Choral Pedagogy

Why Music Schools Must Change or Die: A Call for a Practical Music School that Prepares Musicians for Success

I’ve recently heard that many colleges in general and music schools in particular are struggling. They’re struggling with decreased enrollment, higher costs, and decreased interest. Unfortunately, the response to these troubles has been reactive rather than constructive. For instance, some higher ed professionals blame parents who don’t wish to spend a gazillion dollars for their kid to get a degree that won’t lead to financial stability or success. They blame the skyrocketing costs of tuition which forces students to take out unreasonable loans that will take a large portion of their lives to pay off. In short, they blame everyone but themselves.

While there is much to be said about parental priorities and the financial cost of Higher Ed, addressing those concerns won’t change things in the short run and won’t lead to stability in the long run. The education industry is contracting. A storm is already upon the education sector. Ignoring the storm won’t help. Furthermore, it’s easier to blame other people for the problems in your industry rather than face the difficult proposition that you might be part of the problem. If you want to change the world, you need to start with the man in the mirror, to paraphrase a famous song. I firmly believe that schools can at least halt (perhaps alter is a better word) the trend of attrition, but they must change.

The following is my own opinion. Please do with it what you will. If you have questions or concerns, please send me a private message. I would be happy to speak with you.

Since I graduated in 2017 with a master’s in conducting, I decided to take the hard road of being a gigging musician and a creative entrepreneur. This has not been easy. I started with nothing; I pay college loans every month. On top of this, I discovered that a lot of the skills I needed for success were not taught to me. I’ve endeavored to rectify this through self-education through a fancy institution known as the library.

The path for musical success is doable. I’ve become convinced of this through study and through experience. However, in order to succeed, a lot of things need to happen. The musician needs to learn a lot of skills, and not just the skills of musicianship (accurate performance, flexibility, and improvisation) and musicality (artistry, beauty of tone, phrasing, the It Factor, etc.). No, the musician also needs to be skilled in business (money management for self-employment, taxes, incorporation, setting up a studio, etc.), marketing (social media, websites, promoting concerts, contacting other musicians and teachers, etc.), professionalism (the fine art of showing up on time, knowing your music, communicating in a timely fashion, etc.), as well as many others.

Musicians should also have the correct mentality for entrepreneurial success. Namely, that to start your own business is really, stinkin’ hard. You will fail more than you succeed, and you will often not pass the audition (rejection!). You will have months of financial feast and famine. Success takes grit, ingenuity, and hard work.

Schools fail to prepare their students for this in several ways ways: 1) While many music schools touch on these skills, they often do not do so in an organized fashion. Adding a class or two is not going to solve this problem. 2) The faculty they hire to teach skills have no real world experience. They’ve been in the ivory tower for most of their lives, and so they’ve not learned in the school of hard knocks. 3) Faculty teach classes that functionally assume the students already know what is being taught. If half of your class if failing, it doesn’t mean that they are stupid or lazy; it means you are teaching the material incorrectly. 4) Faculty are teaching classes that are in no way applicable to the real world.

Does this mean that faculty should never teach a class on the history of Bach’s violin concertos or on the correlation of philosophy and music aesthetics? As an avid reader and learner, I firmly believe that those have their place (i.e. learning for its own sake). Moreover, these types of classes have helped me create more informed musical performances, so there is a practical advantage. Sometimes I’ve even applied these types of classes to something completely unrelated. However, there is a pedagogical order to things. Kids need to learn to crawl before they can run.

The world has drastically changed, and musicians must change with it. This includes music schools. No longer can they assume that students will come “just cuz.” Those days are gone. Higher Ed types need to assume that they must work hard to attract students with practical, helpful classes that enable students to succeed.

Perhaps some changes are in order.

Introduction to The Four Principles of Healthy Vocal Technique: How to Sing Different Musical Styles without Vocal Pain

I have two rules for my voice students. 1) Sing healthily. 2) Sing in tune. With these two rules in place, most styles can be performed in a way that does not hurt the voice. All singers have to do is apply simple principles of biomechanics (how the body works and moves) to their singing. Unfortunately, many singers needlessly shorten their musical careers because they neglect to learn even the most basic vocal technique.

