I poll each of my choirs a few weeks into every new year/semester, and it’s always two questions. 1) Has this course/experience been better, the same or worse than what you expected? 2) Why? The only caveat is that they are not allowed to put their name on it. I get really honest answers. The goal for me is twofold. They get to express their thoughts – which is always a good thing – and I get to see if my perception of their thoughts aligns with the reality of the situation. I polled my honors Treble Choir on Thursday and got precisely what I expected and we are mutually happy with the situation. I polled my Chorus yesterday and also got precisely what I expected: the responses are all over the place. I am thrilled with where they’re at after only a few weeks, but they had some interesting reflections.
The chorus is my entry level, one semester course that takes care of the YHS graduation requirement for music. Consequently, though there are many in it who sang in Middle School, it is also filled with students who didn’t and/or have no real interest in music, much less singing. My goal then is to treat the first month of school as my own choral boot camp. Our rehearsals have been filled with demonstrating and engaging the students in proper breathing and singing techniques. I do a pre-exam on note recognition on both staves, key signatures and time signatures. We’re in the middle of the actual assessments of those skills right now after a series of lessons on them and the kids are making sweet progress. The only singing we have done is warmups and establishing pitch, pitch matching fingers, and sight reading on sightreadingfactory.com projected on the screen in front of the room. We are beginning to really master skips and they have a functional range of a full octave now. They’re now singing in harmony in tune. They have submitted their first video assessment and did outstanding, their second one is due this weekend. They’re singing out aggressively and doing so with good technique. I begin every semester this way and it’s never failed them.
Perceptions from the poll? It was split roughly a third each for better, similar and worse. This is not unusual for the chorus over the years. The “better” comments alluded to “I thought I’d hate singing but I kind of like it”, “I couldn’t sing before but now I can read music”, “I thought I was tone deaf but now I know I’m not”, we have fun, etc, etc. The “same” comments were along the lines of, I knew what it was going to be and it’s been that. The “worse”? “It’s boring”. Digging deeper, this feedback seems to be largely from the kids who already have many of these skills. They already know their key signatures, or they already know how to sing from their diaphragm or they already can sight read. A few mentioned that it’s boring because there’s no sheet music yet. One even mentioned that they didn’t realize they’d have assessments where they’d have to actually sing… that one made my day. 🙂 (“Wait… you mean in this math class you’re gonna make me ADD?”). Some of these kids were kind and mentioned that they like my teaching, it’s just that it this has not been what they expected so far. That’s fair.
What’s the takeaway for me? Not much different than any other semester, and merely reinforces the need for the boot camp. I refuse to have a program of “haves” and “have nots”. There’s no way to get them on the same page and playing field without, ummm, actually taking the time to do so. If my Robert Shaw mindset of smallest components leading to a larger synthesis is to be realized in this case, the process has to begin like this. It means developing the newcomers’ learning skills that enable them to succeed, but it also means the other students supporting them in that work. And that means looking beyond your own contentment as a singer. And that isn’t easy for a High School student to accept, much less a 14 year old.
“Boring” in this case means development of the entire group. I can’t wait to have this conversation with the kiddos next time I see them on Tuesday afternoon, because this is largely going to determine what I have for a maturity level in them. Either we move forward individually or we move forward collectively, and as a choir, there’s only one valid option there. Either the “bored” kids are going to start to see the process/big picture and buy in, or they are going to continue to feel held back. I think that in any classroom in any high school a wonderful lesson to teach kids is that when they set their own agendas aside for the betterment of those around them, the most rewarding experiences can then occur. This cannot happen in the YHS chorus without the process taking shape. And that means getting everyone literate and matching pitch and hearing intervals and reading music and singing with good technique and tone. When that is identified as boring for some, the teachable moment then occurs.
On the one hand it’s always a risk to begin each term this way. But as Ben Zander says in his Ted talk, “This isn’t really an experiment, because I already know the outcome.” 😉 When we get another month and a half into this, the choir progresses at a pretty crazy rate because the foundation was already cemented, all we had to do was build on it, and that IS the fun part the kids had been waiting for. It’s the most rewarding part of my job, watching the chorus take flight each semester in the weeks leading up to the actual concerts. But it begins with boring. I can’t imagine anything more… exciting.