R – Scenario #1: An auditioned, balanced ensemble of like-minded, like-motivated singers with the same skill set, backgrounds, reference points and reasons for being in the ensemble. They share the same ideals and beliefs and those resonate through every minute of every rehearsal. Scenario #2: real life.
Which scenario do you deal with?
These are the real issues we confront as music teachers. In an Algebra II course, the skill set is varied, but only to a degree. In Social Studies, student’s motivation to be there may be varied but they know exactly what to expect. In Biology, there are many different reference points, but 100% of those students took the same science courses together over a period of many years leading up to that point. NONE of these three things generally hold true with regard to music performance classes. Students still learning how to hold their instruments are performing next to students who will be music majors on that same instrument in a year or two. In chorus, every student has their own conviction of what the course should or should not be… and it’s not always based in reality, is it? And while some in the performance ensemble have played together before, I know dozens of school choirs filled with students who have never sung with others in the same course before.
It seems to me that bridging all these gaps is not only a desirable goal for any music teacher, they’re essential to the success of the “melting pot” performance based course, not to mention the students.
1. Skill set… this is where mentoring can play a very large role. Instead of ignoring the skill set gap, you can use it to your advantage. Holding older or more advanced students accountable to mentoring those around them builds multiple sets of social and civic skills while building musicianship and closing the skill set gap. In my choirs, there is not only a seating chart, but that chart changes every 4 weeks. I place students strategically to be mentors (and “mentees”) and structure rehearsals in such a way that mentoring is encouraged. This plays a crucial role. Last year I formed a choir made up entirely of first time singers at YHS. It changed the way I taught and assessed for the better, and I have since transferred some of my lightbulb realizations over to my other choirs. But I found out just how much I missed the mentoring piece and how the musical development of my singers was slowed as a result. I’ve permanently reverted back to heterogenous groupings for my non-auditioned choirs.
2. Speaking of non-auditioned choirs, motivation for enrollment can be all over the place. Some love to sing. Does that mean they’re willing to work hard on musical disciplines in the rehearsal setting? Some love working with others socially. Does that mean they also bring a self-discipline required to focus and rehearse? Others are there to sing certain styles/genres of music… and they will disengage the moment you rehearse something outside of that style they want to sing. The logical solution is to make it your highest priority to establish the set goals for the course. These goals can be as broad or as specific as you’d like, but they MUST establish YOUR motivation for running it. Likewise, they must establish in the student’s minds clear expectations not only for the course but for your expectations of them. Failing to do this, instead just assuming that all students are there for the same reason and motivation… well, simply put, “no good is going to come of this”.
3. And being a melting pot of backgrounds and experiences? There are many ways to deal with this, the least desirable of which is to ignore it. I’ve already tied this into choice of solfege or numbers (mac vs. pc) but it is also essential to create multiple shared experiences, whatever they may be. “Well, they’re in the same class for a term, isn’t that enough?” is too passive an approach. What are the shared experiences you will be creating for your students? Warmups… exercises… sight readings… tone building… technique building… be precise as to how you will build the shared bank of experiences.
The performing arts are not more important than any other subject area, but they are as important and they are RADICALLY different! On many levels. I would argue that these are three examples of differences that must be addressed before a performance ensemble can move forward successfully. Bridging the skill-set gap, establishing a singular mind set of goals and motivations and also developing an ongoing set of shared communal experiences can establish a strong foundation upon which a choir can blossom and thrive.