There are several reasons why singers do not study how to sing. First, they think that “either you got it or you don’t.” Singing—to them—is some sort of magical skill that people are born with. This idea could not be farther from the truth. While some singers are excellent mimickers and have large amounts of innate talent, most singers need to put in the time to develop their talent. They must practice and take lessons and then practice some more, just like a student of any other instrument, such as cello, trumpet, or piano.

Second,  singers are afraid that lessons will change their unique, one-of-a-kind sound. They are afraid that voice lessons will cause them to sound too polished. This is an avoidable danger, but there is an element of truth to this fear. Unhealthy singing can produce a very distinctive tone. Unfortunately, singers often sacrifice a long and fruitful vocal career by creating these distinctive vocal colors. Simply put, the human voice was not meant to make those unusual sounds for extended lengths of time. Biomechanics can be very unforgiving.

Third, they think that they can learn from social media. There are many people on video sharing sites who are happy to get likes and shares and views by talking about and modeling what they think is healthy vocal technique. Often what they teach is anything but healthy vocal technique. It is mere quackery. As a voice coach/teacher with years of experience and multiple degrees, it bothers me when I hear some social media personalities claim to teach viewers how to sing beautifully in 5 minutes, and then the personalities demonstrate using unhealthy vocal technique! Singing is a skill that takes many years to master. Anyone who promises you that you can learn to sing quickly or easily is selling you a bill of goods.

Fourth, they have had unpleasant experiences with voice teachers in the past. Some voice teachers will not push their students, and so their students end up treading water for years. These students have wasted precious time and money with these charlatans, therefore they assume that all voice teachers are like that. This is untrue. Just like with any field, some professionals are good and others are bad. A good voice teacher will push you to develop your most authentic voice in the healthiest way possible.

With this in mind, I have produced this how-to book on the Four Principles of Healthy Vocal Technique. In it, I have distilled years of studying and teaching the voice into its most basic elements. I teach these principles to every voice student and choral singer at the outset of our time together.

The following information is not new. It is not meant to be. It is, however, factual and seeks to develop the ability to sing using scientifically accurate methods. These principles of healthy singing can be applied to many styles of singing, from pop to jazz to country to classical to musical theater to many other styles. I have also included vocal exercises, helpful diagrams, and demonstration videos to help the reader. These tools are meant to supplement the reader’s understanding of this complex topic.

This book will remove much of the mystery of singing, but it will not automatically make the reader a talented singer. As I have stated before, beautiful singing takes a lot of concerted time and effort, trial and error. What this book will do is grant the reader a firm conceptual basis of singing, enable them to sift through the poor teachers and the hucksters on social media, and hopefully start a fulfilling, lifelong journey of making music using the voice as their instrument.

August 2016 Life Update

The past several months have been eventful! Life has been busy, but good. I ran two of my most successful children’s choir camps (Detroit and Coldwater, MI). Both of them were the best attended of any of the camps I’ve conducted in their areas. The kids responded in ways that I did not expect.

This year, I used a new theme: the African-American Spiritual. I have always loved spirituals, but I was initially at a loss as to how to teach about them. A couple months passed until the curriculum formed in my mind. In fact, the deadline to complete it was quickly approaching.

Thankfully, inspiration finally came knocking. I approached the four-day camp this way:

Day 1: What is a spiritual? (Roots of slavery and how spirituals are a fusion of African music and European hymnody/folk music)

Day 2: The Fisk Jubilee Singers (How they popularized the spiritual and used it to fund Fisk University)

Day 3: The Spiritual and the Civil Rights Movement (How spirituals were adapted to help end Jim Crow and encourage racial integration)

Day 4: The spirituals go mainstream (How choral groups all over America frequently sing the well-loved spirituals)

The kids really connected with the curriculum, but not like they did in years previous. They weren’t bubbly excited; they were seriously interested. They loved singing the spirituals. They understood the plight of slavery and the struggles of black Americans as they have worked to rise from it. I think the spirituals helped personalize this history in a way that only teaching about it can’t.

I had no idea when I came up with the idea for my theme that racial tensions would be this high in the USA. However, I’m thankful that I did it. It is only through understanding that we can truly empathize.

