Building a choir program from nothing is a daunting task. I am always amazed at the number of directors that leave floundering choir programs and play the blame game. Directors will blame everyone from the “untalented” student body, their administration that has it “out to get them”, to the community buying into negative stereotypes about choir. These are myths. What it boils down to is education. The consummate educator must educate the child to show him where his talent lies, educate the administrator to show her how to help the choir program have success, and perhaps most importantly, must educate the community at large to show them that choir is much more than just what they think it is.
Educate the children:
Educating the children is the number one job of any choir director, and for most it is a passion. Why else would we have taken 100 hours each semester and suffered through yet another performance of the Bach B minor Mass? (All props to Bach here, seriously). We started in this profession to see “that light” in the eyes of a child. We make music every day, and we reach each child in a way that most classroom teachers never get to. We teach them about art, life, love, and passion. Keep doing it! Do it well. This is the most important part of building a successful program.
The secret to educating the children is two-fold and quite simple: 1. Love them. 2. Have a plan, execute the plan, review the plan, and rework the plan…ad nauseum.
How do I love them? Let me count the ways…
- Teach and love every child that is willing to sign up for your class. This means the future valedictorian and the frequent discipline problem; this means finding a way to create beautiful music with children who have an abundance of talent and those that can barely carry a tune in a bucket.
- Teach them boundaries in your class and make it a safe place to learn. Don’t be afraid to draw the hard lines of your expectations.
- Find the students outside of your room and have a conversation with them…about anything that isn’t choir.
- Get interested in what they are interested in. If they are in Athletics, go to a game and be the loudest cheerleader in the stands!
- Let them know you care about them…just tell them…often. When you see that they are having a bad day, ask them about it (in private of course). When they are having a great day, tell them that you noticed!!!
- Respect them. I have heard my colleagues say things like, “I don’t apologize to children, and I don’t say please. I am the adult and they should respect that.” This is so wrong. Children deserve your love and respect if for no other reason than they are human beings, too; remember that they may not get it anywhere else. How do we expect them to know how to respect us if we do not model it for them?
OK, OK I love them, but what is the plan?
Start with this simple question: How in the WORLD am I going to get these kids ready for public performance in 6 weeks? Teach the fundamentals well and the rest will come. Many directors get ahead of themselves in this phase and end up with students that “survive” music rather than sing it. I define fundamentals as: music symbol recognition, basic rhythm reading, basic staff reading, breathing technique (this one is SO important), and basic sight reading. A typical day in my choir room consists of: breathing exercises, vocal warm-up, sight reading exercise, and repertoire rehearsal – in that order. As the year progresses, I vary the exercises somewhat, but always touch on these key elements to some degree.
Some directors believe in scripting their lessons – writing down everything word for word; I don’t. I have tried it, but I can never manage to actually read what I wrote. Some directors time everything to the minute; for example: Breathing 8:00-8:02; vocal warm-up 8:02-8:07, etc. etc. I don’t do this either. I give everything a rough timing. This helps me keep my sanity. When I do the “to the minute” thing, I always feel like I am catching my own tail. Don’t get me wrong, both of these techniques work. They work very well. They just don’t work for me. Find a method that works for you and use it.
At the end of each rehearsal, evaluate what happened. Did they achieve the musical/vocal goals you had in mind? Why do you think it did or didn’t? At this point, it is time to play the blame game. My mentor said these words and I live by them, “Everything that happens in a rehearsal is your responsibility. If they sounded awful, it was because of something you did or did not do. If they breathed wrong, it was your fault. You are the teacher, and you must assume that they are coming to you with a completely blank slate – a slate that it is your job to fill.” At the end of each day, I ask myself how I can revamp what I did to make it work for these students currently in my class. This may not be the same thing that worked last year, and next year, you will have to start again. My methods may be as conventional as a simple warm-up exercise to achieve a goal, or it might be as unconventional as skipping in the hallway as they sing. Choir directors wonder why everyone in the building thinks we are nuts.
This is just the starting point. For everything I wrote, I thought of 12 more things that I might have added. Remember that through it all, the children are your greatest asset. They are the future of your program, and they will be your best advocates in the school and the community. If you show them that you care, even if you make mistakes along the way, they will be your biggest cheerleaders!!
Stay tuned for the second part: How to build a successful choir program: Educate, Educate, Educate! Part 2: Educate your Administrative Team!