I am grateful for collegiate experiences at the University of Utah which made me want to become a music educator. I was inspired by professors who valued my opinion and made me want to become a part of the rehearsal process.
In every choir, every day, choices need to be made that must involve the singers—our collaborators. Involving the students in the rehearsal and decision-making process helps us know what we have taught our students, keeps them actively engaged, and ensures that our students leave our programs prepared and equipped for future music-making experiences.
It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. J. K Rowling
Look for opportunities every day to extend choice. At the end of the warm up—ask the students if they feel ready to sing. Before setting a piece aside—ask the students if they are ready to move on. When still learning a piece ask the students whether or not they should do a sectional on the new music.
With a list of the choir’s music written on the board, ask the students to prioritize—then shape the rehearsal based on their choices. Invite the students to explain their choices—so that the they have the opportunity to think about their rehearsal. As a concert approaches—ask the students what order their pieces should be performed in—hey will have some insightful ideas.
In testing students on sight reading—give them two or three choices and a few minutes to prepare the item they will be tested on. They will prepare and practice more carefully if they have the right to choose what they will be tested on. Their choice will tell you as much about their ability as the actual performance will.
Take the opportunity to let the students assist you in choosing the music they will study. First, choose three or four selections you are passionate about, next you may want to have recordings available, and finally have the students vote on which one they’d like to pursue. Make sure that all choices will set the students up for success. Make sure that the students are free to express their reservations or reasoning for making a particular choice. Students can make a fairly astute analysis of what challenges and difficulties might present themselves in a particular piece of music. In this way students learn to count the cost of their choices and can learn to make wise decisions.
For the last five years one of my groups has consistently chosen a graduation piece that is not my first choice. The chance to choose gives them something to work for right up to the end of the year. It gives me the chance to model mature behavior and assist them as they pursue their goal. After all, it may not be my first choice, but it is certainly one of my choices and was selected with just this choir in mind.
Following an evaluation many years ago an administrator suggested to me that I record the choir and have them identify the problems and difficulties in the performance. He knew that such an evaluation would show me what the choir had learned and that involving the students in the polishing process would result in meaningful rehearsal and tangible improvement. Once a piece of music is note learned and ready for polish—record it. On the board write a plus and a minus and have the students identity first the positive things they heard and then those problems which require work. As you move through this process have a student act as scribe while you ask for comments. It is every bit as important for the students to identify what they are doing well. When asking about weaknesses encourage comments from all students that include page and measure numbers. Keep their comments on the board for the next rehearsal and work down the list of fixes—try to remember if you can who made what suggestion.
Another approach might include asking the students to give you notes at the end of rehearsing a particular piece. Use a highlighter and mark your score with their suggestions. They may identify faulty tuning, bad vowels, tricky divisi, unclear diction spots, or messy attacks or releases. Honor the student comments by restating them as you go. You may discover places where clearer conducting will clean things up beautifully.
When a piece is nearly learned, invite two singers to come down with their scores and pencils in hand. As the choir sings, ask your ‘specialists’ to identify positive and negative aspects of the performance. Be careful to restate each of their comments to let them know you are not just hearing them, you are actually listening to what they have to say.
If you have to be absent, prepare a detailed lesson plan and identify who is to lead each segment of the rehearsal. Assign a student accompanist to help in each segment of the rehearsal according to their abilities. Make sure that all members of the choir have a copy of your lesson plan in their folders. Frequently you will discover upon your return that the students have worked beautifully and cooperatively with your help. When I have been gone, I can always tell if the students have used the time productively and have progressed. Comment on their progress and praise their leadership.
Next time you decide to have sectionals go into one of the rooms as accompanist. Stipulate that you are only there as accompanist and that the students are expected to run the rehearsal. Keep quiet and when they struggle, be supportive but always allow yourself to be directed by the student in charge. Most of the time you will be impressed by what they can do and humbled by their desire to achieve
With select groups the formulation of student-driven goals can shape the course of the entire year if you are wise. Early on divide the students into small groups and have them determine the kind of choir they want to be. How will they perform at region and at state? What kind of climate do they want to have in the classroom? How will they participate in All-State and Honor Choir? During the busy performance season, how will they best serve each other and the greater community? During the year make sure that a copy of choir goals is in each folder and that you continually refer to their goals as they work. Try to limit goals to high, achievable standards that can be remembered.
Collaborative work with aspiring musicians is some of the most exciting and fulfilling teaching you will ever do. This is not a free for all. Musical materials are chosen carefully by you. This is not an opportunity for choir members to take pot shots at perceived rivals, but a chance for musicians to use their intellect to offer specific praise, responsible criticism and to make informed and intelligent choices. In this collaboration you are working for the day when you will no longer be by their side and you will be arming them with the tools they need to make music beyond school walls.Written by Alan Scott, Choral Director Murray High School Salt Lake City, Utah
Posted by Jeffrey Bauman, Professor of Music, Young Harris College