The rest of my summer was spent working. The Lord provided me with a job at a nearby hospital. I have been both blessed and extremely taxed by this job. I work with folks who need to be watched for various reasons (suicidal, homicidal, addiction, dementia, head trauma, etc.). It has definitely caused me to consider things about the world in a different, perhaps deeper, light.

I was also prepping for the upcoming school year at WMU. I will be starting a graduate assistantship in the vocal and choral departments in a few weeks. I am looking forward to the challenge. I love teaching voice lessons and conducting, so this seems right up my alley. I am also choosing repertoire for my graduate conducting recital (Spring 2017!) and my various and sundry choirs.

Lastly, I will be leaving in a few days for the Norfolk Chamber Choir and Choral Conducting Workshop. It is hosted by Yale University and directed by the inimitable Simon Carrington of King’s Singers fame. I’m very excited about it. I believe I will learn a lot about choral singing. Hopefully, it will lead to more choral singing gigs, which I am keen to be doing.

Anyway, that’s about it for now. I will keep you posted as new opportunities and the like happen in my life.


Staying on the Front Lines

I recently spoke with a well-known music teacher and clinician. Sometimes, you don’t know what to expect when talking with someone who has achieved a high degree of success in their career. This person, however, owned that special combination of being very philosophical and yet very practical.

We were talking about music education. This teacher stated that many music ed professors on the collegiate level had not stepped foot in a k-12 classroom in years. They needed to be in the field. How else would they know how the changes in culture and technology were affecting music education? I thought this was an interesting idea. I made a comment, something to the effect of “so you want them to spend time on the front lines?”

While I do not know the extent to which someone needs to be on the front lines (perhaps it is different for everybody?), I do believe this teacher was correct in principle. Successful directors and profs often become removed from the day-to-day grind that they went through at the beginning of their career. They’ve taught college students the same lectures for twenty years. Over time, they can forget what it is like  to be on the front lines. They are so used to being generals that they have forgotten what it is like to be lieutenants.

I believe this can do a couple things. 1) This can decrease their empathy. Some profs have lived somewhat comfortably for many years in the ivory tower. They simply do not remember all the sacrifices they had to make, the exhaustion that comes at the end of the school year, the frustrations that can arise in working with admin and parents, etc. 2) This can make those profs unaware of the changes in culture and development that affect children. Simply put, life has changed drastically even in twenty years. The ubiquitous presence of electronic devices, video games, and instant information has dramatically transformed the education landscape. Family life has changed as well. I’ve known many parents who have their kids heavily involved in multiple after-school activities. College profs should know what that functionally means when teaching the next generation.

This is partly why I enjoy my choir camps that I run in the summers. This last week, I was able to direct and teach children in the downriver area of Detroit for a four-day seminar. The extent of their vocal and musical training varied widely. Many of them had never sung in a choir. Several hadn’t sung harmony before, much less learned to read a piece of music. I taught them the very basics of singing and making music. The kids loved it and grew so much. It was a great time!

This next week (July 11-14), the Branch United Youth Choir will be hosting a choir camp in Coldwater, MI. If you know of any child or family who wants to learn to sing, please contact us. I am excited to work with this new batch of kids. I love the challenge of starting at square one, giving the children the skills to succeed musically, teaching them to create and have fun with music, and bringing it to a conclusion with an enjoyable performance at the end. They work hard and learn much.

Additionally, teaching on the grunt level refreshes in my mind what it is like to work with the populace at large. Many times, the children’s parents aren’t musicians. They aren’t signing up to support the arts in schools. They just know their kids seem to like music. Perhaps the kids sing around the house all the time. Maybe the kids were told by their friends that choir camp was a lot of fun and that they learned a lot. Understanding this keeps things in perspective when I advocate for music education.

In whatever field, it is important for professionals keep abreast of current developments. This is also true in music education. We should never forget from whence we came. For me, teaching young musicians is an excellent way to do that.




It’s All About the People

Last week, I finally finished unpacking into my new apartment. I want to thank those who helped. It can be daunting when you have as many books as I do! Anyway, the above thank you card from a third grader I once taught was in one of those boxes. I also want to point out the excellent cursive.

Yes, teachers/directors do sometimes keep these letters. It helps us remember why we do this in the first place. When we’re feeling down, those notes can reorient our perspective. A kind word or a warm hug at the right time can make all the difference in the world.

