How to Create an Attitude of Try

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    My high school choir is a mix of freshman through seniors, they come from all areas of the spectrum from brand new singers to experienced singers. Many really are committed to choir and work hard every day but many don’t. Those who try are getting frustrated with those who don’t. Any suggestions for creating an attitude within each individual choir member and the choir as a whole in which everyone tries hard most of the time?
    How do we raise the level of musicianship when we always have to go back to the beginning? How do we show them what a great choir looks and sounds like when we are isolated?
    I have few resources, I don’t have a projector to show free online videos to the class. I don’t have video’s of good choirs or the means to purchase them. I have some recordings but they don’t listen, I mean really listen.


    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.


    Thank you for the reply. Here is some more information about my situation.
    There are 35 singers in the choir, 3 of whom are special ed students, 2 very soft but lovely tenors, 1 new and insecure bass who sings too softly to be heard, and 1 bass who sings in a loud monotone most of the time. I’ve had the men double the soprano line, sing a baritone part alone (SAB), sing baritone with a couple of women joining them, had them choose their own part on SSA arrangements, none of these seems to be a good solution.
    The women can sing SSA music pretty well, especially when I mix them up on the parts and put strongs singers in all sections. Most of my strong singers still choose soprano 1 if it is up to them. For our fall music I assigned the parts but there was so much grumbling about singing anything other than soprano 1 that I allowed them to choose their parts on some of the holiday music. In the spring I will choose their parts on all of the music. I have them sing S1 on one song, S2 on the next, A on the third, and so on. They hate it. Some of them hate it. The loud ones hate it, but I don’t think they all mind.
    There is just the one choir at the school although I do teach the one choir at the middle school as well. The students have said they are interested in starting a jazz choir but it would have to be after school and I just don’t know if I can take it on. There is no room in the schedule to add another choir, if there was a beginning choir it would make both choirs small and the school can’t justify small class sizes.
    Our closest high school is on the other side of the county and we are the stronger choir (the teacher is a friend of mine and we do work together some but not much, they may as well be on the moon even though it is only 15 miles away).
    The closest University is more an hour away. There is a community college about an hour away. We have had a few visitors come and work with the choir and that is always enjoyable but fleeting. I don’t know how to maintain that level of excitement when I have to teach parts, not just the fun stuff. I have to constantly remind them of all those things we work on every day (posture, vowels, breath, etc.). It’s exhausting. They need peer models. I like the idea of having the advanced singers perform for the choir, I think this will help us.
    I love your idea of having the advanced singers do a piece, however they won’t learn it on their own. Even if I made practice cd’s for them I would have to work with them a lot. They don’t listen to them. I’ve done it. Maybe I could have two separate pieces, one for the beginning singers and one for the advanced and I could have the other do worksheets or something while I work with one group.
    I am not familiar with the term “ear clearing” and no I do not have access to a listening library. I spend a lot of time on youtube. I do have access to youtube at school but my computer is in my office and the speakers aren’t really loud enough to reach the whole choir. I can play things from my phone but they can’t see the choir performing which is big part of what they don’t know. I am working on getting the school to purchase a projector and Ipad for the band teacher and I to share in our classes, this might happen next year.
    I have been teaching at my present schools for six years and things have definitely improved since my first few years and it has been a really possitive year overall. We performed at a local festival in October and I felt like we were on par with the other high school choir who performed there, in years past I’ve felt like they were much better than us. We all felt really good about that experience.
    I want to take us to the next level but there is some bickering going on. If I am absent things really fall apart, they can’t sing without me on the piano playing their parts and there is a lot of talking when they do sing.
    I want them to be independant musicians who work together as a team but we’re not quite there yet.
    Thanks for the advice.


