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Defining the High School Choral Caste System

Recognizing the fundamental flaws of most High School Choral Program in the U.S.:

There is a consistency in the structure of many, if not most High School Choral Programs throughout the United States. While the set-ups may appear to differ significantly on the surface, the bare-bones program structure as well as the underlying objectives for the overall participating students remain consistent.

 This article is intended to clarify the freshly coined phrases that have been using throughout my series of blogs on the Choral Caste System. It is my hope that we, as a choral community, will be able to reflect on each phrase and decide if and how it speaks to each of us and our individual programs.

“The Best” vs “The Rest” is the most common set-up for high schools choral programs throughout the United States. The goal of this set-up is to feature the elite singers as much as possible in “The Best”, our “select” ensemble. This system is usually set-up for the majority of average to below-average singers to leave the program after their first year of high school choral experience. The first-year members of the program along with the remaining rejected upperclassmen usually fill “The Rest”, the “non-select” ensemble.

There are some variations of this set-up, but the key component to this structure is removing the strongest singers from everyone else for the daily rehearsals. If “the best” singers are missing from “the rest” of the singers, no matter how the program is structured, it is considered to be “The Best” vs “The Rest” structure.


Self-Assessment Rehearsal Participation Rubric(s)


Here are two examples of set-ups that would qualify as “The Best” vs “The Rest”:

1. Students audition when entering the high school.  The elite incoming 1st year students are placed in a select ensemble alongside the previously selected upperclassmen.  All other students remain in an un-auditioned group.

2. All 1st year students are placed in one group.  At the end of the year, the students audition and the very best 1st year students are selected into the older, select ensemble.  All rejected students are permitted to remain in the 1st year choir, but most usually choose to drop.

In both of these examples, the elite singers may also serve as “ringers” and enhance the sound of un-auditioned at their concert; they would learn the un-auditioned group’s repertoire in addition to their select program within their separate rehearsal.  While this adds extra “quality” sound to please the audience, it demoralizes the members of the un-auditioned group who had rehearsed for months without these elite singers.

Different schools may have more complicated structural set-ups that still breed the same result. For example, a larger choral program may have 3 ensembles: a choir of all new members followed by an audition where students are either chosen into a select group or if they are rejected, are then placed into a non-select group that is devoid of fine singers. Another school may have a non-select women’s group and a non-select men’s group with no elite singers enrolled; the elite students are placed in their own select ensemble instead. A final example is a school with a non-select mixed ensemble with no elite singers; this high school then places the elite singers into a high-level men’s ensemble and high-level women’s ensemble.


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“The Best” vs “The Rest” means isolating the most talented students from the average and below average singers.  The worst part about “The Best” vs “The Rest” is that virtually each student’s future choral paths become pre-determined from the very onset.

By separating the strong singers from the average and weak singers, students do receive differentiated instruction, but it is certainly not equal instruction. Essentially, the mere concept of separating the students based on ability creates a Choral Caste System.

The Choral Caste System is an inherent class structure within a choral program that is predetermined for most students upon entry. A weak singer will remain weak and never be afforded the opportunity to receive a high-level choral experience. A strong singer will be afforded the finest opportunities within the program.  An average singer is more likely to be pushed down toward the weaker singers than raised up toward the elite singers.

The Choral Caste System operates under the premise that the overwhelming majority of musical and performing opportunities are given to the very best singers; these singers have been isolated from the rest of the singers. There is a vast difference in the quality of instruction, student motivation, chosen repertoire, rehearsal focus, and individual ability for improvement between “The Best” and “The Rest”.


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Description of the 3 Classes that comprise the Choral Caste System:

In a Choral Caste System, there are three classes of singers. These labels were created and used to bring permanence and awareness to what is really happening to all members of our high school choral society as a result of our chosen structural set-up.

Choral Upper-class, defined in Dethroning the Upper-Class Singers through Empowerment:

The “upper-class” students are the ones who are naturally talented. They entered the school being able to sing well. They are afforded most opportunities and accepted into the top vocal groups at first audition.

Choral Middle-class, defined in The Erosion of the Choral Middle Class:

The “middle-class” students are the ones who work hard and have an average amount of talent and/or skill. They are not elite and will not be featured soloists. They may hold their part, but lack a refined tone. Their range may be limited and they have one or two clear technical deficiencies; they probably don’t possess great dynamic contrast and/or may not sing out like an elite singer.

The “middle-class” choral student is the one that on a weak year might get selected into the select ensemble (“The Best”), yet on the average year, is relegated to “The Rest”; a few may have gained nobility but most fall below the choral poverty line. Why do they fall?  Because there is no place for the “middle-class.”

Choral Lower-class, defined in Raising the Minimum Wage for the Lower Choral Class:

The “lower-class” refers to the weakest singers in our program; to be clear, the “lower-class” relates to talent/skill and not work ethic or perceived motivation. In our society, the lower-class would be defined as lowest income and level of education. In the traditional Choral Caste System, this class produces the lowest level of results and is generally the least literate.


Sight-Singing Developmental Rubric – for developing students who lack underlying sight-singing skills


Using this terminology for self-reflection:

I would like to ask the following questions to every reader:

1. Did you experience “The Best” vs “The Rest” set-up when you were in high school?

2. Does the school where you teach operate using “The Best” vs “The Rest” set-up?

3. Is there a Choral Caste System in place that prevents the weaker and average singers from attaining the same opportunities for personal growth and collective experiences as the strongest singers? 

The 3-tiered Choral Caste System plagues our students as most of them throughout the country are being shoved into this typical “The Best” vs “The Rest” structure; this is an inherently flawed structure and does not need to exist within any high school. Together we can create a new dialogue and discuss ways to build healthier programs that welcome all students, instill self-motivation, empower the stronger students to help the weaker students, and build a loving, all-inclusive choral community for all who are interested.


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By | 2018-10-16T21:36:07+00:00 July 18th, 2016|Choral Caste System, Self-Selected|

About the Author:

Adam Paltrowitz is a master educator, composer, conductor, and clinician. During his 20-year tenure as the Director of Choral Activities at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School in New York, his groups have toured throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States. He also has pioneered a philosophy that every student is a soloist. Adam's choral program has also gained great acclaim for the cultivation of eight student-run a-cappella ensembles; some of these ensembles have performed on national and local television programs. His compositions and arrangements have been performed by choirs around the world. Adam earned his B.S. in music education from New York University, M.A. in vocal pedagogy from Columbia University - Teacher's College, and Ed.M. choral conducting from Columbia University - Teacher's College. ​Adam resides in Manhattan with his wife, Blair Goldberg, a professional Broadway actress, and their daughter, Lyla.

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