An un-auditioned choir can truly be amazing; it can look, act, and sound just like a select ensemble but unlike a select ensemble, we have more layers of student development to focus on.
Many of us have our hearts in the right place but our very approach to a “Ye all come” choir prevents our ensemble from a high level of focus and achievement. We believe we are doing the right thing by welcoming everyone, but why aren’t we getting such a great result?
Here are 15 tips to redirect our un-auditioned choir into a motivated, focused, high-achieving choral ensemble:
15. Stop calling it an UN-AUDITIONED CHOIR
It is a self-selected choir. Singers should be selecting to be in our choir; they cannot just come and go. They should be committing to our program for a semester or a year at a time. Attendance policies are necessary.
14. Require an entry meeting/audition with automatic acceptance
We need to connect one-on-one with every perspective singer without creating a pressurizing audition; each singer who comes for a one-on-one meeting must be willing to sing for us. This meeting should include vocalization, ear-training, possibly some fundamental reading assessment, and a discussion about expectations of being a choir member. Most of all, this meeting should provide encouragement for these singers who put themselves out there for us; we must explain how we (and the choir) can help them to improve and how happy we are that they are choosing or considering to be in our choir family.
13. Set clear rehearsal expectations for all members
Self-selected means every student has chosen to be part of the ensemble. With that choice should come clear expectations. These expectations include guidelines for behavior, rehearsal etiquette, and procedures for virtually everything that occurs in choir (standing, holding music, marking music, asking questions, making suggestions, etc.)
12. Do not remove the talented singers
The strong singers must remain in our self-selected ensemble. Especially in a middle school or high school program, strong singers should be the musical anchors and role models for weaker and/or younger singers. As I will explain later on this list, a select ensemble is one of several possible way to further enhance the development of top singers whose primary choral experience should be with our self-selected ensemble.
11. Create and utilize section leaders
The strongest singers with positive attitudes should be section leaders and/or vocal leaders. Vocal leaders can hold a section together, frequently demonstrate for the class, work privately with weaker students, run warm-ups, and even conduct whenever we are not present.
10. Choral repertoire that challenges our vocal leaders
Our vocal leaders will initially carry the ensemble when a piece is being learned, and then they will help others to learn their part. We may, from time to time, ask our section leaders to stop singing and listen to their section. If we challenge our stronger singers, the motivated but average singers will be next in line to step up. It is important to challenge the strongest singers in a self-selected ensemble.
9. Teach solo repertoire
When self-selected students are exposed to solo repertoire, they will develop their entire vocal range and will be more likely to practice on their own at home. It is difficult for weaker singers to practice the “alto part” when they cannot stay in tune or hold their part. Singing a melody is motivating and builds confidence, while extending vocal range.
8. Frequently focus on ear-training
Ear-training can be fun, and gets all students engaged. Whether using Kodaly hand signals, pointing to Do, Re, Mi written on the board, or verbally asking the students to sing random or patterned intervals, students will collectively be working to improve together. This is also a great time to have the section leaders and vocal leaders demonstrate, but sometimes its useful to have them abstain from singing to encourage the rest of the ensemble to work harder.
7. Invest in sight-reading
Sight-reading creates an understanding of music. As weaker and average singers become able to retain “Do” in their head through the ear-training process, their reading skills will improve. Any singer that can sing in tune can be a vocal asset to a choir, especially when they become skilled sight-readers.
6. Assess for everyone’s individual success
Give homework and assessments that reward work ethic over talent. Assessments are important as they should set the bottom-line parameters for collective expectations; assessment should not attempt to assess the highest level of achievement. High achievement should be a product of individual motivation and self-created opportunities.
5. Empower non-musical leaders
Weaker singers will likely respect vocal leaders when they recognize they too have opportunities to affect positive change within their ensemble. List all the non-musical tasks that can be done by someone other than us and create positions for dedicated, responsible students who possess either leadership and/or task-masker skills. A choir functions best when it is both well-run and musically driven by students.
4. Require a high-level of focus from all students
Treat a self-selected ensemble like a select ensemble. After all, it is a select ensemble, as they selected to be in our ensemble. Demand a high focus and keep the rehearsal moving.
3. Provide extra enrichment for strong singers
Besides anchoring the choir and being vocal leaders, strong singers need extra performance opportunities. They can be rewarded by earning solos or being given solo opportunities. If our self-selected ensemble is performing a major work, perhaps we can feature our strong singers by offering them the solos. Maybe we create a solo concert for our strongest singers. We can create an additional, select ensemble for the top singers as well. All of these opportunities become enhancements to their primary, self-selected ensemble.
2. Hold effective small group lessons/sectionals
The goal of these lessons should not be to learn the notes and rhythms of the chosen choral music. The focus should be on building each individual singer’s skills: this includes developing vocal technique, ear training, and sight-reading. When these sectionals occur close to our concert, they should also feature the next tip on my list.
1. Teach students how to effectively “Opt in” and “Opt out”
Even some of the more advanced singers may struggle with certain aspects of tradition choral music; whether it’s out-of-range notes, finding a starting pitch in a section, singing a certain intervalic jump, or correcting a long-standing mistake, most singers struggle with something. All students should learn what they sing well and what they have not yet consistently been able to get right. Once a song has been properly learned, students should learn what parts in the music they should “opt out” of. Until they develop this “opting out” skill on their own, it is up to our section leaders and us to show them what notes to cross out of their music. This awareness allows all singers to focus on what they sing well, which will build their confidence. If this is done correctly our self-selected ensemble will have 100% of the music sung correctly.