    Wow, you are doing a lot of the right things intuitively. Congrats! I forgot to ask what part of the country you are in. An hour’s drive is really average or even a small amount of time in a lot of the areas in our state. I would not divide up your choir and under NO CIRCUMSTANCES would I set half the choir to doing worksheets while you teach the other. You can, however, have the men do a piece on their own with your undivided attention. I can’t believe you don’t have a young lady who is dying to be a leader for the women. Keep your men together as much as you can. I assume you meant your girls were doubling the baritone an octave higher. Do not have your women sing tenor on a regular basis or if it goes below a G below middle C.
    Fix your monotone singer first. This will need to be done before, after school or during lunch. Have him put his right hand cupped around the side of his mouth pointed towards his left ear. Put his left hand cupping his left ear. Right and left are arbitrary. Switch if you want. He will be able to hear himself. Then using a sliding scale you match him and then move up and down. I have only found 2 people who were not able to hear themselves and match pitch. (One was my own father!) Next when singing in the choir, he can simply close off one ear and listen carefully. I’m sure you have seen this technique used sometime. It really works.
    Now as to part assignment. I know I am a bit of an odd ball, but I learned very quickly not to assign parts. I never even auditioned choirs as soprano vs. alto, etc. Kids know how their voice feels. Let them decide, but switching them of each piece of music works wonders. Since the human voice doesn’t fully mature until sometime around 30, you need them to use their entire vocal range and to extend it in both directions. Use it or lose it! This is really very easy with the women and harder for the men. You’ll figure it out.
    Ear cleaning is more for you than for your students. You get used to the sound your choir makes on a regular basis and you begin to accept a level you would otherwise not. You have to listen to wonderful choirs with lovely choral tone on a regularly. Put your library on an ipod and bring the speakers out of your office. Instant stereo! The ear cleaning for your kids will be more along the lines of opening their minds to the possibilities of what a choir can do. Play for them selections (parts of) without them knowing who is singing. Play groups younger than they are, the same age and older. Have them tell you about numbers singing, ages of singers, number of parts, etc. Get some good choirs, some awful choirs and some heavenly groups. Surprise them. Play recordings of Sting singing Dowland and Renee Fleming singing pop. Just don’t do it all in one day. Do 5 minutes or so everyday. Speaking of ear cleaning, are you still singing yourself? You will be better for doing it. Go join one of the community choirs at the university an hour away.
    Lastly for now, you keep students excited learning parts, etc. by exaggerating your enthusiasm when they do anything right. Caution: you must be honest. You cannot praise really rotten singing and survive. How about a laptop instead of an iPad? The screen would be bigger. I use both and for your choir the laptop would probably have more versatility.
    Keep up the good work. Your kids are feeling better about themselves and you feel better about them. Some groups are hard to catch the sight of what you have for them. Don’t beat yourself up for their problems. Work on your teaching style and have fun. Each year only gets better!
    Becky Jarman, retired Choral Director, Davis High School.


    Sounds to me like you need some character development and team building. Your singers must feel safe. Musically your doing the right things. How often do you spend time with your students having group discussions and sharing personal stuff? I like to do what my students call “circle time”. We sit on the floor in a circle and have a discussion. Sometimes its open, other times we go around the circle and have everyone participate. Last week the question I tossed out to the class was “what in your life has value and meaning?” I explained what I meant by value and then I told them something in my life that I hold dear to me. Everyone must answer and you have to emphasize that no one reacts to anything anyone says; just listen and digest. You may be surprised to find out what’s going on in your student’s lives. In one of my classes last week one student answered, “This country. I hope I get to stay here. We were in court this week with immigration and my parents may get deported.” (she was born in the U.S.) Another activity is to split them into small groups of about 5, Make sure that the students are not with their usual “pod” of friends. Give them some guidance as to what to discuss in their circle. Give the groups about 10 minutes on a topic to discuss. There are many questions that you can open up for discussion that will lead the students into being more thoughtful and working together as a team. Try asking them to talk about when have they been hurt by someone’s words. Then ask them to talk about when they’ve hurt others with their words. Often, especially in choir, the students stand next to their group of friends and even in smaller ensembles they don’t know anything about other choristers, including their names. Try a retreat with them for a day away from school. Rehearse a bit, eat together, have some team building activities, etc. Getting kids to buy into what you’re doing sometimes is a matter of them getting to know each other a little better–share tears and laughter in a safe environment. Hope this helps,

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