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Does Your Choral Program FAIL Most Students?

A choir can be a welcoming and loving community for people who love to sing. For many students, it can even feel like a second home; that is……only if they are accepted into our elite ensemble.

When these students are rejected, where is it that they go?  It is that other choir: the choir that lacks pride, heart, discipline, and has low expectations with equally low achievement?  If it’s not that other choir where these rejected singers go, do they vanish from our choral program altogether?

When we DON’T FAIL most of our students…..

Every student has something to offer. If we truly are successful teachers, we will attempt to ignite and/or cultivate the desire in each and every student who enters our classroom; we will create the opportunity for them to enhance our choir in their most authentic way possible. We will not fail them by rejecting them; instead they will succeed by continually improving themselves and strengthening our program.

Why most teachers believe having a “select” choir as their anchor is the best approach

It is quite simple. Most choir directors out there were star singers in their high school. We were part of our select high school ensemble, and then continued in college as a music education or vocal performance major, where we again were placed in a “select” ensemble. Most choir directors never experienced being in the holding-pen choir: the choir that fills a teacher’s schedule and is void of most talented students.

Most of us choral directors experienced the best in one group and the rest in the other group. As a result of this two-tiered system, we learned how to abandon the weaker singers with no remorse, focus on the stronger singers, and be recognized for the achievements of what the best students can do.

It’s so easy to abandon the weak singers and say they have a poor attitude and weren’t focused. The reality is that these singers never had a chance in our system. They never had role models, never experienced a high level of music making, and never received the individualized attention that the stronger singers were given. Their lack of focus, dedication, and attitude is a result of our neglect. Perhaps many of us don’t have the training to teach “weak” singers how to become strong singers; it’s not our fault as we have always be trained to flourish in “survival of the fittest” mode.

As we were formally the best of our high school, we are now the leader of our own choral programs. We seek the best singers as we view them through our lens of what we were as students. We never understood the plight of the weak singers who entered our program with the same aspirations as the stronger singers; we never understood what was hidden underneath their facade: perhaps a poor pitch-center, an unsupported tone, or a complete lack of confidence.

Select implies there are others who are not selected

Of course there are singers who are more talented than others. The premise here is not to dismiss the fact that singers range in talent and ability; what we are reflecting upon is how we choose to group our singers. How do we provide amazing learning opportunities for all students, not just our top singers?

A “select” high school ensemble usually implies there are more students who wanted to sing, chose to audition, and then found out they would not be receiving the same great opportunities as the selected few. It’s so common to believe our “select” ensemble deserves these opportunities; why give opportunities to the other ensemble who is underperforming and not serious?

I agree.

If our system is set-up with a “select” choir and the rest of the students are in a different ensemble, the only way to appear successful is to feature the “select” ensemble everywhere. Our parents and community members will love that ensemble. We look like a masterful teacher as our talented students are the toast of the town.

Now, think of all of the students who drop out of our program each and every year. Think of all of the students who began in our choral program and never made it into “select” choir; most of them are long gone from singing because we deemed them unworthy of the best educational experience we could have offered them.

There’s a better way than making the “select” ensemble the anchor to our choral program

It is my firm belief that a “select” ensemble should NEVER be the core of any high school or middle school choral program. It is not an anchor.

From my perspective, a select-driven program is a cover-up for the lack of opportunity that is offered to ALL students within a choral program. And by ALL STUDENTS, I’m also implying ALL STUDENTS who dropped out of our choral program as a result of not being accepted into our “select” ensemble.

Assuming we run a 4 year program, we must consider the number of incoming or outgoing freshmen every year that dropped out of our program and multiply that times 3-4 years; that is the true number of students we have lost. Now compare that to the number of students we chose to keep in our “select” choir. For many of us, we have negatively affected more students than we have helped.

How to HELP MOST STUDENTS SUCCEED: Rebuild as a Self-Selected Choral Program

For most of you who have spent your entire life within the traditional structure of “select” ensemble-based programs, this concept probably seems ridiculous. Your believe system is that a self-selected ensemble will not be able to perform high-quality music, will bore the strongest singers, will be too much of a reach for below-average singers, will lack focus, and suffer from poor intonation.

It’s so easy to believe this is true, being stuck in the two-tiered system. Once this bureaucratic system is blown-up and true community becomes our foundational goal, a self-selected choral program will become the heart and soul of an entire community and no singer will be left behind.

My next blog will discuss the nuts and bolts of building a self-selected choral program. It is not a “Ye all come” Choir; a self-selected choral program has a clear purpose, sets high expectations, and brings out the best in every individual.

I realize this approach is not traditional, but tradition has proven to limit the amount of people in our entire society who sing, the number of young people who participate in community and religious ensembles, and most of all, the number of people who attend and appreciate choral music concerts.

Break the mold, be a rebel, and help to change the future of choral education.

For more articles on this transformative topic, click here

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