James Cooper is the choir director at Henry Co. HS and holds a BME from the University of Louisville and a MAEd from Bellarmine University.
Help! I Just Started Teaching and My Choir is Struggling!
Most public school choir directors have been right where you are. The first can easily break us down and destroy our spirit, especially if we're not inheriting an established program. In this article, I'm going to share what I've learned through the experience of taking a 12 student bird class to a successful multi-choir program:
- Begin With Realistic Expectations
- Make it Fun
- Get Out of the School
- Provide Advanced Opportunities
- Plan for the Future
Begin With Realistic Expectations
When I started teaching almost 10 years ago, I had just graduated from a college where I had sung in an internationally acclaimed choir. I had taken voice lessons from great performers, and had so many amazing opportunities that I was completely blinded to the reality of music eduction in public schools. I began teaching in a rural school that had, for the past several years, had very low participation. These students were not going to be performing Mendelssohn any time soon. At first I found this discouraging. It wasn't until later in that first year that I came to the realization that the real goal wasn't repertoire, but teaching.
As educators, it is important that we meet our students where they are. Be prepared to do simple arrangements for the first couple of years. Focus on growth rather than a certain level of repertoire. Be specific about what you pick and teach. If you're teaching beginners, teach beginning music. You may have to teach a junior in high school what whole, half, and quarter notes are.
If students feel overwhelmed or unsuccessful, they won't stick with it. Start at their level and build from there. If you capture their interest, you'll be surprised at how quickly they grow.
Meet the Students Where They Are
Make It Fun
Yes, you have at least one college degree. Yes, you've performed serious repertoire. Yes, you are a musician of high caliber. This doesn't mean you have to be a diva. During Warm-Ups, sight reading practice, even outside of class, enjoy your time with the students. All day these students are asked to sit still and be quiet and learn. Get them out of that routine!
In choir, we learn by doing. Develop an atmosphere of safety and fun in your classroom and students will want to be there! When mistakes are made, don't get angry or mad. It's just a mistake. If students are afraid of doing something incorrectly, they'll stop singing altogether.
One game I play with 6th graders (and still get requests for up through high school) is "So La Mi". It sounds like salami and we laugh about that. It's the entire group of students verses the choir director. I sing three not patterns that the students echo back in unison (Mi Re Do, Do Mi So, etc.). However, they are not to sing back the pattern "So La Mi". If they are silent after that pattern, they get a point. If not, I do. We play to 5 points or so. Seems simple, but they get way into it. It's a great way to get a group of any size hyper-focused. I've played it with over a hundred students and it's amazing to see a group that large get dead quiet just for a tick mark on the white board. Games like this engage the students, but they're learning. Play games with rhythm reading, within the repertoire you're teaching, anywhere you can fit it. Get creative.
Engage your students outside of class. Have a choir retreat or lock-in. DON'T REHEARSE THE WHOLE TIME. Rehearse for a bit, have pizza together, and play silly games. Students of all ages will get into it and you'll be building choir culture.
Get Out of the School
Students love participating in activities and groups that include field trips. Even if your choir isn't ready for that big competition, find things that they can participate in starting that first year. Here are some ideas:
- Most amusement parks do some sort of music festival in the spring. Is this the highest level of choral performance and competition? No. Does it introduce the students to the process and get them motivated? Yes.
- Contact local colleges with music schools about doing a visit. Most will be more than happy. Do a joint rehearsal or workshop with their choir and take a campus tour.
- Participate in your state's Music Educator Association (MEA) festival. Don't worry about how they do. Most give the option of performing for comments only if you're worried about it. Make sure you stay and listen to other choirs! Go out to lunch somewhere fun afterwards and talk with students about the experience.
- Go see a choir concert together. Students will really get a kick out of going to a large church or cathedral to hear a professional, community, or university choir.
Provide Advanced Opportunities
Even if you're choir is struggling, your bound to have one or two that have a real drive to excel. Make sure you provide opportunities for these students to participate in high level performances. If you don't, you'll lose them, and you need that student leadership! Make sure these students have the chance to participate in Honor Choirs, All County, All State, All District, and any and every other extra-curricular performance opportunity available in your area. They will come back excited, and that excitement always spreads. The stories they tell about these experiences will motivate other students.
Plan for the Future
Once you create culture in which your students are excited to be a part of the choir, it's time to focus on building the skills and technique they'll need to succeed. It's important to set goals, make a plan, and reflect regularly on that plan.
Long term goals can help you create a vision of where you would like your students to be. Make sure these goals are attainable, and share them with your choir. Perhaps you want to earn a certain score at Festival within the next 2 years. Maybe there's a piece of music near and dear to your heart that you would like to perform by the time a certain set of students graduate. Whatever the goal is, use it as your guide for your planning, programming and instruction.
Make a Plan
Think about what it will take to achieve the goal you've set, and plan backwards. If you're goal is to perform that masterwork you love so much, what skills will they need? Will they have to perform long melismas? If so, is there an easier piece with short melismas you can do now that can serve as the foundational work for that skill? Scaffolding the skills your students will need will make whatever goal you set seem like a piece of cake when the time comes.
The best laid plans do not always pan out. Be prepared to have set backs and failures. They are part of life. When things don't work out, adjust your plan. At the end of every class, every day, every term, and every school year sit down and think about what's working and what's not. This could be as easy as thinking to yourself on the drive home everyday or as complicated as a written reflection at the end of each school year. Regardless of your method, reflecting on your and your students' progress will help keep you on track for success.
So What Now?
These ideas are just the beginning! As music educators, it is part of our job to be constantly in search of new ideas, methods, research and repertoire so that we may better serve our students. Look for more articles on the choir classroom from me, and go out and do your own research! What would you like to read about next? Vote in the poll below.