Eliminating the Choral Caste System:
As we aspire to have outstanding high school choral programs, it is easy to fall into the trap of perpetuating the traditional Choral Caste System: a choral department that consists of “The Best” vs “The Rest”. “The Best” choir performs at board meetings, conventions, community events, records the CDs (if CDs still exist), and every singer is dying to be accepted into it. The other choir, “The Rest”, apologetically sings at the winter and spring concert and if the conductor and the members of “The Rest” are lucky, they may be graced with the voices of “The Best” shoved into their ensemble for the concerts to cover up their less than inspiring sound. “The Rest” may be disguised as a freshmen group with the elite newbies already plucked out. “The Rest” could have a few leftover upperclassmen who were rejected from “The Best” group, and managed to have enough love of music to tolerate staying with “The Rest” for another year; it’s a miracle they are even willing to endure the torture of being with “The Rest”, the group that won’t focus and doesn’t take class seriously.
If we believe that every interested student deserves an equal opportunity to learn how to sing, we need to merge “The Best” with “The Rest” (even though the two titles might not appropriately merge together in our PC world). When fully realized, a “self-selected” choir has benefits that far out-weigh any traditionally structured choral program.
Here are 11 Reasons why the Choral Caste System of “The Best” and “The Rest” should be replaced with a unified “Self-Selected” choir at the core:
11. Weaker singers need role models in order to realize their potential
They need to hear students who have great tone and know their part well. They need to observe talented singers who sit up and take notes in their music. Young high school singers need to hear other high school singers who have confidence, a clear pitch center, and demonstrate more musicality than they do. Stronger singers with a good work ethic can inspire weaker singers if they have been properly empowered by their director.
10. Weaker singers need to be feel like they are part of something special in order to realize their potential
If we expect weaker singers to be motivated to improve, we have to foster an inclusive environment where they can gain confidence and feel a sense of support from their peers. It is difficult to create a warm, thriving environment, when the majority of the talent has been removed (“The Rest”). Without collective talent, how can the group morale be high?
9. Weaker singers need to observe students just like them who have improved
They also need to hear stories from students who they look up to, who used to be weaker and have improved as a result of being in our program. Confidence and growth is infectious.
8. Weaker singers need to believe that there are opportunities that highlight them in ways other than just their singing aptitude
A weak student may have a great understanding of poetry, be able to explain a musical phrase, or may have listened to dozens of recordings and can articulate something that hasn’t been mentioned in class. Allowing these students to share their insight could aid a group discussion or further develop an interpretation. There is no correlation between talented singers and students who listen to recordings on their free time. There is no correlation between talented singers and students who interpret poetry best, or speak foreign language best. There is also no correlation between singing talent and leadership skills. Confidence is built through opportunity.
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7. Stronger singers have the opportunity to become vocal leaders, not just great singers
The ego subsides when the elite singers realize the title of “The Best” is replaced with “Role Model” and/or “Section Leader.” As musical leaders, they sing out, demonstrate/model for their section, run extra rehearsals; by being role models, they feel obligated to be more focused and in turn gain a deeper sense of musical and personal awareness. When a singer has earned the opportunity to become a leader, they tend to be held to a higher standard, and with that respect comes the motivation to help the average and weaker singers to improve. In the traditional choral caste system, ”The Best” would have been isolated with no care or consideration for “The Rest.”
6. Average singers have a pathway to become outstanding musicians
It is quite possible that an average singer can become a fine singer when they resolve one or two technical issues. Issues could be: breath support, placement, vowels, or just plain confidence. Sometimes these singers just need time and encouragement to find their voice. Once they overcome their obstacles, they flourish. Average singers can become outstanding sight-readers, hold their part well, and may even develop into great soloists. When surrounded by stronger singers/vocal leaders, they will be motivated to improve. In the traditional choral caste system, most of them would have been left to fade into “The Rest”.
5. The pace of the rehearsal will improve
The musical leaders, as part of their role, will be expected to learn the music quicker than everyone else and ensure their section is prepared. In the traditional choral caste system, “The Best” frequently relies on the teacher because they don’t feel a sense of responsibility to anyone but themselves. Here, they take responsibility for leading their section through the music. They will learn their parts quickly, sing out for others to hear, and as a result, carry the group on their backs. These leaders will keep the rehearsal moving.
4. Student music leaders make your life easier, and give the group more opportunity
Vocal leaders can run warm-ups, and even conduct community concerts when we are not present. Since these leaders have earned the respect and support from their group, they will be able to step in and lead without a mutiny. In the traditional Choral Caste System, “The Best” students are each protecting their egos; it’s usually the teacher that makes most musical decisions. The more our ensembles become a fabric within our school and community, the more our ensembles are asked to perform; if we empower our student musical leaders, they will be capable and more than willing to conduct at evening and weekend community events and we, as teachers, can maintain our regular hours of operation.
3. Weaker singers can become outstanding leaders and bring new perspective to building the choral community
Students who serve as executive officers (manager, robes leader, treasurer, decorations, public relations, secretary) do not need to meet a high vocal standard in order to prove worthy of these non-musical leadership opportunities. Students who are passionate about making a difference regardless of musical aptitude can handle the logistics of the many tasks needed to keep a successful program running; this allows us, as teachers, to focus specifically on the music-making process. Many times, the weaker singers who happen to be responsible, organized, and dedicated frequently want to do everything they can for their group, as they are grateful to be part of such a talented ensemble. Many of these elite leaders are students who would have been discarded in the traditional choral caste system after one year.
Sight-Singing Developmental Rubric – for developing students who lack underlying sight-singing skills
2. All chosen leaders will follow your lead and instill your goals
We no longer become the chief motivator (or convincer) of our group to reach their necessary goals. Our leaders (both musical and non-musical) are empowered to make their group great.
1. The future of music education and our entire society depends eliminating the choral caste system
Every time we reject a student from choir, we take away one potential musical patron from our society. If we give an average or below-average singer the opportunity to sing Bach, Mozart, Whitacre, or Hogan (not Hulk), we will foster in them a lifetime of appreciation. As many of us constantly fear cuts to our programs, we can only blame ourselves, and previous choral generations; we need to understand that the people who are making the cuts are frequently the people we cut from our music programs when they were children. These are the people who don’t understand the value of music; to them it is just entertainment, performed by the elite musicians, and is supposed to be fun. Who can blame them? They were the ones told in elementary school to lip-sync, and not to continue. They were cut from their high school music department, or limited to “The Rest”. They never experienced the magic of music, the cognitive effects, the social effects, etc. If we want the next generation of administrators, school board members, and government officials to see the benefit of music, we need to ensure they are given the opportunity to experience a high-level, welcoming, positive experience, surrounded by great musicians, positive attitudes, and strong leaders.