Dethroning our “Upper-Class” Singers through Empowerment:

The elite singers will always be perceived by fellow choir members as leaders: they can either function as an asset or a detriment to any choir.  Even in a select ensemble, some students stand out positively while others misbehave, choose not to blend, or choose to be confrontational. These students are always leading, and inevitably other students are following.

When “upper-class” singers are no longer part of the Choral Caste System and instead in a self-selected ensemble, their leadership roles can grow. One of the main reasons why directors don’t support self-selected choirs is because they believe the “upper-class” students aren’t going to be challenged; they believe these elite student will be wasting their time, and may even quit if forced to endure being shoved beside weaker, less interested, less capable students. In fact, this is the most frequent contradictory response that I have received to each of my series of recent blogs.

I am confident that if we properly empower our “upper-class” students, they will NEVER even consider quitting our choral program. This blog explains “HOW” to empower the “upper-class” students within a Self-Selected Choral Community.

The key to the structural change from Choral Caste System into Self-Selected Choral Community is mind-set. As the director, we must shift our mind-set from the end-game to the process.  We must believe that the process leads to the result instead of focusing our attention on the result (the concert). If we, the director, don’t believe self-selection is the best approach at the high school level, it simply won’t work. Our mind-set must be open to believing that everyone benefits from a Self-Selected Choral Community; all decisions must be made with this in mind.

Here are 8 ways to empower our “Upper-Class” singers:

1. Recognize that all students are equal members even though they are not all musically equal

This may sound harsh, but it is reality. One of the biggest fears directors have regarding self-selected choirs is that students aren’t living in reality; they believe the strong singers DESERVE a better group and weaker singers should not THINK they are strong when they aren’t. “Our society today gives everyone a participation medal, etc.”  I believe it is our responsibility to recognize the talented singers in our group, but not let it affect the concept that every individual matters. Elite singers should know they are strong and that we recognize their talent and skills; this is the first step toward empowerment.

2. Create section leaders and vocal leadership roles

Section leaders should be the strongest singers who also possess a positive attitude and above average work ethic. These students understand it is their responsibility to learn their part quickly and lead their section; as a result, everyone in their section will know their part. They need to develop the awareness that everyone is watching the way they stand when they sing, how they take notes in their music, etc. They need to understand that they can show the members of their section how and when to make markings, or circle a wrong note, etc. They can show the other singers around them how to hold up their music. Since they lead by example and are recognized by the director as a leader, they are empowered to help instill positive habits within their section.

3. Choose high-quality, mostly challenging music

In a select ensemble, elite singers learn challenging music. In a self-selected ensemble, all elite singers should be learning that same level of music even though some of the middle-class and lower-class students may struggle. Once the elite singers become the anchor for those parts, they become the model for the “middle-class” students to emulate. These elite singers are now leaders. They may be section leaders or just strong singers who understand that once they know their part, they are there to help the rest of their section learn their part.

4. Provide additional musical challenges/opportunities aimed at the “upper-class”

There is no reason why the strongest singers in our program can’t have an additional Chamber Singers, for example. Should this be an option, it fits in-line with a self-selected program as long as those members have prioritized the self-selected ensemble and understand the select ensemble is simply a perk. Here is another approach that I believe works even better, requires less commitment, and motivates more students: choose 1-2 pieces that are taught in the self-selected choral rehearsals. Once those pieces have been clearly learned, hold voluntary auditions (not in front of the choir), and choose all of the students that have met a certain standard. In essence, we will have a select choir for 1-2 songs at our concert, yet all of the students will have had the benefit of learning the music.  In addition, the students that are chosen to sing these pieces at the concert had to meet a higher standard. It is possible that some of the “middle-class” students earned their way in, and some of the lower-class may have even auditioned to be in it.  This becomes an opportunity for all, rather than a restrictive caste system.

5. Give the strongest singers the chance to observe the choir from time to time

The elite singers need to be aware of what their group sounds like without their voice. They can listen to their part and assess the other students who are stepping up. They will then assume the responsibility of observing what is missing from their section (dynamics, wrong notes, etc).  The way we, as directors guide this experience is most important; we can provide a checklist of what to look for when listening or tell them to point out all of the students who stepped up.

6. Teach strong singers how to help others

Like anything else in life, this is both a talent and a skill.  Empathy can be taught. It is our job to explain that their goals are to support, encourage, and help their peers.  It should be assumed that our elite singers know their music; we need to hold them to a higher expectation. This is an important life skill that we have the opportunity to teach and cultivate.  If strong singers are properly empowered, they will want to help their peers musically, socially, and emotionally within their choral community.

7. Give the strongest singers the opportunity to demonstrate (part of Middle-Class Stimulus Plan)

The key to a successful vocal demonstration is that we always set-up our vocally elite singers for success. We should only ask “upper-class” students to demonstrate when they are confident with the specific thing that we want them to perform. We may choose to coach them in front of the group as long as it makes them look good and it helps the group to understand the music better. The important thing is to give our strongest singers the recognition for their developed skills and use them to help the “middle-class” and “lower-class” singers to learn their parts better.

8. Empower the musically elite to be able to conduct and lead the choir

Student vocal directors can be capable of running a choir rehearsal in our absence. They can prepare and lead warm-ups, teach a piece of music, and can conduct a concert for the community when we are not available. This requires the respect from the entire choir. This mutual respect is cultivated when they are supported by us and are given ample opportunities to lead the group in our presence; it is also essential that the section leaders and non-musical leaders give their support for these selected student leaders. Perhaps they can conduct a piece at the Winter and Spring concert, or conduct at the school pep rallies, homecoming, etc.

Dethroning the “Upper-Class” is merely teaching our elite singers how to give back to their choral community. Successful people give back, not just because it makes them feel good inside, but because that is part of what it means to be successful.