Archive for the 'choir stuff' Category

Rehearsal and Ensemble

New learnings from this year:

  1. Any group of people can become a class.  All that’s required is a lecturer, a topic, and a roster.  The group doesn’t even need to assemble for the class to work.
  2. Classes are useful for measuring individual performance and for enforcing individual accountability to standards written for individuals.
  3. A group of people becomes an ensemble only when the individuals in the group subordinate their own needs and desires to those of the group.
  4. The only way people will forgo the pursuit of individual goals for the benefit of the group is if there is safety for the individual within the group environment.  Individuals must know that they will not be lost or rejected if they risk themselves for the group.  It’s counter-intuitive, but the group has to protect the individual so that the individual can risk himself or herself for the group.
  5. Creating, protecting, and maintaining a safe environment where an ensemble can emerge is the first and most important task of the group’s leader.  The leader must identify, confront, and if necessary remove individuals whose behavior is divisive.
  6. Leaders model and enable safe environments by risking the rejection of the group and surviving over and over again.  There is no safety in a group where the leader uses his position to protect himself.
  7. Ensemble does not just happen.  It is an accomplishment that goes against our natural impulses.  It must be modeled, it must be taught, it must be built, and it must be celebrated when it is achieved.
  8. The leader / director is the chief risk-taker in the group and has the most to lose if the group fails to create a safe environment and become an ensemble.
  9. Rehearsal is the privilege, joy, and reward of ensembles.

Mr. Davis Presents the Seniors

From the 2009 WHS Spring Chorus Concert.

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Advocacy, or Why Choir? (part 2)

Advocacy bugs me.  Marketing doesn’t bug me, packaging doesn’t bug me, but advocacy bugs me.

This past week I accompanied 3 of my students to the annual Tennessee Music Educators Association (TMEA) conference in Nashville.  The students qualified to sing in the All-State Honors Choir, and got to sing under the baton of Anton Armstrong of St. Olaf’s College and Peter Bagley from the University of Connecticut.  They worked very hard and deserved the recognition and honor of being selected, as well as the priveledge of working with 2 masters of the choral craft.

And the payoff for their hard work was to be the final concert in front of their parents and chorus teachers, bursting with pride.  It was a wonderful, magical moment.

Right up until the advocacy part.

Before each choir’s performance, the emcee made it a point to advocate for music education, often in strident, combative terms:  “If your school board even hints at cutting music programs in your communities at home, I hope you’ll stand with me and by God make your voices heard!  Yeah!”  Obligatory applause, and even an “Amen!” here and there.

It was weird.  It was annoying.  It made me want to go out and cut a music program somewhere just because. 

I understand that TMEA is at its core an advocacy group, and that the primary mission of TMEA is to advance and protect music education’s place and role in public schooling.  But must we turn a beautiful music concert into a pep rally for music ed?  Can’t we just let the concert make the point for us?  Can’t we just celebrate the kids and their work?

There will always be school boards that consider cutting music programs in times of financial crisis and stress, but no parent will stand up and take a bullet for a music program because of anyone’s advocacy.  

The best strategy to ensure that music programs survive is not noise and preaching.  The best strategy to ensure that music programs survive is to have awesome music programs everywhere, music programs that provide tangible value to their communities, value that extends beyond the benefit of the participants.  Who are the people in your community other than the parents of your currently enrolled students that would notice or care if your music program was nixed?

What kind of music program would your community fight for?  

Maybe advocacy is just easier than taking a hard look at what we’re producing and re-vamping the product so that people will willingly throw themselves between our programs and budget-cutting school boards.  Maybe it just makes us feel like we’ve done something when for the most part all we’ve done is preach to the choir and irritate the heathen unconvinced.

Maybe I need to redesign the chorus program at West High…

On Conferences and Jubilees

I’m in Nashville for the rest of the week, attending the Tennessee Music Educator’s Association annual conference in conjunction with the All-State band and chorus clinics.  Ostensibly I’m “chaperoning” 3 of my kids who made All-State choir this year, but that’s akin to holding my yard accountable for growing grass.  They get a cursory check-in from me just so I can confirm they’re still alive and the lawn’s not on fire.

Last year this conference saved my sanity–I was in the throes of my first semester teaching high school chorus and not certain I’d survive the experience.  Getting away from the choir room and hanging out with fellow chorus teachers (many of whom were my classmates at UT back in the day) was so helpful and so refreshing.  It refilled my hope-bucket!

It reminds me of many, many Arts Conferences at Willow Creek that kept me in the game during my worship pastor days, so much so that I have to wonder if the main value of these conferences isn’t the content so much as the environment.  Being away from what’s “normal,” whether it’s schedule- or duty-wise or simply being in a different city, may be all it takes to reset the system back to hopeful joy in the “normal” flow of life.  

It’s a sabbath, a jubilee for people who don’t normally do sabbaths or jubilees.

I miss my normal, but am still so glad to be here.  Let some other people do the teaching for two days.  Let someone else lead the worship at Powell Church on Sunday.

