Choral Pedagogy

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.

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.

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.

Choir Camp #2-This Time in Coldwater, MI! (July 27-30)

This is a public announcement that I will be hosting my second of three choir camps in a few weeks (July 27-30). The first one up in Battle Creek went very smoothly. The kids learned, they sang, they made new friends, and had a lot of fun! If your child or someone else’s child you know likes to sing, this would be a great opportunity. Send them our way!

Held at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 27 E. Chicago St., Coldwater MI
Grades 2 – 7
Suggested donation: $30
8:30 am-12:00 pm (There will be a concert and reception at 12:00 pm on Thursday. Bring your favorite baked good!)
Call 586.292.6639 or e-mail branchyouthchoir@yahoo.com to enroll!

Brought to you by the Branch United Youth Choir

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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.