Do you want to be the choir director that has taught for 20+ years, or the choir director that has taught 1 year 20+ times?
Do your four-year students experience a four year progression of personal growth or do they repeat the same class four years in a row? Choir year-after-year shouldn’t feel like a carousel ride. Each continuing year should offer repeat customers better visibility, deeper growth, and increased opportunity; this will only happen if we are intentional in our goal to create a multi-layered curriculum, four-year curriculum.
If the only thing that changes from year to year is our repertoire, we are creating the exact same experience year after year.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of choir traditions, but I’m not a fan of placing students onto a carousel with the same view year after year. Brand new students and 4th year students in the same choir should have a completely different experience; after all, they be meeting a different level of experience, skill, track-record, confidence, respect, and vested interest.
THE ONE-CHOIR SCHOOL
Whether we teach middle school or high school, many students remain in the same choir for multiple years. Some schools may only have one choir, while others may have talent-based ensembles where it is conceivable that a strong student can remain in the same top-level choir for 4 years. When students stand to “repeat” the same class year after year, several issues may arise:
Guidance counselors and parents fail to see the reason to repeat the same class and encourage these students to drop choir in order to take a more “academically rigorous” class.
Students grow complacent, lazy, and finish the program with massive senioritis.
Choir is perceived as an elective frill within the school rather than a respected academic class that students take seriously.
Choir becomes a class that just prepares for concerts, rather than a highly educational experience where concerts serve as a showcase of high-level learning.
In order to expect our incoming first year singers to want to stay and thrive within our choral program for multiple years (as many as four years), we must build a program that facilitates growth for each individual; on top of this, we must foster a program that offers more and more growth and opportunities with each successive year.
Here are 14 Tips to Enrich the Multi-Year Choir Members:
1. Layer Your Vocal Warm-Ups
Focus on simple, easy to understand vocal exercises and direct the different levels of students in the class at the same time. Here’s an example:
As the choir sings a scale, the 1st year students could be focused on the solfege syllables and/or vowels, the 2nd year students could be focused on their body alignment, the 3rd year students could be focused on their tonal placement underneath all of the vowels while still thinking about body alignment, and the 4th year students are focused on creating the most musical and expressive phrase. This is a simplified example of layering (or differentiation), but the goal is to know where each level of singer is at, and reach and direct them toward a specific internal focus.
2. Create non-musical officer positions for second-year students and beyond
These positions are there to connect singers deeper to their overall experience. By not offering these opportunities to first year students, (officers are chosen at the end of each year), students will have something new to look forward to, and they will deepen their connection within the choir. Some examples: (robes leader, decorations, etc.)
3. Have Section Leaders
The role of a section leader is to lead by example musically, assist their section both musically and socially, and serve as a connection between their section and the director. Depending upon your program structure, this is a position earned by students who have already been vested in the program for 2-3 years, who standout, and want to make an even bigger impact musically.
4. Teach Solo Repertoire
Each year, teach different solo repertoire to your entire choir. Aim the repertoire at 2-3 levels: one piece is attainable by just about every singer, one can be performed by slightly above-average singers, and one is aimed at the more advanced singers. Even the most basic solo piece (a folk song, for example) can have value for the most experienced singer if taught with the different layers of students in mind. The more advanced pieces may be over the heads of beginning singers, but since the music is being taught in unison to everyone at the same time, the newer singers will still gain a great deal from the experience through absorption; over time, through the experience they will begin to decode a higher level of skill and artistry.
5. Have Solo Recitals
If students are being introduced to 3-4 new pieces of repertoire each year, there will be enough diversity to create an annual solo recital for students. By rewarding the most experienced singers in the ensemble, this will become something to look forward to. I also wouldn’t hesitate to hand my strongest, most experienced singers unique repertoire as perform for additioanl enrichment.
6. Encourage Students to Participate in Solo Adjudication Festivals/Auditions for All-County & All-State
By teaching the solo repertoire in choir, and/or in sectionals, all students will have the ability participate in local/state solo festivals. While I would never require it, I strongly encourage it and even foster it into the choir culture. One way I do this is by requiring every singer to focus on one of the solo repertoire they have learned in class. After they have progressed to a certain level, we begin using a rubric to assess their strengths and what they need to work on; the rubric that I use is consistent with my state festival’s requirements. When students become self-select a piece of repertoire, they frequently become self-motivated and even go to festival. The first year is the “buy-in” and by the second year they are searching for the “perfect”piece to sing. The third year, they are seasoned veterans, and their final year they are coaching the younger students. In my state, a successful solo performer is rewarded with All-County and/or All-State. Those rewards provide one more layer of opportunity for growth for already vested choir members.