In a previous post, I talked about a tendency some folks have. They see others as tools to be used. They are obsessed with “succeeding.” By that, they mean that they want their ambitions fulfilled. Ascending the corporate and monetary ladder is all that matters. Loving people comes after completing plans.

Today, I want to put forth a different thesis: people matter. If we’re concerned about a legacy, that is where we should invest our time.

The Danger of Extremes: Robbie Gennet and Notation-free Music

Recently, Robbie Gennet, a musician and blogger at the Huffington Post, posted an article claiming that teaching reading and writing was unimportant in today’s world. My gut reaction was to quickly disclaim such an idea. However, I like to chew on ideas for a while. This allows me to choose what to say and how I want to say it.  Here is part one of my response to Mr. Gennet.

First, let me list some ways in which I agree with him. It’s easy to shoot from the hip when there are a lot of incorrect ideas to focus on. I want to be fair.

Notation is a written record of music

Sheet music is a visual copy of a piece of aural art. If you want to reproduce something like what the composer intended, then a copy of sheet music can be indispensable. This is particularly true the older or more complicated something is.

In undergrad and grad school, I learned to read notes precisely. I am very thankful for that focus. It has helped me immensely over my career. Sloppy musicians do not last long in professional music.

A lack of Improvisation

With that said, there does seem to be an overemphasis on reading notation as opposed to improvising in our universities. I received lots of training in reading music; I received little to no instruction on how to improvise. The majority of my training taught the opposite. Read the notes! Get it right! Now! Don’t be a hack!

I learned improvisation by singing melodies and harmonies with my family as a child. It was these unstructured, low-pressure times where I felt free to play. I experimented. I grew.

Some genres do not want exact reproduction. I believe these genres are what Mr. Gennet is talking about-genres like jazz, pop, rock, and others. Even classical music does not always insist on exact reproduction. In other words, some composers assumed that the performer would do improvisation on the written notes.

Too much emphasis on following the rules, not on what sounds good.

Certain minds love rules, and I thank them for it. They establish guidelines so that music-making becomes streamlined. These folks impose order on the chaos. Even musicians untrained in notation use these rules that were developed. They might not know it, but those three chords that they use were codified by others who knew notation. It was preserved for us by our forebears.

Rules create framework, but they do not create art. Musical order is good, but not as an end in and of itself. This is where some musicians, composers, and theoreticians go astray. They exalt the rules™ and are more concerned if a piece of music has parallel fifths than if it sounds good.

You do not need to know how to read to become successful in the music industry.

I concede this point to Mr. Gennet. There are many popular musicians who can’t read a lick of music. They make a whole lot more money than I do. I say, “More power to them.”

Which brings me to Taylor Swift’s quote that Mr. Gennet shares. “I would not have majored in music because when music becomes technical for me I don’t like that part of it. I can’t read music.”  An obsession with getting it right misses the boat, quite frankly. The point of notation is to provide a framework for making and understanding music. Creating a good song should not be about how many rules you got right, but how it sounds. A well-trained ear trumps a well-trained eye, but both are necessary in order to be a well-rounded musician.

Mr. Gennet is right in these areas. Unfortunately, he comes to an extreme, erroneous conclusion. Rather than say that we need to properly emphasize the primacy of the ear in writing music and promote training in improvisation, he advocates blowing up the system. If you can be successful without learning to read, in his mind, then reading is worthless.

The ability to read music is an extremely important tool. I am saying this as someone who learned to read later in life. Reading has helped me immensely. It opened vistas of great music and helped me understand my craft.

In addition, basic notation is not hard for folks to grasp. I have taught basic note-reading to many classes and choirs with ages ranging from 6-80. Musicians young and old can easily learn to read.

Mr. Gennet is mistaken when he says teachers should not teach notation. If taught correctly, it should not create a barrier to understanding and writing. It should only enhance it.

An Excellent Article on Replacing a Beloved Choir Teacher

I recently found this blog post on replacing a popular choir teacher. This squares with my own experience during my first year of teaching. I succeeded an extremely popular and experienced director. Everyone adored him. He was able to get good sounds out of his groups, and he was just plain likable. He never met a stranger. You couldn’t not like him.

