Choir’s Differentiated Learning Myth
I believe the concept of differentiated learning is often misunderstood in the typical high school choral program; most teachers differentiate by talent. This approach, which is quite typical, sounds more like segregation than differentiation. Talented students are promoted into select ensembles while the rest remain in a mediocre ensemble that lacks leadership or direction (or just drop out). This approach leads to survival of the fittest; in may ways it is the antithesis of differentiated learning as it does not provide a long-term plan for all students who enter our program.
It should be our hope that every student who enters our program wants to stick with it, year after year. If we believe everyone is capable of learning and developing strong skills, we need to view choir as a four-year progression for all of our members. A four-year program can be threaded within one single choir or progress through multiple choirs. There can be additional opportunities for the more talented, advanced and/or more motivated students, but these opportunities need to be enhancements to the core of progression that exist for all members.
Differentiated learning within a choir is truly important, but it is only the beginning. Assuming we are teaching multiple levels of students in the same ensemble, how do we reach the least skilled students while inspiring and engaging the most advanced students? How do we handle the differentiated skill levels of multi-year students in terms of areas such as aural training, sight-singing, vocal technique, and basic confidence? And how to we take each level of student in the same program and get them to excel to the next level, continuing this potentially into four years of growth?
Students need to understand the big WHY:
Why should they continue? Why will next year be different for them?
THE FOUR-YEAR INDIVIDUALIZED CHOIR PLAN
The best way to explain this process is by describing my high school choral program and the system we have in place. Instead of giving hypotheticals, I will offer our practical system. This, by no means, is an attempt to pigeon-hole your ideas on how any other school should layer and what they should choose to focus on.
My high school program
Choir program size: Ranges between 105-140 students – grades 9 through 12
Treble Choir – all female singers in 9th-10th grade
Mixed Choir – all female singers in 11th-12th grade, all male singers in 9th through 12th grade
The 1st year student (usually 9th graders)
All 9th graders use the Aural Training Sheet, learn fundamental sight-singing skills, and began Level 1 Sight-Singing Homework where they receive 35 assignments (one per week). Each homework assignment is recorded and submitted back to me.
The freshmen will be taught at least 3 pieces of solo repertoire in class; these pieces are mid-vocal range and usually in Italian. They will each choose one of those pieces to focus on, and I will encourage them to participate in our state solo festival. Prior to their festival performance, most of these students will volunteer to sing their solo in front of the class.
During their freshman year, very few students will be accepted into All-County due to the fact that they had to prepare/perform a solo the previous year in order to be accepted.
At the end of the year freshmen guys and girls both have the opportunity to become officers for the following year. This process is outlined in great deal in 9 Steps to Choosing the Right Choir Officers.
The 2nd year student (usually 10th graders)
As mentioned before, the 10th grade boys are in the Mixed Choir while the 10th grade women are in the Treble Choir.
Since the 10th grade women are the more experienced members of their ensemble, they naturally become the leaders. This means there are 4 section leaders (Soprano 1, Soprano 2, Alto 1, Alto 2) as well as several non-musical executive board positions (Secretary, Librarian, Public Relations, etc). In terms of percentage, more than 25% of the second year women become officers; these officers were chosen (not elected), at the end of the previous year.
The 10th grade men, usually 4-10 men depending on the year, occasionally become section leaders but never become executive positions; with four grades of men, they have to wait their turn, as opposed to the 10th grade women who are the oldest, most experienced members of their ensemble.
Most 2nd year singers will become really comfortable with the Aural Training Sheet. They will then progress to the 2nd level of Sight-Singing Homework where they receive 35 new assignments (one per week).
Many of these singers will be selected for all-county due to their well-developed ear, strong sight-singing skills, and well-prepared solo performance from the previous year.
The 2nd year students will be given 2-3 new pieces of solo repertoire that are more suited to their voice-type, while still reviewing the pieces they learned from the previous year. They will each choose one of those pieces to focus on, and by this point, just about every student will choose to perform/audition their solo at the All-State festival, with the chance to be selected for All-State or All-County for the following year.
The 3rd year student (usually 11th graders)
All 11th grade Men and Women join the Mixed Choir. At this point, the men have learned all of our choir traditions and traditional songs while all the new mixed choir women are trying to catch-on. The women have been attended to at such a high level during 9th and 10th grade, that they read very well and adapt rather quickly.
In terms of leadership, there are usually several junior men and women who become section leaders, and it’s possible to have several serve on the choir executive board (highest level officers who do not need to be musical). There are many more important officer positions available in the Mixed Choir that are non-exec as well (decorations, room organizer, robes leader).
Most 3rd year singers sing the Aural Training Sheet to a steady, fast tempo both forwards and backwards. They are given the 3rd level of Sight-Singing homework. At this point in their journey, they will have submitted 105 homework assignments.
After performing as sophomores at the state festival, many juniors are rewarded. As a result of their near-perfect sight-singing scores (average grade at the state festival is 9.5 out of 10) and their well-prepared solos, more than half of the third year singers are selected for all-county and 20% are selected for All-State.
