The music man: WHS music director Russell Faunce leads dynamic, successful program

Members of Watertown High School’s Select Choir rehearse their production of “Forbidden Broadway” under the direction of Russell J. Faunce, who has been a powerful force in students’ success for more than 30 years. Amanda Morrison/ NNY Living

Members of Watertown High School’s Select Choir rehearse their production of “Forbidden Broadway” under the direction of Russell J. Faunce, who has been a powerful force in students’ success for more than 30 years. Amanda Morrison/ NNY Living

It’s almost impossible not to smile in the presence of Russell J. “Russ” Faunce, director of music at Watertown High School and a stalwart of musical and theatrical productions both in the district and in the community for the past three decades. Maybe it’s because he himself seems to be perpetually smiling. Or that, even carrying a stack of Scantrons and a red pen through the music department on a recent Friday afternoon, he seems easy going and exudes his philosophy, with an encouraging yet serious demeanor: that, simply, with hard work and dedication, success will come.

And come it has to the students in his choirs, though Mr. Faunce himself is quick to self-deprecating laugh off almost every mention of his role in it. In his 32 years of teaching at the high school, he’s never not had a student make it to the New York State School Music Association All-State Conference for choir, the most prestigious and competitive competition for a high school band, chorus or orchestra student. Selection requires a near perfect score on the highest, most grueling level of NYSSMA solo — even three points below 100 usually doesn’t make the cut.

And it’s not just one student. In 2003, he sent a record eight. Last year, he sent four.

“Part of it is that I know the process so well,” he said. “I know the music really well, the sight-reading parts. I’m such a stickler for teaching that stuff.”

Mr. Faunce served as the All-State chorus chair for from 2005 to 2009.

But knowing the music and the process is only half the battle; Mr. Faunce begins NYSSMA solo preparation with students four to five months out, in the beginning rehearsing once a week, then four to five times per week one to two months out. Given that he typically has 75 students prepare solos, one third for All-State, that preparation is no small time investment.

“The preparation shows off more than the actual performance—you can be completely prepared and not have a good day and do a better job than people who are not nearly as prepared and have a good day,” he said. “I don’t do unprepared. We just don’t do that here.”

Senior Rachael M. Coon was one student who invested hours in preparation and came up heartbreakingly short last spring, narrowly missing the All-State cut with a score of 97. She worked with Mr. Faunce on four different solos, which he does with most students, choosing the student’s strongest as the date draws near. Mr. Faunce said the two speculated that she would have been in the 99-100 range necessary for All-State in the week before the competition, even though they changed the key of her solo in the days prior. Ms. Coon, who also studies privately, said she was singing the song six to seven times a day in the last two months.

“She was disappointed, but she had no reason to be disappointed because what she learned from the experience was far greater than the 97,” Mr. Faunce said. “She worked so hard.”

Ms. Coon, who is playing the lead role in WHS’s fall musical Anything Goes, is also a member of Select Choir and has traveled with the group to Disney World and New York City. She’s planning to study music education in college.

She said Select Choir, which has 32 primarily upperclassmen members on average, is sometimes intense, but mainly just fun.

“It’s something you look forward to every day,” she said.

The choir practices every day 7th period and every Monday night. About 40 to 50 students vie for about 10 to 20 openings each year, Mr. Faunce said. Admission usually requires a 97 or higher on a Level 6 NYSSMA solo.

Despite Ms. Coon’s own clear self-motivation, she credits much of her success to Mr. Faunce’s tutelage.

“He pushes us, he pushes us definitely,” she said. “He always sets the bar high for us and he always finds a way, even when it seems like we’re never going to make it, we always make it. I don’t know how he does it, but he makes it happen for us.”

And even though she’s involved in various other school activities, she credits the music program with making her who she is today.

“As a person, I’ve grown a lot,” she said. “When I came my freshman year, I was a very shy person and I didn’t talk much, but now I got a little bit sassy and I’m pretty loud. I think the music program here has definitely made me who I am and given me the confidence I need to be successful.”