He and I were exact opposites. I was tall. He was short. I was an introvert. He was an extrovert. I was fresh out of school. He had several years of experience and was headed toward a doctoral program. I had big shoes to fill (metaphorically speaking, of course).

Students are not the most forgiving to a wet-behind-the-ears teacher when they have sat under a popular, talented, and experienced teacher. I found this to be the case with me. I struggled to find my stride. I probably would have quit except that, like many Snyders before me, I am very stubborn. We don’t like to give up.

Thankfully, I also taught a wonderful grade of youngsters who never had him as a teacher. They loved me and treated me kindly. I owe a lot to that grade. They kept me sane.

After several years, the music program was more or less mine. If you are replacing a beloved choral teacher, please be patient. It will get better in time.

Music Is Skill and Aptitude, Duh!

People often react one of two ways to children’s choirs. They either are amazed at the fact that children are singing in-tune and with decent tone or they are unimpressed. Either reaction is based on the faulty premise that what is happening is quasi-magical. Musical ability is something you just have or you don’t.

Over the past few weeks, I have been comparing choirs and baseball (here and here). The last point I wish to make concerns a fact common to all disciplines everywhere. It takes time and concerted effort to become an expert at anything. Learning to sing and teaching children to sing is no exception. You might not see all the time, training, and hard work, but you can still smell it.

Music Is Skill and Aptitude

Folks often equate skill and aptitude. This idea could not be more wrong. Aptitude is the innate part of an ability. Someone turns aptitude into skill.

Music is skill and aptitude. As such, you should think of yourself as being on a spectrum. Take baseball, for instance. The starting line-up of the Detroit Tigers is on one side of the skill spectrum. I am on the other. I can at least swing and hit a ball sometimes. Skill-wise that (barely) puts me further than say, a five-year old who is still trying to hit a t-ball. That five-year old might have more aptitude than me, however. He could be the next Verlander. I doubt I would ever be.

On one side of the musical spectrum, you have some guy who has never sung or played any instrument in his entire life and hasn’t held a tune in a bucket. On the other side, you have Mozart. Most of us exist somewhere in between.

Skills Need to Be Developed

Learning to sing is simply turning your natural aptitude into a usable skill. Like all skills, singing must be developed. The 10,000 hour rule applies. If you want to master singing, you must practice doing it.

Skills Are Usually Passed Down

Most folks get training from someone who knows what they are doing. That is what I am doing as a choral director. I am imparting to those who know less about choral singing than I do.

In-tune Singing Is a Skill

I am surprised by how often I hear people compliment the fact my choirs sing in tune. Here is the secret: that is because I teach my choir members how to sing in tune! I never had a singer who was unable to match pitch. Some had less aptitude. They required more effort and training.

Healthy Singing Is a Skill

Some singers are good mimickers and, consequently, learn quickly. Those folks are not the norm. Healthy singing is not usually intuitive. Learning to sing is work, plain and simple.

Teaching Is a Skill

Lastly, the ability to teach is also skill + aptitude. Some are better at it than others. I am better than some, and some are definitely better than I am. I am grateful that I am better now than when I started.

So, is teaching children to sing some sort of superpower? No, it is not. Is it difficult? It is easier for some folks than others, and it is easier—I’m sure—than some professions and more difficult than others. I have training and experience in doing it. I will receive more training over the next few years. God willing, my skills will grow and I will become even better.

Should you be amazed that your child can sing in tune with healthy tone? Sure, why not? Just be amazed at the time and effort they have put into learning to sing and the time the choral director has spent learning and practicing a specialized field.

The Director’s Response to Auditions

In a post a few weeks, I detailed 3 reasons why I believe choir conductors should hold auditions. They were:

Today, I want to talk about how auditions are a boon to directors. They are helpful in several ways:

  1. They show the talent level that the director is working with.
  2. They show areas of weakness the director needs to improve.
  3. They show the growth of the singers.
  4. They confront the director’s preconceptions.

Auditions show the talent level of the choir.

A director doesn’t know where to start unless he has an accurate assessment of his singers. The director needs to know how capable his singers are at music-reading and singing. Those two elements are key to creating a good choir and a positive experience for all involved. Once a director knows this, he can begin to formulate a workable plan. He can choose what reading and vocal techniques to teach. He can choose repertoire that is appropriate to the choir’s skill level.

