I began my education career as a teacher-centered conductor with a passion for music. I believed my “reign” in the classroom was about dictating process and procedures from the podium, which often resulted in spoon feeding every pitch and rhythm on the page. I was the puppet master, prepared to maneuver everything and every voice in the room.
I learned very quickly the consequences of using this style of leadership and recognized that I had to find another way. The amount of energy and effort I put forth exhausted me and everyone else in my vicinity. Eight years into teaching I experienced an epiphany when I decided to pursue a master’s degree in educational leadership. My goal – a position as a high school principal – actually helped me understand servant leadership on the podium for the next stage of my career.
Begin with THEM in Mind
While most contemporary educators fully embrace what it means to be student-centered in the classroom, I had to figure out how I would begin to shift my teaching. I needed to be better at thinking about the singers/students instead of assuming their needs were the same as mine. I started making decisions that begin with them in mind and considered their experiences in my classroom, specifically how I wanted them to feel entering and exiting my room.
I made a conscious decision that regardless of what was going on in my world, my students deserved the best I had to offer on any day. I found myself “faking” it some days but smiling through my irritability, anger, or frustration with whatever had just occurred before the bell. I kept reminding myself, “they deserve a positive, caring, and safe environment.” Choir needs to be enjoyable!
In time, I became more comfortable with a student-centered approach. I have collected some of what has since worked best for me in the C.H.O.I.R. acronym; Collaboration, Honor, Ownership, Innovation, and Reward.
For me, the notion of learning to be a simple member of the team was enlightening and inspiring. As a novice teacher, I remember feeling as though I had to have all the answers all the time. Giving students allegiance to teach me – and each other – improved the culture within the rehearsal, providing a space for individual voices to be heard in a way that affirms even the greatest differences of opinion. When we found ourselves at odds, we looked for what was best for the ensemble, and not necessarily the “best” answer.
Beginning to honor my students as people shifted me toward becoming a master educator. I think I’m still learning aspects of what this means every year. Knowing the individuals in the room by their unique personalities, personal struggles, and small achievements has helped me make made big strides toward a better rehearsal environment.
Today I find myself paying attention to different things. At one time, I identified singers by the timbre of the voice and the level of their musicianship. While these aspects are still important in knowing them as young voices, I now pay attention to who they are as people.
For example, I noticed how students walk into the room. Are they heavy-hearted? Do they bounce into the room with delight? Finding out what makes each person tick made me better at producing more from them as an ensemble. Navigating and acknowledging their feelings proved beneficial to the quality of the ensemble. I had no idea this would reap such positive benefits.
Finding ways for me to “do less” and have my students “do more” became a bit of a mission. I was looking for methods that give ownership to the students so they get a better return on their investment.
In the early years, the amount of pressure I would put on myself to “make it happen” for the singers left me exhausted and empty. As I gained confidence and respect, I started to give away some control.
One of my favorite stories centers around a student with special needs. A young man with Down syndrome as a member of my choir for several years. His singing and pitch-matching skill was limited to four or five notes and he sang those notes with unequalled enthusiasm. Consequently, the young baritone would sometimes overpower the entire section, making it difficult for me to distinguish if others were singing the correct notes and rhythms. I had to determine who else needed additional coaching. Could they hear each other over the excited voice of one?
One day, I decided this young man would take a different role with the ensemble. I had him step out of the choir to stand next to me. “I’d like you to be my ears today. Please face away from the group, close your eyes, and listen carefully to what you hear this time when the choir sings.” He followed directions with a big grin on his face, clearly delighted that he had been selected for this role. After the choir sang the section again, I asked him to turn around and tell us what he heard.
“Well, Ms. Voorhees, the basses are singing wrong notes in the second phrase, the altos are coming in early at the repeat, and some of the sopranos go sharp on the high notes.”
I tried to disguise my shocked expression but he was absolutely correct. He had identified some errors that I was missing! Elated, the choir erupted with applause.
While his voice was unrefined, his ears and intelligence surpassed many in the choir. He was perhaps one of my most diligent students! It was my “aha” moment to appreciate every individual in the ensemble for their talents. By passing ownership to students, it results in a greater pride for all when we achieve success.
Seeking creative and innovative ways to guide the process led me to again look for ways to give students greater responsibility to understand the music. I provided more opportunities for students to lead the rehearsal, including in sectionals and warm-ups, as well as in dialogue.
To encourage students to explore the music before singing it, I’d suggest a “treasure hunt,” where they would search the printed score for specific symbols, vocabulary, key signatures, or other interesting musical treats that could initiate discussion. This activity works well both individually and with small groups. Either way, students developed a better understanding of each marking and how it related to our goals, driving the rehearsal forward in an efficient manner.
Finally, I recognize the intrinsic value of celebrating the smallest of achievements and remembering to reward students when progress is made. For some, it might be recognizing that solfege has actually increased their music literacy. Or acknowledging improvements in breath support, resonance, or vowel unification. Students work hard to please their teachers and that is a privilege for us. If we are asking students to reach higher, be better, go further and grow deeper, we must outwardly acknowledge when their efforts pay dividends.
Finding gifts in each of my students – and creating opportunities for musicians and singers of all levels to feel valued – will ultimately improve the quality of the entire ensemble. While there are differences of opinion on peer leadership in the choral classroom, finding ways to engage students in collaborative conversations while working to improve the overall product, provides skills to benefit them long after their schooling is done. Giving every student a voice and valuing differences of opinion moves the ensemble closer to becoming a higher-functioning and cohesive unit. A solid community develops when everyone contributes and strong relationships enhance the quality of the final musical product.
As teacher-conductors, we have a tremendous opportunity to teach beyond the music and to help students understand the world on a broader level. We must trust them – as future citizens of society – to enhance the music and community in our classrooms. It is only when we better understand ourselves as educators that we can truly pass the baton!