When did our culture stop singing, and what are we, the choir directors, doing to bring singing back into our mainstream culture for everyone to actively enjoy? This might be our most important part of our job!
I was recently a guest on the a Choir Baton podcast with Beth Philemon where we discussed the concept of self-selected choirs, and how we moved from being a society where everyone sings to one where singing is left to the select few.
The deterioration of singing as a culture, as discussed in this interview, is mirrored in our middle schools and high schools, where many of us separate the most talented students from the rest. Before long, all many of us focus on is our top students as the rest of our students drop out of our program, never to sing again. (and likely never to willingly support or attend a choral concert again)
Sure, we have a highly successful ensemble with well-trained and talented singers, but what happened to all of those other students who quit our program? Do we convince ourselves that they didn’t want to continue? That singing and choir didn’t matter to them?
I believe “choir auditions” are perfectly useful when they are used as a means to assess a student’s starting point and/or to build their confidence. Choir auditions are also useful when they offer additional opportunities to deserving students. I recommend “ditching the audition” if the purpose is to reject some students or to separate students based on talent.
Everyone can be taught to sing. If we can speak, we can sing. Singing is a natural form of expression. With that said, I believe all vocal students in middle school and high school choral programs should sing together in a self-selected ensemble, regardless of their individual talent or skill level.
I’m not implying every singer in our program needs to be in one gigantic ensemble; I’m simply stating that no matter how our choral program is divided up, each main choir should have a cross-section of students that is not separated by talent. So for example, there may be treble choir and a tenor/bass choir for all students in grades 9-10, followed by a grade 11-12 mixed choir. Another example would be a grade 9-10 mixed choir, and a grade 11-12 mixed choir. A third example would be a 9-10 treble choir and a mixed choir with treble voices in grades 11-12 and basses/tenors in grades 9-12.
In any of these scenarios, a brand new 11th or 12th grader who has never sung before, for example, could sign up and be placed into a group with his/her peers of the same age. Along those same lines, any student who enters the program as a freshman will see a guaranteed four year path ahead of them, with the possibility of some additional opportunities sprinkled on top.
Select Groups for selected students
I believe there is a place for select ensembles in middle school and high school; the select ensemble gives the most deserving singers from our self-selected choirs more advanced musical opportunities. These opportunities should be “in addition to”, not “in place of” singing in the main, self-selected choir.
Advanced singers should get to experience advanced opportunities; an advanced ensemble that learns more challenging repertoire at a faster pace is certainly a valuable experience; in my opinion, a select ensemble is just one of many additional opportunities that should be afforded to advanced singers.
The same singers that might deserve the opportunity to partake in additional auditioned ensemble, should also be given the opportunity to lead others in a main-stream, self-selected ensemble. They should learn to be vocal leaders, role-models, and be inspiring members for other students.
This culture where “everyone sings” is easily created within a self-selected ensemble and is frequently squashed in choral programs where elite students are permanently separated from their less-talented peers. In a self-selected choral program, we choose our section leaders and student vocal directors. These musical leadership positions become highly coveted and giving back becomes an integral part of excelling vocally within our choral program.
There are so many benefits for all students when singers of all ability levels sing together. The strongest singers learn to become leaders and lead by example, learn the responsibility of having to know their part first, and help others to learn their part. The average and weaker singers have anchors in their section. Advanced singers, such as section leaders, can demonstrate the music in class and inspire all members.
One key factor is incorporating self-reflection, self-assessment, and empowerment into our programs. All students, regardless of talent, must be aware of their contribution, where they are at, and how they can improve.
Why this matters
When a choral program is built with all singers in mind, it provides additional opportunities for the strongest singers, extra help and support for the weakest singers, and motivation for all singers. The strongest singers learn to be musical leaders and role models and learn how, through empowerment, to improve the weaker singers. We want the weaker singers to keep singing. They won’t always be weak if they keep singing, especially if we are properly training them. These singers could make singing a lifelong hobby.
If we think of a choir as an inclusive community rather than a gated community, we can once again make singing a norm in our society, rather than a society that views singing through the lens of American Idol victors and rejects.
When our choral world is accepting of all and the belief that everyone can and SHOULD sing, we will again create a lifelong culture of singing. This joy of singing will translate into more singers in community and religious choirs and lifelong support for the choral arts; this will translate into larger, more engaged audiences, and better appreciation of professional choirs.