Vandalia Christian School

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.

A Day in the Life of a Choir Camp Singer

August 10-13 will be my last choir camp of the summer. We host it in Detroit. If interested, please sign up. We’d love to see you there!

Last Thursday, I completed my second of three choir camps. It went well. The kids enjoyed their time and learned much. We held a little reception afterwards, which provided a great opportunity for kids and parents to mingle and say their goodbyes.

I am giving you in this post a brief snapshot into our choir camp day. Before we begin, I want to thank my coworker from Vandalia Christian School, Marla Young, for the trial and error that made this schedule actually work. Those early choir camps were good times.

Camp Songs

It’s not camp if you don’t have camp songs. We always start the week with My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean (a classic).

We also play a game with this song. Singing and playing are important.

Mystery Show and Tell

We always give some mystery to the kids need to solve overnight. Since my theme is music around the world, the kids try to find the mystery country based on clues I give them. They earn bonus points if they bring in some fact or object to tell the group.

Game

You can’t have camp without games! We play several over the week.

Choir Rehearsal

The kids learn more difficult songs than the silly camp songs they sang at the beginning. These choir songs are meant to teach them how to sing, work together, and hold their own part. This can be tricky. You need

  • Songs the singers can learn and perform well in four days.
  • A good assortment of songs-variety in melodies, major and minor tonalities, etc.
  • Variety in tempo and energy.

This year, we sang songs from Australia, Brazil, Germany, and Israel. Some are happy, fast songs. One is a lullaby. I usually sneak at least one classical piece into the mix. Too often, people try to sell classical music to kids. Just teach the music, and let them decide if they like it or not. If you refrain from telling kids they shouldn’t like classical music, they might actually like it!

Break

The singers work hard, so they need a break. This is non-directed, and allows the children to play and form friendships with other kids.

Music Listening

I’ve already written a post about this here.

Break

Choir Rehearsal

This is a second, shorter rehearsal.

Music Reading

I take a little time to teach them music-reading skills. We go over some basic rhythms and solfege. They get points if they practice before the next day.

Game

The kids’ brains are about fried anyway. Finish the day with games!

Farewell

The kids go back into the rehearsal room. We talk about what is due the next day and any other announcements that need to be made.

This is my schedule for most choir camp days. I found that it works, and works well. Others have their own schedules. You’ll discover that not every schedule works for every person, just like not every teaching style works for every teacher. Take what works for you, and fill in the blanks.

From the Ground up: How Youth Choirs Are Like Baseball Teams

I’m going to make a confession: I am not the biggest fan of baseball—way too much stoppage. I like sports that move. I played soccer for 6 years during my middle and high school years, but even that sport doesn’t move fast enough for me. I enjoy watching kickboxing, boxing, MMA, etc. I can also stand to watch volleyball.

Back in my school-teaching days, I decided to watch the Varsity baseball team play a game. Sports games are good times to mingle with folks. My theory is that this is the primary reason for sports: they give people an excuse to socialize.

I began talking to a fellow teacher during the baseball game. He made a statement that struck me as odd, but made sense the more I thought about it. He said that the kids had to start baseball in little league, otherwise, they were behind.

His point was that good baseball players have been playing since they were young. They have to train and train and train. Thousands of hours of practice go into creating one great baseball player.

I began to think of other similarities between baseball teams and youth choirs. Contrary to popular opinion, there are some. Here are some that I have thought of.

  1. It takes years of training to develop talent.
  2. There is an emphasis on building talent.
  3. People see the finished product, but they don’t know what goes into it.

Training Choirs Takes Time

When I direct choirs, I don’t see them as separate groups. I view them as stages of the same product I am trying to develop. My end-product is good musicians who sing. That is what I am trying to create.

This philosophy has worked well with my different jobs. When I taught at a school, I taught from third grade to twelfth grade general and choral music. This provided a unique opportunity to organize a program from the ground up.

I had a wonderful elementary program. My predecessors had successfully pushed for music classes. I taught third and fourth grade twice a week for 30 minutes of Kodaly training, and my coworker who taught band also had them (3rd-Recorders; 4th-Beginning Band) twice a week. I trained my fifth and sixth graders once a week for 40 minutes. I also had an optional choir time with the different grades. My band-teaching coworker had band twice a week. Needless to say, by the time they finished sixth grade, they were able to make some good music. These musicians were finally graduating up into the junior (yes, those still exist) and senior high choirs and bands by the time I left.

This was my Elementary Chorus (5th & 6th Grade choir). They met once a week for 30 minutes.

