At Freedom High School, Mr. Won specializes in ‘lightbulb moments.’
It’s mid-afternoon at Freedom High School and in the choral suite, a student is beginning her singing lesson. She’s nervous because although she has a powerful voice, she doesn’t realize it. So she wavers on the high notes, frowning with concentration.
Her teacher, Mr. Won, sits beh
ind the piano. He has picked up on the fact that, despite his compliments and encouragement, she still has her doubts. So he pulls out his iPhone and records her, then plays it back over a classroom speaker.
“That’s you singing,” Mr. Won says to her. “Yes! I’m trying to tell you, that’s good! You sound great! You want to hear that again, so you can believe it?”
A shy smile tells him that she has realized her strength. It’s what Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, affectionately known as Mr. Won, likes to call a “lightbulb moment.’’
There have been many such moments in the five years since Mr. Won started teaching chorus at the south Orange County high school. Just ask his principal, Harold Border, who calls the 30-year-old teacher a “game changer.’’ Or his choral students, who strive to move up the ranks from Beginning Chorus to Varsity and onto the school’s showcase group, the Patriot Singers.
Others outside the school have taken notice. Mr. Won was named Orange County Teacher of the Year for 2013, and also is the 2013 recipient of the Macy’s Magic of Teaching Award.
Exuberant and charismatic, the instructor is quick to encourage his students and give them frequent personalized attention. Inspirational banners hang on the walls of the choral room: “Excellence is never an accident” and “We don’t perform to impress, we sing to inspire.”
One class in particular, Class Voice, sets both Mr. Won and Freedom High apart among high school choral music programs. Mr. Won calls Class Voice “the hybrid college conservatory model,” where students receive individual voice lessons. He works with a professional accompanist to deliver training in both technique and performance. The choral classes are always filled to capacity. Some students take more than one class during the school day, and others are enrolled in the Patriot Singers class, which meets as an eighth period, after school. On Friday nights, Mr. Won provides an opportunity for students to socialize, eat pizza and watch an opera movie.
Joshua Volpert, a junior who participates in both Varsity and Patriot Singers, enjoys the sense of family Mr. Won instills in his singing ensembles. “He creates a real atmosphere for learning,’’ Volpert says. “Within a family, that’s where you can learn the most.
“He’s figured out a way to make us all work for a common goal,’’ Volpert continues. “Most years, you don’t know half the other people in the choir, but Mr. Won manages to get us to work together, and he’s changed the way I think about dedication and hard work.”
Perhaps that’s because Mr. Won is a hard worker himself. He’s generally on campus at 7 a.m., then proceeds to work a 12-hour day. But the payoff is watching those lightbulbs come on—and watching students grow in their love of singing.
“We understand that not everybody, when they enter the classroom, is 100 percent sold on music,’’ he says. “But we’re hoping they are by the end of the year.
“And it usually happens that way.”