Auditions show areas of weakness the director needs to improve.

Directors can gradually become tone-deaf to the weaknesses of their choirs. The tendency is for directors to do the same-old same-old. To combat this, directors should constantly reevaluate the sound they are after, the training they are giving, the rehearsals they running, etc. To neglect reevaluation is to stay in the status quo. “Status quo,” as Ronald Reagan famously once said, “You know, is Latin for ‘the mess we’re in.’”

Over time, this leads to a basic sound that is lacking in some way. I attended a choir concert last year with a fellow choral director. Afterwards, he made the statement that this choir, which he had heard several times, always became screechy in their high range. I don’t think he used the word “screechy,” but that’s the word that came to me today. Don’t create a negatively identifiable sound.

There are several ways to determine your choirs’ weaknesses. 1) Listen to recordings of them. 2) Have someone tell you. 3) Auditions. If many of your individual singers are weak in a certain area, then it means you did not teach them well.

Auditions show the growth of singers.

As an educator, it is thrilling to see my singers become better at what they do. Think of yearly auditions as if you are charting their progress. Then, give yourself a gold star if the singer is getting better! Give yourself a frowny face if the singer is doing worse.

Auditions confront the director’s preconceptions.

Directors have to have an aural image of the sound they want. Beginning directors, however, don’t quite know what they want. Sometimes, their singers are not capable of making the desired sound. A teenage choir will not produce a “big” sound like an adult Russian chorus.

The voices are physiologically smaller and lighter. Hearing voices individually can give you a feel for the sound you will be able to create. This, in turn, informs how you approach voice-building.

A second preconception is about individual singers. A director can get into the habit of only choosing singers they know for solos and select ensembles. This excludes singers they don’t know, which is very frustrating and unfair. This is why I hold tryouts for every solo I can. Everyone gets a shot, and I am-not infrequently-surprised by the talent of a singer I would have never normally considered.

On Baseball and Building Talent in Youth Choirs

I’m always amazed at the patience of baseball fans. They not only sit through all the stoppage that occurs, but they are willing to do it for hours!

Which is why I’m impressed with my brothers-in-law. They are avid baseball fans (the only ones in the family). They’ll attend games by their favorite teams, watch it on tv, etc. Seriously, isn’t there something with lots of explosions on?

I once talked with my brother-in-law about talent development in baseball. He made a statement that caused me to pause. He said that there if a player in the major leagues demonstrates that he is not ready but they think he will be with time, then they will move him back down to the minor leagues. This is not considered a punishment, but a willingness on baseball team’s part to grow his skills and get him more experience. There is no stigma attached.

Just like with baseball, the long view is crucial for building talent in youth choirs. You do not create an strong program overnight. Several things need to happen, and they all happen with time.

  • The singers need to be trained.
  • The director needs to find his/her rhythm.
  • The singers and the director need to grow together.

The singers need to be trained

Those who know me know that I passionately advocate the teaching of musical skills. Spoon-feeding notes to choral singers might be relatively quick and easy, but is detrimental to them down the road. You might build a choir that sounds purdy. You won’t build a choir of excellent music-readers.

There are three elements to training the choir needs to become solid musicians. 1) They should be given music-reading training and theory training. 2) They should get vocal training, sometimes one on one. 3) They should get part-singing training. All three of these need to happen, and they will all take several years to nail down.

The director needs to find his/her rhythm.

Yes, the singers need to learn. However, the director needs to find his rhythm, his groove. When should the director teach certain skills? What is the pedagogical order? Pedagogy is going to take a slightly different shape for different directors at different times with different groups. It will take a while for directors to figure out their pedagogical framework.

The singers and the director need to grow together.

Directors teach singers, true, but singers also teach directors. Singers teach directors by cooperating or not cooperating, understanding or not understanding. Directors adapt how and what they teach to their particular ensembles.

Youth ensembles change their make-up from year to year. Their strengths and weaknesses also change. A choir with a strong soprano section one year might require the director to rebuild them the next.

A good choir director will necessarily change the order of information and the tempo of rehearsals to strengthen the choir. If they don’t have the knowledge to make the choir stronger, they need to get that knowledge from more experienced directors. Choral directors, like everyone else, need to be life-long students themselves.