In my experience, it is the same with community groups. If you want a large, talented top-level group, you need to start growing it from a very young age. You give tons of vocal, music-reading, and part-singing training. Offer one on one training to those who need it. You build young musicians from the ground up.

In other words, you must be ready for the long haul if you want to create a great choral program. You play the long game. There are no short-cuts. Anyone who tells you there are is trying to sell you something. Anyone who thinks there are is deluded.

Image Source: Creative Commons (Schyler at English Wikipedia)

The Voice Is the First Instrument

Music teachers approach music literacy different ways, often depending on their strengths. Piano teachers will teach using the piano, violin teachers teach with the violin, etc. Methodologies have sprung up to service this. I have known piano teachers to often use Alfred or Faber.  String players will often use the Suzuki method, although I have met some who really don’t like it. Most string teachers I have met either really like it or they really hate it. To my recollection, I have not met any that were ambivalent. Percussion and band teachers will often use Orff.

As a voice teacher and choral director, I use a voice-based approach. This works well, for a voice-based method has some strong advantages. Interestingly, music schools and conservatories here in America have a course called “Aural Skills,” which is essentially voice-based sight-reading and ear training. All music majors and minors have to take it.

The reasons for this are two-fold. First, everyone owns a voice. They don’t have to go and buy one. It is built in. Second, they don’t have to study the voice for months or years in order to sight-read with it. There is no steep learning curve with the voice, unlike some other instruments. It would not be cost-effective to have all musicians in a conservatory buy and learn a new instrument when they already have one (the voice) that is fairly simple to use.

The voice is the first instrument people play with as children. Before they can move, they can start matching pitches. That is because the voice box is used for both singing and speaking, and the line between speaking and singing is a very thin one. That is why tonal languages (e.g. Chinese, Thai, etc.) are able to be learned.

People have told me that they or others are tone deaf. If that were true, then people who live in areas with tonal languages, such as Thailand and China, would not be able to speak or understand others in that language. The ability to match or identify pitch is present in almost all humans.

There are several reasons I use a voice-based method (Kodaly). I used a voice-based method even as a general music educator.

  1. It is cheaper. I did not have to buy any extra instruments. We did have some various percussion instruments that I used, but I did not buy them. More importantly, I did not have to buy them. The instruments were not intrinsic to my method. They were the gravy, not the potatoes.
  2. I did not have to teach a new instrument. In my years of teaching, there were only a handful of students who required special attention to be able to match pitch. Most could sing pretty easily once they were in a judgment-free environment where they could just play with the voice.
  3. The voice is my instrument. I have trained in it since I was a child. I have taken private lessons in it since I was in high school. It was my major in college. I have a master’s degree specializing in voice performance.

The Madness of Our Methods: The Kodaly Method, Part 1: My Personal Story (Cont.)

As I graduated with my master’s degree, I decided that I wanted to go into choral music. I found a job in North Carolina as a music teacher at a private school. I taught general music and choirs from 3rd grade to 12th grade.

For any teacher, the first year of teaching is the hardest. The learning curve is very steep. For me, it was a baptism of fire.  I succeeded an extremely popular set of music teachers. I could have been Robert Shaw come back from the dead, and they would have still hated me for not being my predecessors. I was only a first year teacher. I wanted to quit.

A few things kept me from quitting. 1) I can be very stubborn when I put my mind to it. 2) I had a wonderful third grade class. They were excited to be there. I could try new things and they would forgive me if the new thing failed. I remember sitting at a basketball game and thinking very negative thoughts when one of them walked by, randomly hugged me, and then kept walking. The hug could not have come at a better time.

The third thing that kept me from quitting was that I ordered a book. You see, I had found the music text books that my school used were not imparting musical skills. I remember trying for several weeks to teach key signatures to one of my classes. Even though the text said that is what they should be learning, I could not get my students to learn it. I later learned that is a very hard concept to teach. The students need to understand scales before they can understand the need for key signatures.

That was when I ordered a book titled “The Kodaly Method I” by Lois Choksy. I pored over the book, underlined concepts and practices, and tried them out. Low and behold, the kids started to learn! I knew then that I had to get more training in the Kodaly Method.

I studied the Kodaly Method at Westminster Choir College and Capital University. Both programs were excellent and completely revamped my teaching. The training represented a whole new paradigm. Summer certification programs are excellent resources. I highly recommend them.

Anyway, that is my background. Maybe now you can see why I believe so strongly in the Kodaly Method. It has worked for me. In a very real sense, the method saved my life as a choral music teacher.

My Final Goodbyes

For those of you who may not know, I am leaving my present job and searching for a new one. God has made it abundantly clear through many different things that this is the choice that I need to make. I do not know what God has for me, but I know that He is good, and that He will take me to the vocation He wants me to have.

