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.


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!


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.


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.


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


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 to enroll!

Brought to you by the Branch United Youth Choir


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.

6 Ways Choir Auditions Prepare Singers for the Real World

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

I am going to deal with the second point today. Simply put, auditions prepare singers for the real world. How so? You may ask.

Here are six ways auditions prepare singers for the real world.

  1. It gives them objective feedback.
  2. It teaches them that they will be judged.
  3. Sometimes they will have a crumby audition.
  4. Sometimes they will not be good enough.
  5. Sometimes they need to work harder.
  6. Sometimes they are that good.

Auditions give objective feedback.

In our life, we need feedback. We have to have objective critiques of ourselves and our actions. If you are the type who is never at fault or never has a fault, you will never improve as a human being. You will repeat and repeat the the same same mistakes over and over again. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do not learn from their personal history are in for a rough ride through life.

Sometimes you will be judged.

Auditions are like vaccinations. They are a weaker form of the real thing. If you treat them like this, they will prepare you for the times in life when it really matters. There are times in your life where you will need to apply for something you really want or need. That might be a favorite college, a good job, the lead part in the school play, etc. If you learn that you can survive a measly choir audition, it will strengthen you so that you can survive a job hunt.

Sometimes auditions are unfair.

We’ve all been there. There are times when nepotism, favoritism, and general butt-kissery rule the day. You were passed over for the top choir again, even though you were better than the ones who made it in. The son or daughter of the director got the solo when they just don’t have the voice or the skills.

That’s life. It is unfair. The sooner you realize it, the better you will be able to handle it. The better you handle it, the more easily you will be able to move on to the next opportunity.

Sometimes you will have a crumby audition.

There are times when you have an off day. You didn’t get enough sleep. You’re battling a cold. You’re stressed out from a fight with parents, siblings, friends, classmates, coworkers, et al. All of that negative bleckiness can force you to perform poorly. If you have this happen in an audition, it won’t surprise you when it happens at a job interview.

Sometimes you will not be good enough.

You will not always have the skills (yet) for a position. In the perception of the auditioner, you might not be exactly what they want or you need more training. Failing an audition can be a good thing, if you learn from it. Maybe you need to get more training to make you more appealing, versatile, or whatever. Maybe you need a little more time to develop your abilities.

Also, it’s okay to not be the best. There was only one Pavarotti or Robert Shaw or Leonard Bernstein, and you ain’t him.  Sing because you love singing. Be the best that you can be because you want to be the best you can be.

Sometimes you need to work harder.

There are times you did not prepare enough. You didn’t study. You didn’t practice. You didn’t take the time to learn what you needed to. When you fail, you need to take a hard look at yourself in the mirror and see if you need to fix anything. Rejection is painful and challenging, but it is also extremely beneficial in the long run.

Sometimes you are that good.

Auditions are great because they help you understand your strengths, weaknesses, and life in general. You really do have a talent, but you didn’t know it until you worked hard and prepared. The reward for that preparation was an aced audition. That led to more training, more opportunities, and more rewards. Success is built on attempting. Go for it. All that can happen is that you fail, and that’s not the end of the world.

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)