’s choir program was sorely lacking.
“[When] I got here and when I was interviewed, I said to the administration, ‘If you let me do it my way, I promise you within a couple years we will turn this program around and we will make this choir not just a staple, but a monument in this community.’ It is interesting. I always say that you have to break a culture to build one,” he said. “When I got here in 2010, there were maybe 30-plus students in the entire choir. And you’re talking about a school with well over 3,000 students. Less than 1 percent was in the choral program. Many students didn’t even know there was a choir here.”
But building up the choir was difficult, Thorpe said. He had to instill the discipline required for choral performances. But students quickly came around to the idea.
“I think students love structure — they need structure, they want it,” Thorpe said. “Because we’re not only preparing them to be great musicians, but we’re preparing them to be contributors to society. Much of what they learn in this class- room is more than music.
“They learn a lot of life skills, they learn how to interact with someone who looks different than you, that comes from a different background from a different culture, how to work with people. These are the life skills that are transferrable once they walk across that stage.”
Thorpe considers the yearly pyramid concert, where local elementary and middle school students get to sing with the T.C. choir, as one of the most important concerts and one of his best recruiting tools.
“The pyramid concert has been a staple of what we do, even before I got here. It in many ways is a way to get the kinks out of our festival music we are getting ready to be adjudicated on without fear of a grade,” Thorpe said. “It’s a wonderful way to bring the community together and to show that there’s another level to achieve from the elementary honors choir to the middle school to the high school.
“It has been one of the best concerts that we could put on here in the community because it brings everybody together.”
Becky Santana, president of the T.C. Williams Choir Boosters said Thorpe brings out the best in his students, who reflect the school’s diverse and distinctive culture. She described him as a positive role model who “cultivates the choir’s dedication and teamwork to create their award winning choral sound.”
And Zach McEvoy, student president of the T.C. choir, said Thorpe has a knack for helping students develop both musically and as people.
“Over the past four years, I have experienced and witnessed Mr. Thorpe help many students find their voice,” McEvoy said. “We are very fortunate to have him as our choir director.”
Thorpe’s choir students have gotten accustomed to having unique opportunities.
“These kids have performed for the president of the United States, this is not just the first time,” he said. “Christmas in Washington is another production that they perform for the president. They have also performed with today’s notable pop stars, from Justin Bieber to Mariah Carey to Beyonce to Darius Rucker. Many of them are used to that, though in the beginning there was a lot of star-struckness.”
But chances to perform for politicians or sing with the stars mean a lot of hard work, Thorpe stressed.
“One of our staples is work ethic over talent,” he said. “That is the biggest thing because it takes a lot of work. I’d much rather have a student who is not as talented but is willing to work twice as hard. That fits into our staple of discipline. It does require their focus and their work three days a week.”
Aside from the goals he sets for his students, Thorpe is working on a book, “Seven Keys to Choral Success: Breaking a Culture to Build One.” And he always is work- ing to make the school’s choral program even larger.
“In a school of 3,000 students, we really should have 300 [singers], or 10 percent of the population,” he said. “Right now it’s about 115. I’m excited that it tripled in number from 30 to where it is now. But there is even more room for growth.”