I will simply rest and receive.

Until Monday….

Easter at Powell Church, or “The Right Tool for the Job”

Yesterday was my first Easter since coming on board at Powell Church to lead the music for their traditional service.  Great crowd, enthusiastic singing, and several lessons learned:

  1. The folks who attend the traditional service will embrace new things if presented well.  We led out with my up-tempo, power-chord-driven arrangement of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” and though there were some raised eyebrows at the first chords, by the modulation on the last verse everyone was into it.  No clapping, but real singing.  They also sang out on the Getty hymn “See What a Morning,” but we had prepared them well by presenting it as an anthem a month ago, a call to worship 3 weeks ago, and finally a congregational song 2 weeks ago.  It’ll stay in the rotation now!
  2. The 16-voice choir I have can sound like 32 or more voices if given the right song to sing.  We did a choral arrangement of the Southern Gospel classic “Hallelujah!  We Will Rise” (click here for a YouTube video of the Chuck Wagon gang’s version) and wow, did they sing out.  I don’t know yet if they just liked it more than what I’ve been programming or if there’s something in the arrangement that just made it easier to open up and sing.  I suspect it’s the former reason rather than the latter.
  3. The congregation’s value of reserve and reverence in worship doesn’t extend to Southern Gospel singing.  Heart-felt, enthusiastic, extended applause after the anthem rather than the polite kind just poured from them!
  4. I can program Southern Gospel music in a church service and it won’t kill  me.  At least I’m still alive right now.
  5. Peer review is a wonderful thing.  A retired music teacher/music minister in his late sixties visited us for the first time yesterday and made it a point to compliment us on the service.  I love compliments from the congregation, but compliments from fellow musicians/ministers who understand what it takes to pull things off are golden indeed.

I hate it, but it looks like I’m going to have to put Thomas Tallis and Lloyd Pfautsch back on the shelf and go shopping for choral arrangements of the classics from Southern Gospel’s heyday.  It’s not that Tallis and Pfautsch aren’t good, valuable, and worthy, but they just don’t grab this congregation emotionally.

And here’s the good news–this congregation wants to be grabbed by the emotions and stirred up!  As my dad always taught me–“you have to get the right tool for the job.”

West High Choir Guy Blog Updates

I haven’t posted much on Vaguely Familiar lately because I’ve done loads of work and updating on the West High Choir Guy blog.  It’s looking pretty good now, and worth a click or two.

Here’s a Thought….

I’ve been writing my student handbook for the chorus kids at West, trying to set up the next year well for my students and for my sanity.  This past week I focused on grading policy, and I had an awesome epiphany–one of those perspective-skewing thoughts that will make a huge difference in how I run the choirs this year.

Here’s how it came–I was setting up a typical grade weighting system for a high school chorus, much like what I had inherited at WHS and used last spring semester:

  • Performance Attendance:  20%
  • Class Participation:  50%
  • End-of-Course exam:  15%
  • Other exams:  15%

“Performance Attendance” amounts to a term paper in any other class, and any more directors have to weigh performance participation so heavily just to ensure that the kids will show up and sing for the term concert.

“Class Participation” is a subjective measure of the quality of a student’s effort during rehearsals.  It’s weighted so heavily because rehearsing is the nitty-gritty work of chorus or band.  Directors use this as a stick to enforce good rehearsal practices–not talking, being on time to class, maintaining good posture, having a pencil with you at all times, following the director’s instructions, etc.

It’s also weighted so heavily because chorus directors like rehearsing better than, well, school.  At least I do.

And here’s the epiphany–I had reduced the measurement of the students’ actual chorus competencies to a mere 30% of the grade, and had reserved 70% of the grade as a rule enforcement mechanism.  Got a slouching kid who won’t open his mouth and sing with the rest of the group?  My response was to cut his participation grade for the day and let it go, as if cutting his grade was going to show him a thing or two.

And don’t you dare miss the concert, because I’ll fail your sorry little…

The problem last spring was this–the kids who were consistently not complying with my classroom expectations of active participation, no gum, etc., were the kids who didn’t really give a rip about their grades.  Losing their 5 participation points for the day didn’t exactly phase them.

What I’m trying to do now is to parse out and separate the behavioral measurement / feedback issues from the performance measurement / feedback issues.  In other words, when a student does not actively, positively participate in the class, I want to treat it as a discipline problem, complete with a demerit system, calls home, and trips to the principal when necessary. Grades are a separate system measuring a separate reality-can the student sing and read music?

The new grade weighting will look like this:

  • End-of-Course Exam: 15%
  • Exams (Written and Singing):  50%
  • Performances (Qualitative):  25%
  • After/Before-School Rehearsal Participation:  10%

The biggest change this brings is that I’m going to have to ramp up my measuring system, adding in regular singing exams to assess student progress toward vocal goals.  It also means that I’m going to have to ramp up my discipline system.  But I’m most excited at the thought that my grading system no longer will have to bear the burden of also being my discipline system.

That’s good for both grades and discipline.

Tweet, tweet….

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