7. Differentiate Ear-Training in class
I highly recommend using my aural training sheet as the main tool for developing the ear. As explained in the blog and on the product, there are different approaches to aural training for brand new singers, intermediate singers, and advanced singers. This approach can be differentiated one moment after the other in the same rehearsal, based on the experience of the singers; it could also be that these same exercises are done in the progression of steps from beginner to advanced, where 1st year singers may struggle past step 1 but weak after weak and year after year, they improve their skills.
8. Differentiate Sight-Singing in class
By using Sight Reading Factory, the program I endorse, we have the ability to create endless sight-singing examples on the board. It would be easy to have a Level 1 assignment for 1st year singers, followed by a Level 2 for second-year singers, etc. The newer students will absorb a great deal from watching the more experienced singers, and this multi-layered experience can take up less than 1 minute of time.
9. Provide differentiated sight-singing homework assignments
The two programs I recommend for homework are Smartmusic and Sight Reading Factory. Smartmusic grades the student’s assignments and gives the students endless takes, while showing the singers their score, and allowing them to perform until they are happy with their achievement. A curriculum of assignments for each year singer will differentiate. My program has Level 1, 2, 3, and 4; most students progress from one Level to the next annually. Sight Reading Factory will allow you to group your students by level and generate homework assignments that they record and automatically submit into your grade book. This one-on-one correspondence on either program will lead to individual growth and higher layers of learning.
10. Train the seniors to teach/coach the underclassmen
My seniors run mock sight-reading performance tests and tutoring sessions with the 9th, 10th, and 11th graders. I created a booklet of sight-singing assignments similar to my state standards, and the seniors, most of whom have participated in the state solo festival for several years, administer these one-on-one sight-singing experiences. The underclassmen receive a grade that is consistent with solo festival scoring (1-10), but these grades do not count. The underclassmen look forward to becoming seniors and being on the other end of the experience and in the meantime gain peer-to-peer help. The seniors get to give back, which creates a new level of choral experience for them; they also gain further depth into ear training and sight-singing. In addition to sight-singing, the seniors also use the aural training sheet and provide one-on-one training as well. Some also provide extra training, especially language coaching, of solo repertoire that they have already mastered.
11. Hold a Formal/Awards Assembly to recognize ALL graduating members
All members of the program should be expected to participate in this event; it should be an annual celebration of the year and a recognition of the graduating seniors. When the non-graduating members honor the graduating members, a sequential layering takes place. Underclassmen aspire to fill the shoes of the graduating members, who are being recognized for their unique contribution to the choir.
12. Have a student vocal director/student conductor
These experiences are beneficial for the entire choir, great for those chosen individuals, and gives younger members something to aspire toward. A student vocal director can run warm-ups and essentially run rehearsals when we are absent (a substitute teacher could sit in the corner of the room). Student vocal leaders command the respect of their peers because fellow choir members understand what it took to earn this opportunity. Student conductors can conduct at community events and may even conduct a song at our school concerts.
Here is an example of a student conductor conducting a traditional choir piece at the end of my Winter Choir in the round:
13. Have a piece of repertoire for the upper grades
If the seniors have a special piece of repertoire, and maybe the juniors as well, students will look forward to these unique opportunities. These pieces could be taught to the entire choir, and then a few “special” rehearsals could be held only for that grade of students.
14. Have traditional repertoire – that may welcome alumni
It may sound counter-intuitive to talk about repetitive repertoire after I just explained the need for differentiation. But traditional repertoire gives our most experienced members the opportunity to lead and/or teach the newest members. When a first year choir member learns a choir “traditional”, it is brand new and no different than any other song they need to learn. In their second year, that same piece brings them comfort; the main benefits for a second year singer is that they’ve already learned it and the fact that now they may now be ready to bring more advanced technique, musicality, and confidence into it. A third or fourth year singer brings heart into the piece, finds deeper meaning, wants to inspire the younger members to connect to it, and links it to the choir lineage when it involves alumni.
Here’s the conclusion of our Winter Choir Concert with the entire 9th-12th grade self-selected choir and alumni:
These tips can become a springboard for a 4-year plan that can become more tailor-made to each individual. When we create a 4-year flow, our students will follow a path, and align with previous students who served as role models. Stay tuned for the next article that outlines a 4-year, tailor-made program that can take place within 1 choir.