Do ice-breakers really break the ice?
Ice-breakers are a great means to help a choir to bond; many can be fun, productive, and have positive results for our group.
But why don’t our groups take ice-breakers seriously? How can an ice-breaker appear to be fun while it’s happening yet have no long-term benefit to our ensemble? Why do some students love ice-breakers while others absolutely loathe them?
There are two main issues that are at the core of a successful ice-breaker:
- All students must feel safe
- All students must be willing to take emotional risks.
Caution: Not all students may feel safe during an ice-breaker
Here are two questions I pose:
- Has the entire classroom/rehearsal environment been set up to allow all students to feel comfortable while participating in an ice-breaker?
- Do the students who are not emotional risk-takers feel set-up to be emotionally successful during an ice-breaker?
Ice-breakers can, in fact, be harmful to individuals
In a typical choir, many students will love participating in an ice-breaker. Outgoing students and students who are looking for a break from singing may be really excited about an in-class ice-breaker. The issue lies with the students who aren’t extroverted and/or don’t socially fit in.
An ice-breaker may appear to be successful as it is occurring yet some students may be internally stressing out and feeling uncomfortable.
While we can’t read the minds of our students, if we look at the social cues of each student, not just the confident extroverts, we may notice that there are always a few students who may be struggling; there may appear to be some negative vibes around some students who are communicating their discomfort. But there may also be some students who appear perfectly normal on the outside while panicking on the inside throughout the entire activity.
I’m not suggesting we avoid ice-breakers; ice-breakers can be a great opportunity to build an ensemble. But if we are going to incorporate ice-breakers into our curriculum, I strongly recommend we address two specific things that should be done prior to introducing an ice-breaker.
1. Establishing a safe and positive learning environment
A safe and positive learning environment comes from establishing clear guidelines (rules) and continually reinforcing them. Guidelines must be clear, specific, and I highly recommend them being positive. I’ve outlined the approach in “Be Respectful” is a BAD REHEARSAL RULE!
Here are some examples of guidelines that are clear, specific, and positive:
- Follow directions the first time they are given
- Please keep your hands and feet to yourself
- Raise your hand and wait to be acknowledged before you speak
Here are some examples of poor rules that cannot be enforced, leading to a less safe and predictable environment.
- Be respectful
- Be kind
- Don’t do anything dangerous
- Don’t be disruptive
With guidelines that lack clarity and specificity, many introverted students will not feel safe on a daily basis. Again, we may never even notice how they feel because the extroverted students will usually dominate our environment.
A comment I frequently receive from other teachers is, “Wow, ‘Johnny’ is so confident in your class but they don’t ever participate in my class. It must be because they love to sing.” While this may be true in some instances, students are actively participating with ease in my class because they feel safe in the environment I’ve created for them.
2. Ensuring the Ice-Breaker is set up for all students to be socially accepted
Some students will be insecure, even if we have established a safe and positive learning environment. In many cases, social ice-breakers require students to individually take risks. This is a good thing as long as all students are set up for emotional success.
An ice-breaker should be constructed in a way where no students can fail or feel embarrassed. There are dozens and dozens of effective ice-breakers that could work in a rehearsal setting; the success of any ice-breaker depends more upon the predetermined learning environment, the proposed purpose of the ice-breaker, and the effectiveness of the leader who is administering the ice-breaker..
What I’d like to present here is a framework for ice-breakers; here are different approaches to choosing ice-breakers that allow for all students to be successful. Once you understand each concept, you can search the internet and find many ice-breakers that fit these concepts.
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Conceptual Ice-breaking framework:
1. Have ice-breakers self-contained within each section
By containing ice-breakers within a section, students can first connect in a smaller environment. The noise of the room (3 or 4 ice-breakers happening concurrently) mixed with no more than 15 students in each ice-breaker, makes for a less pressurized situation for more introverted students.
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2. Battle of the section ice-breakers
By breaking up into sections and having the sections compete with one other, groups of students work together; whether there is a section “leader” or the entire section works together on a task, all students will be in a position to feel accepted.
An example of an effective battle of the sections ice-breaker is: “You have 5 minutes to see how many things you have in common”. Then ask each section to shout out one thing off their list they have in common and check it off on the board. Only one section can claim each thing (so if the sopranos say they are all girls, the altos can not say that). At the end, the section with the most things in common “wins”.
3. Non-verbal ice-breakers
Some students have a fear of saying the wrong thing in front of their peers. There are many ice-breakers where students can communicate with each other without speaking. This requires one-on-one connections to occur without students having to speak at all. An example would be forming a circle in birthday order where nobody can speak. They must visually (without writing) communicate month and day, and then figure this out with numerous students in a one-on-one interaction until they are all aligned. When the circle is formed, everyone says their name and birthday.
4. Eyes-closed ice-breakers
When everyone’s eyes are closed, all participants can connect to one another in a different way. This is a great idea, even when singing a piece of music, as students frequently feel more connected to the ensemble. An example of an eyes-closed ice-breaker is asking the choir to count to 10 aloud, only one voice at a time. No student can speak more than once. Students must clearly and individually say each number. If two voices say the same number at the same time, the choir must start over again. When the group successfully counts to 10, the exercise can be expanded to 15 or 20. This exercise teaches the value of silence and everyone’s sense of belonging regardless of whether they choose to speak or just listen. When each individual reaches this collective goal, they will feel a big sense of accomplishment.
5. Multiple Right Answers
If you ask students questions that have no wrong answers, they will be less fearful to answer. It is great to have students get to know more about each other, and this type of activity allows students to get to know things about each other. Some basic “personal” questions where all students can feel successful :
- McDonalds or Burger King?
- Moes or Chipotle?
- Mets or Yankees? (We are NYers)
- Warm Weather or Cold Weather?
- Netflix or Hulu?
- Dogs or cats?
- Pets or babies?
- Piano or Guitar?
An example of using these questions in an ice-breaker would be having a big ball that has all of these questions. Students pass it around or throw it across the room and whoever catches it will look where their thumb, say their name, read the questions and give their personal answer. Everyone gets one turn with the ball.
6. Name and adjective
There are many forms of this idea, but basically, every student has their name and an adjective that begins with the same letter. Students can initially try to name all the previous students (and their adjective). When they can’t recall, the nameless student will provide a hint (maybe just their adjective). The adjective stays with each name all year as it could be a fun ice-breaking activity throughout the year. For example, “can a soprano volunteer name all altos” or “who thinks they can name every student and adjective in the entire class right now?”
After We Break the Ice…
We intend for our ice-breaker to open the door to a deeper connection within our ensemble; it should be our hope that, as a result, we have more focused and meaningful rehearsals. As a result, we can then share more unique and special musical moments within our ensemble. We should administer all ice-breakers with these long-term goals in mind. An ice-breaker without a long-term purpose is just a free period to not sing.