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What is the deal with your Ridiculous Choir Rules?

I came across a post in a very prominent choral director’s Facebook group that asks:

“What are your simple, short rules that you post for choir?”

I wrote a few comments, but I felt like I was unintentionally offending some individuals with each response. It seems as if people thought it was effective to use humor within the classroom rules. Here are some real rehearsal “rules” our fellow choral educators in the 30,000+ member Facebook group posted:

  • don’t die
  • don’t be a jerk
  • don’t light the room on fire
  • don’t do anything dangerous
  • don’t fall on the floor
  • be respectful
  • ooze talent
  • be nice
  • make good choices

Humor First

The first few “rules” I listed above were probably intended to be lighthearted or comical, but they are still real rules that students are subjected to in their classrooms. In my opinion, those first 5 “rules” are insulting to our students and our profession for several reasons:

  1. They are stated in a negative manner
  2. They assume the worst of students
  3. They have nothing to do with the general flow of a rehearsal
  4. They take away the opportunity for real rules that could actually benefit the students

Humor is a wonderful tool in the classroom but it should not be the foundation of a learning environment.

General Rules and Subjectivity

The last four that I listed are ineffective due to their generality and subjectivity. If you cannot look at a situation and immediately, with no explanation or judgment, address it, your rule is ineffective.

“Ooze talent” is a beautiful vision but it is not a rule; “Be nice” is no different than telling someone to eat healthy.

Returning to the Facebook Choral Director’s Group

Since I’m so passionate about creating a safe and positive learning environment, I wanted to be helpful in this group discussion; I knew I couldn’t change the thought process of educators who believe rules like these are helpful, but I wanted to ensure that professionals who were in this group looking for help didn’t think those suggested “rules” were acceptable or useful in any way.

As a result, I decided to follow-up in the same group with my own post.

Here is what I wrote:

Rules (or guidelines) should be clear, specific, and framed positively.

I’m troubled by the amount of negative and sarcastic (or humorous) rules that are being listed, and also believe general rules like “be respectful” can be clarified with direct, non-subjective rules. We all want respect, but we get it by spelling out specific actions.

I believe we are here to help each other. Guidelines are essential to the function of any classroom or rehearsal. Keep it clear, specific, and positive!

I thought this post would encourage a more useful dialogue, but it quickly devolved into the similar responses. Even though this was my post, I still didn’t feel comfortable criticizing my colleagues when they chose to share what they do.

While the responses to my post were less snarky, many still missed the real importance of rules (or guidelines).

The purpose of having rules, or guidelines, is to create a safe environment where every student has an equal opportunity to learn.

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Safety is paramount. Safety for all comes from clarity of guidelines and an effective way to reinforce those guidelines.

Guidelines (or rules) should not be subjective. A rule like “make good decisions” does not clarify acceptable or unacceptable behaviors. If a discussion needs to be had in order to explain good and bad decisions, the guideline is too general. “Keep hands and feet to yourself”, for example, pinpoints a specific physical and emotional safety issue and requires no judgment call to reinforce, therefore it is an effective guideline.

A positive atmosphere is the next most important goal. This comes from framing our specific guidelines in a positive way. Students will respond favorably to rules through clarity and positive reinforcement; all guidelines can be stated positively. To turn this statement around, a positively stated guideline or expectation simply avoids words such as “NO, STOP, DON’T, etc”

Be respectful” is a subjective rule

Is “calling out” disrespectful? Is correcting a teacher’s error disrespectful? Is “helping your neighbor while the director is talking” disrespectful? I believe none of these situations are black and white; it all depends on the circumstance and the environment in the room. This is why “Be Respectful” is an unclear guideline.

If you want respect, first list all the actions that are disrespectful and ensure your specific, concise, and positively-stated guidelines encompass those actions or behaviors. Check out “Be Respectful” is a BAD REHEARSAL RULE!” for the process to eliminate disrespectful behavior.

“Being Respectful” may not be so subjective after all!

“Be respectful” is a subjective rule but the actions that we outline within our guidelines may create clarity in setting the expectation for respect.

There are clear actions that are respectful. Students raising their hand when they wish to speak is respectful. Saying “please” and “thank you” is respectful. Saying “have a nice day” when leaving a room is respectful. Following directions is respectful.

Some of the actions I mentioned above are indicative of respect but not necessarily part of any rehearsal guideline; these are merely actions that “respectful” students choose to do on a daily basis. Other listed actions are clear-cut and worthy of being encompassed as part of a guideline. “Follow directions the first time they are given” is a clear rule of respect just as “Raise your hand and wait to be acknowledged when you wish to speak.” Respectful people do this in a choral setting, and we can create the expectation for this to happen within our guidelines.

10 Things that will get you Respect:

I wrote a blog post that commented on this popular list; respect is the result of many things. The fundamental elements of respect can be reinforced through rehearsal guidelines, but many of the more nuanced levels of respect will come from a mixture of the atmosphere we’ve created in the classroom and each student’s individual desire to be successful within our class.

What’s with your ridiculous rules?

Guidelines are important. Make them important. Make them the core of your rehearsal. Use them to keep all of your students safe. Use them to ensure all students have an equal opportunity to learn. Keep guidelines positive so students feel good about themselves. Keep them specific and concise so there is clarity in every expectation.

Physical and emotional safety is not funny; it is a way to ALLOW other things to be funny and light-hearted. Those boundaries give the freedom for a class to take risks and be malleable.

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By | 2020-03-31T06:52:45-04:00 March 6th, 2020|Cultivating Choir Culture, First Rehearsals|

About the Author:

Adam Paltrowitz is a master educator, composer, conductor, and clinician. During his 23-year tenure as the Director of Choral Activities at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School in New York, his groups have toured throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States. He also has pioneered a philosophy that every student is a soloist. Adam's choral program has also gained great acclaim for the cultivation of eight student-run a-cappella ensembles; some of these ensembles have performed on national and local television programs. His compositions and arrangements have been performed by choirs around the world. Adam earned his B.S. in music education from New York University, M.A. in vocal pedagogy from Columbia University - Teacher's College, and Ed.M. choral conducting from Columbia University - Teacher's College. ​Adam resides in Manhattan with his wife, Blair Goldberg, a professional Broadway actress, and their daughter, Lyla, and son, Nolan.

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