Mr. Faunce, who studied piano at the Crane School of Music, Potsdam, credits becoming a choral instructor with his experience student teaching in the Watertown School District, after which he was hired to teach full-time in the district.

“When I student taught, that’s kind of when it all turned around and I got really excited about teaching,” he said. “I wasn’t a musical theater person either until I student taught.” He now directs and plays piano in an average of two musicals per year, which have been immensely popular with the community.

He’s teaching a beginning piano course at the high school this year after several years of hiatus and said he loves seeing the students go from frustrated for the first two weeks then suddenly “get it,” the most rewarding part of his job.

“Rarely if ever do I say you should have worked harder,” he said. “We just don’t have that here. The kids that I work with here are hard-working kids.”

He also characterizes his approach as one of honesty, about all facets of a student’s performance. “I’m all about praise, but not until it’s earned,” he said. “If it’s not good or something’s wrong, I really take a real responsibility in fixing it and making it better.”

As with the doctor and most things in life, there’s always something about one’s singing that can be improved upon.

“The voice is like muscles in your arm — if you don’t continually practice with them and use them, it’s going to fall back,” he said. “Even if you’re excellent when you come in in 9th grade, there’s still room for growth. I really live my life that way. It’d be nice to think my house was perfect and the car was clean all the time, but it’s just not.”

Mr. Faunce has taken Select Choir to Disney about seven times, and will be returning with the group this year. The group has always placed in the top three, and a few years ago won first place for attitude and behavior while in California, an award he said was a true testament to the type of students he has. Select Choir is also active in the community, including singing and performing at the annual Senior Citizen Luncheon in December.

Mr. Faunce himself is also active in local stage productions. He produced the Miss New York State Scholarship Pageant for five years while it was held in Watertown along with co-producer and choreographer David A. Simmons. The two are also involved with the annual Miss Italia Pageant at the Bravo Italiano Festival.

While Mr. Faunce said the music department typically has five to six students a year go on to some form of music career, he believes the values of discipline, preparation, commitment and perseverance that students learn through preparing for NYSSMA, choir and musicals prepare them to be successful in a broad range of careers.

“I don’t have Broadway stars or an American Idol, but what I do have is a lot of kids who have gone on to a lot of successful careers—doctors, lawyers, teachers. I think in order to be successful in those high-powered careers … I like to feel that I’ve helped them in those,” he said.

And past students, many of whom he stays in touch with, glowingly say that indeed he has.

“Among all of my primary and secondary school educators, Russ stands out as one of the three or four teachers who so greatly made an impression on me that I still recall his guidance today in my career and everyday life,” Shelby Cohen, a 1995 WHS graduate and Select Choir member, said. She also participated in All-State, after acing a song she says she still remembers 20 years later, and over the years has returned to help Mr. Faunce with his NYSSMA work to give back.

Ms. Cohen, who now works in public relations in the Ithaca area, traveled numerous times with the choir. Mr. Faunce was able to get the choir a gig performing for the Miss America Convention of state volunteers in the city, for Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford at the famous Sardis Restaurant, an experience she called “unforgettable.” At the other competitions, she said all of the choir’s members performed with immense pride in WHS because of his leadership and the way he had prepared them, she said.

And she said Mr. Faunce’s mentorship led her to her career choice.

“From my interactions with him, I learned that I have a voice that can lead,” she said. “I was never the strongest vocalist in the choir—Russ knew it and I knew it — but he developed me as a character actress, leader and public speaker.”

That individualized attention, coupled with his balance of fun and hard work, demanding toughness and compassion, is what makes Mr. Faunce and the program he’s built and sustained so unique, she said.

“Through classes, choirs, rehearsals, musicals and trips, he gets to know each student better than they know themselves at that age,” she said. “He then knows how to reward the positive aspects of someone’s character while doling out appropriate discipline to discourage the negative ones.”

“He’s remarkable, in a word.”

Leah Buletti is a staff writer for NNY Magazines. Contact her at 661-2381 or