Angel is a current senior at Wilton High School. Much of her writing consists of reviews of books and music as well as the occasional article on health and well-being. In her free time, she plays the guitar or sleeps in.
Humans of WHS: Mr. Mandelbaum
March 2, 2023
Tell me a story about yourself:
“I’m Mr. Mandelbaum. I am the choral director at Wilton High School, and this is my first year teaching at the high school.”
For many high school students, music programs such as the choral arts at Wilton High School are what students look forward to the most. We use the creative outlet to express ourselves while building a community with other students and staff. This year, the music department and upperclassmen were given a new choral director, whose aim is to take the choral program in a new and exciting direction.
Mr. Mandelbaum, or “Mr. M” as most of his students call him, is a music enthusiast and former student of our previous choral director, Mr. Cotellese. Known for his love of the band Phish, artist Tyler, the Creator, and UCONN Men’s Basketball team, Mr. M describes himself as a very “excited, interested, and curious” guy.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with him and get to know how he ended up where he is today. “After all the concerts and practices I’ve done here, I often tell myself, there must be something going right,” he jokes.
“I did a lot of music in high school. As a doubler, I played cello and sang. I did mostly orchestra because of the restrictions at the school, and it wasn’t as easy to double as it is here. I had Mr. Cotellese in high school, and my senior year was the second year I did choir. He told me, ‘You should do Western Regionals.’ I didn’t know anything about it. I auditioned, and I got in.”
“I met my college director when I got in, who was a clinician at UCONN. I wasn’t even thinking about auditioning there for music, and he said, ‘You should audition here for music and play the cello,’ so I auditioned [again] and got in. That’s when I started singing some more serious choral music.”
“All my friends were music eds, and I became music director for my college a cappella group. I kept thinking, ‘This is really cool.’ From there, I started doing music education, and I fell in love with choral music after singing at that level.”
“The very first thing I did singing-wise at UCONN was their concert choir. I worked with Dr. Spillane, who was my college conductor at Western Regionals, [and] that was my favorite choral experience ever.”
“We did the coolest conducting pieces and I kept thinking ‘I need more of this’. I’ve always wanted to do a cappella, and doing a cappella at college was impactful. I don’t think I would be sitting where I am now if it wasn’t for that group. Later, I sang with this group called the UCONN Collegium Musicum, which is a group that only sings early music before 1750. I learned so much about early music singing in that group, and I loved that kind of music. If I had to choose between modern and early music for the rest of my life, I would choose early music. I also played historical instruments and became obsessed with historical stuff like that. I totally geek out about it and want to do more of that here.”
“I then sang at UCONN’s Chamber Singers, which is their mixed group. In grad school, I sang in all tenor and bass groups, which was really fun. I also do a lot of church choir singing outside of UCONN. Lots of singing in different styles.”
When discussing his inspirations, he mentioned one of his favorite ideas when approaching a class full of diverse students: “Robert Dillworth, [who] writes and arranges a lot of African American spirituals. I was watching a Youtube video [at one point] and he told one of the most influential ideas I keep with me today.
He has a thing called ‘”OP OP,’ which is Obstacles and Problems or Opportunities and Possibilities. When you walk into a room full of students, you can look at them and view them as obstacles and problems, or you can view them as opportunities and possibilities, and [your students] will know which one it is without speaking. It takes a lot for a teacher to walk in and think [of] opportunities and possibilities. Having that mindset is very important because [students] will always exceed your expectations.”
Although Mr. M has been here for a short time, there is already so much that he has to say about WHS’s music and theater programs.
“I’ve always been a musical theater kid at heart. I grew up doing theater, and theater came much earlier than choral music to me. I have been music-directing shows in Fairfield since I was nineteen. When I came here, I knew I wanted to get involved with theater. When I saw “The Play That Goes Wrong” in the fall, I was like, ‘Oh my God, they take this very seriously,’ and I’m very happy about that.”
“I like how involved everyone is with everything. I always see band and orchestra kids in the music office. It’s impressive how everyone is doing sports and theater and clubs. It was a bit of a culture shock when I first came here to see everyone so involved. Students really do everything.”
When asked about his favorite piece of music performed so far, he answered, “’O Magnum Mysterium’ because it’s so rewarding to do a piece of music that’s so hard. It was a group struggle and I wouldn’t expect to give that to any group. The fact that it was so hard and we performed it and it wasn’t perfect, but we performed it again and it got better…those special moments are why I do this…this is why I do the things that take a lot of work.”
Halfway through his first year of teaching, Mr. M continues to develop a multitude of ideas that he hopes to put into play this year and for years ahead.
“I wanted to talk about a choir board because I want to recruit and get the [choral student] numbers up because…this program used to be double the size before COVID. I would love to go to Carnegie Hall and [also participate] in a tenor and bass festival [each year]. They have one at UCONN every year, and although I wasn’t able to bring them this year, I do know that I want to get the tenor and bass numbers up.
I also want to bring my former college a cappella group and some clinicians to work with [my students]. Many places, like Connecticut State University, love coming here and working with students.
Lastly, I want to [renovate the] choir room with more stuff. If students are distracted, I would love for them to have a place to look. We were all in high school once, and sometimes we just need something to stare at during the day.”
“I’m very excited to be here, and if you aren’t in a choir program, feel free to stop by the choir room. You can always visit because why not?”