Reply To: Social Interaction in the Choral Classroom

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Maybe others will disagree with me on this, but I am not sure personal critique from other students is appropriate… if students need personal critique because they are having a lot of trouble with something, it should be privately, one-on-one, from you. I think it is possible to do group critique and still draw attention to specific issues without singling out specific students. If there is a problem with something, students can talk about this without drawing attention to an individual or giving specific names. I teach younger students, but I do not allow put-downs or teasing of any kind in my classes. Even though put-downs aren’t technically bullying (I’m sure you’re aware of the legal definition of bullying), they create a negative atmosphere that detracts from the team effort. If my classes are critiquing a performance, they can give suggestions for improvement that do not draw attention to a specific student. You may need to give guidelines to the class for how to do critique so that it is positive, constructive criticism that supports the group, rather than negative put-downs that are designed to make other people feel bad about themselves. Possibly–if someone feels the need to make a criticism, he or she must also say something positive AND include a suggestion for improvement. (There is nothing I hate more–not just in music, but people in general–than when people complain and criticize but offer no suggestions themselves for how to do something better. And think of your own performance reviews as a teacher–if your administrators only pointed out all the things you were doing poorly and didn’t tell you what you were doing well or give specific suggestions for how to improve your performance, how would that make you feel? Would it make you feel like your school was a place where you felt welcome and an important part of the team, where you’d want to stay?) And as the teacher, you should be the role model for this, making sure that you offer more positive comments than negative. Sometimes we teachers tend to forget to do that…

Also, I don’t like the use of the word “talented.” I really dislike the “American Idol” attitude–that some people are more talented than others and are more deserving of praise (and if they’re not as talented, it’s ok to rip on them and make fun of them–even though they may have potential that could develop into something great, given the right opportunities and the chance to work harder). Kids who are is a less advanced stage of their musical learning, whether it be the development of their musical ear, rhythm, vocal technique, or whatever, are not necessarily less “talented” than the others; it might be possible that they have less experience with using their singing voices, in which case, the other kids in the class need to support them by doing their best and providing a good example to follow, rather than putting them down to boost their own egos. In math class, are kids who understand a concept more quickly allowed to tease the other kids who don’t understand the problems? No way–that is unacceptable. It creates a hostile and toxic environment for other people learning in the class. And, if you think of examples of “talented” musicians or composers, sure, they may have been born with an edge, but most of them worked their tails off to be as amazing as they were. Mozart, for example–we all think of him as being a musical genius, but he spent most of his waking hours from the time he was a tiny boy practicing, performing, and composing. And there’s the famous story about how after being humiliated several times at jam sessions in Kansas City, Charlie Parker spent up to 15 hours a day practicing for the next few years. The students need to recognize that part of talent comes with hard work and the right attitude–and their disrespectful attitude toward others is doing nothing to contribute to the group good, since perhaps their classmates would be able to improve and practice more efficiently if they were able to work in an environment that was more encouraging.

If critique is not presented in a way that helps to improve performance and supports the group as a whole, and it serves only to make someone feel bad, then it’s not really the kind of critique we want. A school performing ensemble class is a venue for learning, not a showcase for kids who want attention. And it definitely should be a “no put-downs” zone.