As inspirers, it is our goal to motivate our students to love music. Well then, why on earth would we not want to inspire our choir by playing a fine recording of a piece they are about to learn? Many directors might say, “I play recordings to inspire my students and get them to like the piece they are about to sing. It also gives them a goal to accomplish.”
While this may be true, I am advocating against playing recordings in class.
This common philosophy certainly does reinforce the values set by great teachers but it is counter-intuitive to most inspiring teachers. For those who choose to inspire, playing recordings is one more way to prevent motivated students from experiencing independent success.
As discussed in my previous blog, Why “INSPIRING” Teachers are Replaceable, an inspirer is one who plants the seeds, and occasionally waters them. We must be careful not to water them too often because the rain frequently provides just the right amount of water. We provide only the supplemental water as we are aware when the rain hasn’t come for a while.
When we introduce a new piece of music, it is our job to inspire our students. It is also our job to inspire our students to want to research and discover on their own; this is a higher level of learning and results in them taking ownership over all aspects of their learning.
A picture is worth a thousand words….
If one photo is worth a thousand words, one recording that we share with our ensemble at the beginning of the learning period is worth a thousand words as well. It paints the picture of the potential end result. By sharing our chosen recording, we have already painted our picture for them. Now their goal is to copy what we presented to them, rather than search, create, and develop.
How to plant the seed that sparks inspiration
The way a new piece of music is introduced is quite important. There are many ways to present new material. Every director is different, and every piece presents itself differently.
Here are some different approaches for an inspiring introduction. These approaches are meant to be combined, meaning we could use multiple approaches as an introduction:
1. Explain why we are excited about teaching/performing this piece.
Where did we first hear it and why do we think it would be the perfect choice for our current ensemble? Why does this piece fit into the theme of our choir, or why should our choir love this piece? Our excitement is contagious when it is backed up by our personal attachment to the piece as well as its potential connection to our students.
2. Share the background of the composer, the poet, and the history of the piece itself.
Provide a contextual understand that will pique our choir members’ interests. If discussing Bach, how old was we when he wrote the piece? How many children did he have? Why did he write the piece? If it’s a spiritual, what is the history of the spiritual and/or the background of the arranger? Contemporary composers are frequently approachable. If you can find ways to connect the choir to the composer, the student connection will grow. See if the composer will Skype, respond to email, etc.
3. Hook them with the hook.
Just go for it. Get to the fun part. If only the sopranos have the hook, get the entire group singing it. The first impression for the choir should the part of the song that hooks them.
4. Get them out of their chairs
If it’s a gospel piece, don’t give them the music. Just teach the hook by rote.
5. Sight-read it
If it’s easy to sight-read, go for it. Only focus on the part of the music where they will experience instant success. Let them see how they learned the music all by themselves.
AND THIS IS A MUST!!!
6. Make it Quick
Don’t dwell on a new piece of music. Whatever the combined approaches that are used, get in and get out. Sell it and leave it. Move on to something else. Leave them wanting more. And if they don’t like the song initially, that’s ok too.
The Inspirational hook to the Introduction
If we start working on new music in an engaging way, students may be inspired to go home and find their own recording. If they choose to find their own recording, they are likely to share their findings with their peers.
This may not happen on it’s own, but it is a necessary part of empowering students. An inspirational teacher finds ways to spark choir member’s desire to find a recording.
How do we inspire their quest?
Very quietly. Every time we take out the music in class to work on it, we can preface it with the following question: “Has anyone, by any chance, heard a recording of this piece?” Just look around the room. It’s quite possible, no student has.
The next time we take out the same music, ask the same question again, as if we’ve never asked it before: “Has anyone, by any chance, heard a recording of this piece?” Just look around the room. While it’s possible, no student has, I’m willing to bet someone did.
Continue this each and every time until multiple hands are raised. Only work on the piece for short periods of time, mostly every day. If a hand is raised, pose a question to them about the recording. “Can you recall what ensemble’s recording your heard? Who was the conductor? How was the tempo?” If they don’t know, ask them if they could check and let us know the next day. See if multiple students found the same one or a different one. Perhaps ask if they could email us the link. Ask how others can find the link.
What a waste of time, right?
Well, we may have given up a minute or two of rehearsal time, but what really happened? A few students on their own time searched the internet for recordings of the piece we chose in class. They then took pride in sharing the fact that they did it on their own (even though we hinted at it), shared something about the recording such as the age of the group, the quality of the recording, the conductor, etc., and then they provided enough information for other students to be inspired. All of this inspires more students to find their own resources, experience other groups, and use their own free time to become more vested students of our choir.
What happens as a result of them finding their own recordings?
They may come back with some questions and comments for the class, and for us….
Are we really going to take the piece THAT slow?
I think the tenors are sticking out too much, and need to blend
Why do we pronounce it as Heav-ihn? I heard a recording where they sang “heav-uhn”.
When students take ownership, they have become inspired. From there, they may start searching for new choir pieces to bring to the group. As conductors, we are always looking for new music!
It’s US vs. Them
When WE play a recording in class, it was provided by us, just as the sheet music was provided by us. They will do as we say (hopefully) and learn their part.
When THEY find a recording on their own time and/or listen to a recording that their friends in choir found, they will bring their “insight”, analysis, and ownership.
This is one example of INSPIRING as a skill. And what did we have to do?
We had to choose not to play a recording for the class and present a subtle hint about discovering some recordings
I’m not suggesting a steadfast rule against recordings in the classroom. I’m suggesting that overwhelming majority of the time, it is not in the best interest of student independence that recordings are played in class before the students have fully learned and memorized their music. And even then, the goal of playing recordings is to focus on specific details, not to “like” or “dislike” the music.