Just about every 3rd year student chooses to perform/audition at the state solo festival. At this point, many of these students have decided on a piece long before the year even began; they have heard the seniors sing various pieces and start to connect to the pieces that best suit them. In addition, I frequently hand-pick pieces for more advanced singers to learn. After three years of sight-singing, they pretty much all receive perfect scores.
The 4th year student
This is the culminating year for our students. All continuing members know the choir traditions and traditional choir songs. This is their time to give back to the program and create a legacy of excellence.
In just about every case, the very top positions of our choir are held by seniors. The Choir Manager, Associate manager, and Student Vocal Directors/Conductors are always seniors; these students have usually served at a high capacity the year prior. A student vocal director was usually a section leader, and the top two executive positions probably served as either a section leader, Public Relations, Secretary, or another active position. As in past years, the decision is made at the end of the previous year.
Not only have all 4th year singers mastered the Aural Training Sheet, during the second half of the year, most of them become coaches for the underclassmen. They are also given the 4th level of Sight-Singing homework.
Way more than half of our students are selected for All-County, and between 25-35% of our 4th year students were selected for All-State, as a result of their consistent sight-singing and development as a soloist. In addition, we have had more than 1 student selected for All-National every year since it’s inception. Again, this is all based on their solo singing.
Our seniors do not participate in the solo festival because they cannot be selected for All-County or All-State the following year. Instead, we spend the beginning of the year working in new solo repertoire, possibly for college auditions and scholarships, but the second half of the year, the coach the underclassmen on Aural Training, sight-singing, and their solo repertoire pieces. A senior who has successfully mastered a French or German piece will pull aside an underclassmen and ensure their fluency with the language. The seniors run weekly mock sight-singing adjudications, just like the state festival, giving a grade, but following-up with coaching.
Our senior vocal leaders can run rehearsals in my absence and conduct concerts for the community when I’m not present. The entire senior choir class will sometimes represent the choir and perform at special events such as the pep rally and graduation. In addition, elite senior vocalists will receive extra performing opportunities; our choir may perform a major work or specific piece of repertoire that I choose around these high-achieving, dedicated singers.
All seniors are honored at the end of the year in front of the entire choral program for their contribution to the choral program.
Breaking down my choral program by the “type” of student
There are different types of singers that pass through our program. Here is a general understanding of how the different “types” of students move through the 4-year program.
The talented/Hard Working/Advanced singer :
9th grade – sings in Treble Choir (if female), participates in state solo festival, level 1 sight-singing homework
10th grade- sings in Treble Choir (if female),participates in state solo festival (new song),section leader of treble choir, all-county, level 2 sight-singing homework
11th grade – sings in Mixed Choir, participates in state solo festival (new song), section leader, all-state, all-county, level 3 sight-singing homework
12th grade – sings in Mixed Choir, student conductor, sight-singing tutor, all-county, all-state, level 4 sight-singing homework, receives personalized award
The average, but dedicated female singer:
9th grade – sings in Treble Choir (if female), participates in state solo festival, level 1 sight-singing homework
10th grade- sings in Treble Choir(if female),participates in state solo festival (new song), officer, level 2 sight-singing homework
11th grade – sings in Mixed Choir, participates in state solo festival (new song), officer, all-county, level 3 sight-singing homework
12th grade – sings in Mixed Choir, executive board officer (high-level position), sight-singing tutor, all-county, level 4 sight-singing homework, award
Choir member who is not particularly dedicated but sticks with the program:
9th grade – sings in Treble Choir (if female), learns a piece of solo repertoire, level 1 sight-singing homework
10th grade- sings in Treble Choir (if female), participates in state solo festival (new song), level 2 sight-singing homework
11th grade – sings in Mixed Choir, participates in state solo festival (new song), level 3 sight-singing homework
12th grade – sings in Mixed Choir, aural training tutor, officer or volunteer, all-county, level 4 sight-singing homework, award
How to Train the Student’s That Can’t Sight-Sing – a simple system
I have simplified my program in order to show the way in which students can see a progression and follow a path for 4 years. In my program, I failed to mention that we have 8 student-run after school a-cappella ensembles, with just about every member enrolled in choir. Within each a-cappella ensemble is 1-2 leaders, and 1-2 music directors who write and teach their own arrangements. There is also an A-Cappella president and Vice-president, and both leaders are high-level officers in the choir. More importantly, there are 10-20 members of each group that respect one another, work together, are motivated to succeed, and do not need an adult in the room to supervise them. This provides even more of a 4-year development plan as they aspire to be accepted as members, and rise to become vocal and organizational leaders within each ensemble.
Here are the 6 points I would like to drive home:
Have a four-year plan for your students. Every student that enters your program should see four years of growth ahead of them.
Teach every student to develop their ear and to sight-sing.
Treat every student like an individual, and every student like a soloist.
Offer effective leadership opportunities that grow as students progress through the program.
Teach seniors to mentor underclassmen; giving back is the greatest reward.
Recognize seniors for their individuality and contribution to the program. This will have a profound effect on the underclassmen.