Removing the Remnants of the High School Choral Caste System:
If we understand that the Choral Caste System has been failing many high school students who may have been interested in being part of our high-quality choral experience, we can now embrace the Self-Selected Choral Community.
With this shift from a Caste System to a Self-Selected Community, we can now truly eliminate all of those horrible titles that were previously plaguing our students; we no longer have “lower-class”, “middle-class”, and “upper-class” students. Upward mobility exists in four facets: vocal improvement, social acceptance, musical leadership, and non-musical leadership. No student, should they make the effort, can be left behind.
We now have a cohesive choir of students who are all serving one goal: to make the choir better.
Every student has the opportunity to help the choir in the best way that they can:
-Some students are helping as musical leaders (formerly called “upper-class” students)
-Some students are helping as logistical leaders (could be members from any former class)
-Some students are helping by completing non-musical tasks (could be members from any former class)
-All students are helping by being motivated to vocally improve (should be everyone)
In our most ideal Self-Selected Choral Community, every member would have a responsibility beyond singing that positively impacts their choral community. When every student is uniquely involved, they will truly believe that they matter. When every student feels important, they will feel included.
This may not be possible, especially when starting or transitioning into a self-selected program. One goal from the very start should be getting as many students as possible to be involved beyond the music; the sky’s the limit in finding ways to get increased student involvement. Growth comes in all different ways and in all different forms. Our key as the director is to focus on both individual and collective growth, and let the end-game (the performance) occur as a result of the group’s motivation, determination, and unity. Concerts are the product of teamwork, collaboration, pride, inclusion, and unified goals.
Here are some statements that I will boldly make regarding Self-Selected Choral Ensemble:
1) Self-selected ensembles should openly welcome every student who chooses to join
We should not turn away anyone who wishes to make the commitment to learn. When we create an ideal learning environment, all students can learn from each other and grow collectively as a unit.
2) Self-selected ensembles can be as focused as select choirs
When all deserving students are properly empowered, there are more leaders than there are followers. The culture of the group is then dominated by leaders (musical, logistical, and social). When a given student isn’t focused, there are always several leaders to help point them in the right direction.
3) Self-selected ensembles can learn music as fast as select choirs
All of the members that would have been chosen for a select group within the Caste System now exist within the self-selected choral community; they still produce the same amount of sound. Average singers can be excellent sight-readers as well, and could even help to propel the learning curve of the music. The weakest singers do not hold back the group’s collective ability to learn music; instead they will be challenged to improve their reading skills. Logically speaking, it makes no sense that the weakest, generally softest singers will impact the speed of learning of an overall ensemble.
4) Self-selected groups can perform the same standard of repertoire as a select choir
All of the members that would have been chosen for a select group within the Caste System exist within the self-selected choral community. Average singers will catch on as soon as the strongest singers “anchor” the sound and serve their leadership role. The average and weakest singers will learn to self-select what fits within their range, and will continue to receive extra help from student leaders and from us. In the end, the weakest singers will not hinder our choice of music; instead they will be challenged to grow.
5) Self-selected groups can perform at the highest levels at festivals and receive top ratings.
It cannot be denied that if we take our best 40 singers from our high school choral program and have them compete against a self-selected 80 voices choir, the sound may be better from our elite group. The point is that if we are going for the typical choir ratings at a Festival or Evaluation (Gold – with distinction, Silver, Bronze) or (Outstanding, Excellent, Good), etc, the self-selected group can receive the same high classification. Evaluations are always helpful in assessing a group’s success and where they can improve.
A self-selected choir is the TREE TRUNK where all students exist and the BRANCHES represent the additional opportunities such as a select ensemble, solo recitals, all-counties, jazz choir, madrigals, barbershop, a-cappella groups, etc. Depending on the size and make-up of a school, there may be multiple self-selected ensembles. For example, there could be a men’s group and a women’s group followed by a mixed group. The key would be a progression from the unisex ensemble into the mixed ensemble that would come based on age, not based on being the best. Select ensembles can still have their place if they are appropriately viewed as additional.
The Choral Caste System has been in place in most high schools for a long time. The goal of this series of blogs it to bring about an awareness of what is really happening as a result of our program’s structure and to offer steps toward giving a truly rewarding choral experience to every student who is interested. Restructuring a program is never an easy task, but once that first big step is made, we have created a Choral Community where everyone has an equal opportunity to grow, be important, and feel accepted.