It is important to understand that all high school students are paid; they get paid with knowledge and they get paid with grades. The love of music that we hope to inspire in each student can only occur in lower-class students after they have bought into what we are offering.
As my previous few blogs have explored the inherent issues in our Choral Caste System, my very last blog lays the foundation for a resolution. This blog brings the focus specifically onto our weakest singers. In a self-selected program, we can just refer to them as our weakest singers, but in the traditional Choral Caste System, I refer to them as the “lower-class.”
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.
How do we effectively reach the weakest students in our program? How do we transfer to them more knowledge? How do we raise their bar? What can we do to raise them into the middle class? How can we raise their “wage”?
All of these concepts listed below are based on the premise that the Middle Class Stimulus Plan is already in place. We must eliminate the Choral Caste System if we truly want our weakest singers to be successful.
Here are 8 ways we can strengthen our weakest singers:
1. Create an environment that welcomes all singers, regardless of ability
The weaker the singer, the more pitfalls that are present in their choral experience: fear of failure, fear of singing out, fear of not being accepted, fear of sight-reading, etc. We need to begin to replace their fears by creating a nurturing environment where not only the teacher, but other students welcome and include these singers. A self-selected choir only succeeds when the cultivated environment is welcoming of all students, regardless of musical aptitude.
2. Provide frequent and intentional moments of personal positive encouragement
Both the director and student leaders can offer personal contact with the weakest singers which will boost their confidence and group connection. Reaching out as they enter or leave a rehearsal, or having a section leader acknowledge their daily effort will help to keep these students interested in remaining part of our choral community. Even eye contact with a smile can help a weak singer to realize they matter.
3. Provide Group Social Experiences within the Choral Community
The more non-singing activities within the choir, the more comfortable the weaker singers will become, as they will feel more of an even playing field. While this need is similar to the needs of the average singers, it is essential not only for providing motivation for future success, but more so for just keeping these singers engaged within the community. Group social experiences within the rehearsal could include ice-breakers and group discussions, where all students can be encouraged to participate, and in turn, be equal. It is most important that every social opportunity involves reaching out to the weakest singers.
4. Provide Logistical Opportunities within the Choral Community
The more opportunities for impact that are available to the weakest students within the program where they believe they are making a difference, the more comfortable and vested they will become. We have the ability to enhance our program through so many non-musically driven avenues (seasonal decorating, organizing music, etc). As weaker students become more vested, they will be more willing to take vocal risks.
5. Choose Assessments that recognize hard work and effort over natural ability
Assessments should provide the opportunity for all students to be successful, should they be motivated to achieve a level of excellence. Some examples of appropriate assessments would be: memorizing lyrics, labeling notes and rhythms, interpreting a text, listening to a recording of a piece and discussing musical elements, and marking a score. These assessments set up all students for the potential of achieving success academically while helping them to develop meaningful skills. With academic success of the weaker singers will come added confidence.
6. Introduce Solo Repertoire to the choir as part of the standard curriculum
All students, but especially the weakest singers, benefit greatly by learning solo repertoire. For one thing, they are learning a melody. The melody of a high-quality Italian aria, for example, is something they can be motivated to go home and work on. Sometimes this in itself becomes a huge motivation for improvement.
7. Teach Literacy (Sight-reading/Ear-Training)
Not only do these skills significantly help a choir, they give the weakest students the skills to become knowledgeable musicians. Anyone can learn to match pitch, develop their ear, and be able to read. When weaker singers see tangible proof of growth in their reading-related skills, they will become more vested in our program.
8. Find opportunities for one-on-one instruction
A tutor makes a big difference when trying to develop any skill. While it is not expected for the weakest singers to be taking private voice lessons, it is important for us to find ways to ensure they are developing the tools for growth and improvement. In many cases, the strongest students can also provide this enrichment as well. Any self-awareness of improvement will allow for a student to believe in forward momentum. A weaker singer understands they don’t sing as well as the stronger singers. Our goal is to get them to believe that they can continue to improve and that improvement has no limit. The first step is for them to gain an awareness of specific parts of their vocal range and/or sections in the chosen repertoire that they sing well; by accessing this, they also must become equally aware of what they aren’t yet capable of singing (due to technical or aural issues). When students differentiate between what they can and can’t currently sing, they gain confidence in knowing the ways that they can positively contribute to the group.
11 Reasons Why “The Best” belong with “The Rest”
These 8 ways to improve our weakest singers presupposes that your program has already eliminated the Choral Caste System and has students of all ability levels together in the same ensemble; should your program consist of the “The Best” vs “The Rest“, it is more than likely that your weaker singers will drop out of your program after one year of singing, and you will choose to focus the majority of your efforts on the strongest singers. It is also more than likely that you have one ensemble that you love to teach, minus the occasional arrogance, and at least one other ensemble that significantly lacks confidence and discipline.
All students can learn to sing, and most students who join can become assets to our program if we understand that we have the ability to make this happen.