I have agonized over how to say my final goodbyes to my peers and students. The past few weeks have been bittersweet to say the least. This has been a time of many farewell’s and thank you’s.

As long as there have been humans on earth there have been farewells. One of the most poignant that I have ever read is found in the book of Acts chapter 20.  Here Paul had to say goodbye to some dear friends in Ephesus. This was a better speech than I will ever be able to make, so I am going to use it instead of my own words.

In this passage, Paul has reminded the Ephesian elders that they had seen him night and day for three years. You see, Paul had started this church from scratch. For three years God had worked through Paul so that the gospel had spread throughout all asia minor (Acts 19:10). Paul and the Ephesians even suffered through a riot (Acts 19:21-41)! They had fought and bled together for the sake of the gospel.

Yet Paul’s concern is not really about the past. His concern is what will happen to them in the future. So Paul reminds them of his testimony. Paul never took their money, and he never backed down from teaching and preaching the gospel. He worked so that no one could accuse him of spreading the gospel for money. Paul was not a promoter of himself; he was a promoter of God. Can we say that we have that kind of testimony? No one could bring a charge against Paul. Could someone bring one against you? What other motives do you have when you minister?

As I told many of my students, I have tried to be a godly example to them. Yet they have seen me–warts and all–for the past 4 years. They have seen me in good times and in bad times. They know how flawed I am. My prayer is that they saw a flawed person who showed a love for music, his  students, and God. I can never be a great man. There are no truly “great” men; there is only a great God.

I want to zero in on the last part of the speech. Acts 20:32–“And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” What final thing could Paul say to encourage them? What could I use to encourage my own students?

Firstly, Paul tells the Ephesian elders that even though Paul’s ministry with them was ending, God’s ministry with them would never end. Paul directs their gaze to the greatest teacher and leader they would ever know: God himself. God is the one who will never leave or forsake them. His mercies are new every morning. God is the one who really began the work in salvation, and God will not fail to complete it.

Secondly, Paul commends the Ephesians to the Word of His grace. Paul points the Ephesians to the true source of knowledge. Paul points them to the Word of God. It is the Bible that builds up a person. Paul wanted to instill in the Ephesians a passion for God and the Word. In short, Paul wanted to leave behind a community of God-worshipers, people with a passion for God and His Word. This is the legacy Paul hoped would last.

I want all my students to become great musicians. We have learned a great deal of solfege and rhythm syllables for that very purpose! However, I would much rather they left my teaching ministry saying, “I want to use these skills Mr. Snyder taught me for the glory of God. Mr. Snyder pointed me to the Great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, and to the Word of His grace. I will continue to show the love of God to others, even the new music teacher. I will pour encouragement on the new music teacher and give him/her the grace they need so that they have a great first year.  I will develop and use these talents for God during the rest of my life.” Now that would be a legacy.

Elementary Spring Concert 2011

I just finished another concert. Here is the Elementary Program. It was entitled Bless the Lord! I had some very fun pieces which I would recommend to anyone. Let me just introduce my groups. They all meet once a week for 30 minutes. The first group is the 3rd Grade Ensemble. It meets halfway through each semester and learns a song for the concert. The second is the Elementary Singers (4th Grade). Elementary Chorus (5th-6th) is my unauditioned general chorus. I had a 53 students this year! Elementary Ensemble (16 fifth and sixth graders) is my select ensemble. Overall, I had a very enjoyable year with my  elementary students. They had just great enthusiasm.

Prelude

Musette (Johann Sebastian Bach)

Lane Young, Piano

Song of the Sahara (Kevin Olson)

Alyssa Williams and Madison Chambers, Piano

I

One Song (Dave and Jean Perry)

3rd Grade Ensemble

Cantabo: A Song of Praise (Jerry Estes)

Bless the Lord (Andrew Carter)

I. Badgers and Hedgehogs

II. Butterflies and Moths

III. Grannies and Grandads

Elementary Singers (4th Grade)

Collection (Louise Herriage)

Beautiful Dreamer (Stephen Foster)

Tiffany Kurian and Maddie Wood, Piano

Sonatina in G (Ludwig van Beethoven)

Shu Xin Chen, Piano

II

The Little Horses (Aaron Copland)

Sierra Ferguson

Zion’s Walls (Aaron Copland)

Molly Boren

Little Firefly (Larry Schultz)

Ose Shalom (John Leavitt)

Elementary Ensemble (5th-6th Grade)

Al Shlosha D’Varim (Allan Naplan)

For the Beauty of the Earth (John Rutter)

Elementary Chorus (5th-6th Grade)