Embracing the Process
By NAfME Member Caylen Stewart
While completing my master’s degree, I struggled to focus my research. I have outlined the difficulties and how I redirected my studies to better suit my program and my students. I hope that this will encourage anyone struggling similarly—and inspire those who have been weary to start research—to take a leap of faith.
I began researching for my master’s thesis intending to create a rationale for offering gender-specific classes in my middle school choral program. I heard many veteran choral teachers discuss the benefits of rehearsing adolescent singers in gender specific classes. As a singer, I had never been in a single-sex choral class, but after hearing many teachers suggest that practice, I envisioned all of the problems it could alleviate.
I wanted to research and develop a plan, and then share that plan with my principal hoping that he would let me offer gender-specific classes. I wanted to show that I am most frustrated with the male to female ratio in my classes. Last school year, I had two classes with almost balanced numbers. The other 5 were overwhelmingly populated by girls. One 8th grade class had only one male. The classes with larger numbers of male singers tended to have multiple singers on each voice part. My classes with smaller numbers of male singers often left one boy alone on a voice part.
Learning More about Adolescent Singers
So, I moved forward researching gender-specific classes. Every article, textbook, research paper, and dissertation I read through mentioned three people: Lynne Gackle, Patricia O’Toole, and John Cooksey. These three researchers and veteran teachers wrote groundbreaking articles featured in the Choral Journal. Choral teachers and researchers have, and are still, treating these articles as the instruction manual for adolescent singers.
Through all of this research, I found no study comparing gender-specific choral rehearsals to mixed-gender rehearsals. I found only article after article of teachers promising that gender-specific rehearsals were the way to go.
Regretfully, I changed the focus of my research and found a wealth of information about adolescent vocal change and the challenges it brings. I discovered that many middle school choral directors encounter the same problems I do, and so many students struggle similarly to the way my students struggle. I was encouraged. My hunger to research and learn was renewed!
I would find articles related to my topic, and then mine the reference section of each article to find primary sources. At one point, I hit a dead end and simply could not find a specific article. I was ready to quit. My teacher asked me if I had thought to call the library. Of course, I had not!
I called and spoke to a librarian who was extremely helpful and showed me how to access all sorts of journals on my search list. It was like I had been given an immense wealth of knowledge, and my drive to research was once again renewed. I learned that research is frustrating and sometimes can give you tunnel vision. I am grateful to have a teacher to guide me and remind me of the simple things that I sometimes forget, like asking for help when I need it.
Asking the Right Question
Through this process I have learned that research may not always take you where you want to go. When I began, I expected to find research studies validating my desire to offer gender-specific choral classes. I was determined to tell my principal the best way to schedule my classes. Instead, I discovered that I was not completely justified in my anger over the flaws in my class scheduling and I still had much to learn. My research went from asking how gender-specific classes help adolescent singers to asking: What is adolescent vocal change, and how can I, as a music educator, best help my students through this stage of life? This different direction of research helped me make many discoveries that have improved my teaching as well as my students’ singing abilities.
“Research is a progression of discoveries, realizing new passions, and finding questions you may have never known needed to be asked.”
I have learned that research is a process. It is not something that I can put on my to-do list and check off the box once it is finished. Rather, research is a progression of discoveries, realizing new passions, and finding questions you may have never known needed to be asked.
I now realize that I need to conduct thorough research before I begin planning to make big changes to my program or pitch ideas to my principal. I do feel more comfortable approaching my principal with ideas because of the research skills I have gained through this process. I am unafraid to try new teaching strategies with my students. I think they are enjoying this process of research to practice to evaluation as much as I am.
Cooksey, J. (1977a). The development of a contemporary, eclectic theory for the training and cultivation of the junior high school male changing voice: Part II scientific and empiricalfindings; some tentative solutions. The Choral Journal, 18(3), 5-16. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.library.kent.edu/stable/23545064
Cooksey, J. (1977b). The development of a contemporary, eclectic theory for the training and cultivation of the junior high school male changing voice: Part III developing an integrated approach to the care and training of the junior high school male changing voice. The Choral Journal, 18(4), 5-15. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.library.kent.edu/stable/23544980
Cooksey, J. (1978). The development of a contemporary, eclectic theory for the training and cultivation of the junior high school male changing voice: Part IV selecting music for the junior high school male changing voice. The Choral Journal, 18(5), 5-18. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.library.kent.edu/stable/23545279
Gackle, L. (1991). The adolescent female voice: Characteristics of change and stages of development. The Choral Journal,31(8), 17-25. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.library.kent.edu/stable/23548179
O’Toole, P. (1998). A missing chapter from choral methods books: How choirs neglect girls. The Choral Journal, 39(5), 9-32. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.library.kent.edu/stable/23552677
About the author:
NAfME member Caylen Stewart is the Choral Director at Oxford Middle School in Oxford, Alabama. Caylen is in her sixth year with Oxford City Schools where she has served one year as an elementary/ general music educator and the past five years as a middle school choral director. Caylen earned her undergraduate degree in music education from Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama, and she recently graduated with her master’s degree in music education from Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. Find her on Twitter @CaylenMcCall and her program @OMSsingers.
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