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I have a couple of questions that will help others help you. How large is your choir? I am assuming you have a single choir and not training choirs who feed into your large group. You say you are isolated. How far are you from other schools or universities? Knowing the answer to these questions might enable someone to help even more. Now without those answers, let me say that you are not alone. You seem to be facing one of the top questions every choral director asks. First and foremost, keep them singing. You might have to pick a piece that is below the level of your more advanced students but is still a beautiful piece of music. I am thinking about a piece like SIMPLE PRAISE by Courtney. It is actually more difficult than it looks, but is quickly learned and has beautiful melodic lines that high school students enjoy singing. I have met very few students who didn’t get hooked by a piece like this during the first couple of read throughs. After the notes and rhythms, there is a great deal to learn and make more beautiful. You didn’t mention voicing you need to use for your groups. You can find a piece where the melody is given to the men. Most of the time if you keep the men happy the ladies are easier to cajole into participation.
For your more advanced students, engage them with a more advanced piece performed by a small ensemble of your best singers. Let them be responsible for the rehearsals, but you carefully select music for them, introduce it to the group and then check in on the rehearsals on a regular basis. Offer them encouragement and direction and then program them on a concert or get them the opportunity to perform somewhere where they will receive some recognition. Have them perform in front of your whole choir and ask your choir to help perfect their performance. You might need to remind students that for every negative criticism, they should provide a positive criticism.
As for recordings and examples of good choirs, do you have a library that you use personally for ear cleaning? If you do, and you really need to have one, instead of playing an entire selection for your students, play a short section and direct your students at what you want them to listen to. Ask questions that they are to answer for you. Let the discussion go a little. If they aren’t hearing what you want them to hear, ask them to bring in a recording that they think exemplifies what you are talking about. Is your class small enough that you can show a video on your computer screen? I am assuming you have internet access at the school so you can get to You Tube. If your district blocks it, tell your administration what you want to show. I guarantee you have students who will know how to go around the firewall, but maybe your administration will put what you want on a disc for you.
Hang in there. How long have you been teaching and how long in your present school. Things get better. I can’t think of any better profession than teaching choral music to students and opening their minds to the possibilities. Have fun!
Becky Jarman, retired Choral Director, Davis High School.