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Expanding a music program: need advice (long message)

Setting: Small diocesan high school in a large midwestern city

The players: 400 urban & suburban teenagers; a principal willing to expand the music program; a long-time teacher’s aide/professional musician about to receive her teacher’s license in music

Current for-credit music courses:

  • Band (about 20 kids) -- marching band in fall/concert band after f’ball season (taught by excellent director who is in building 1 period 4x a week/remainder of time is migrating from one feeder school to another teaching middle school band)

  • Art & Music Appreciation re-named Art & Music in Unexpected Places, required for all 9th graders not in band (unique hands-on exploration of elements of art & music as parallel languages) -- which I am in my 3rd year of co-teaching (includes composing simple songs on iPad using GarageBand)

  • Occasionally, a semester-long choir class taught by the speech/theater teacher (not running this year)

Current extracurricular music programs:

  • Liturgical Schola & “Mini-Winds” -- 10 singers capable of easy SAB literature who sing for all-school worship services/Mass, accompanied by a varied number of student instrumentalists; and a few guitarists, when they remember to get up early for the weekly 7:30 before-school rehearsal    (At one time, this choir had upwards of 30 kids in it, when rehearsal was at the end of the school day and students could get out of the last 15 min of period 8 class -- but few students stayed after the bell, so I discontinued that practice.)

  • In previous years, there has been an effort on the part of the theater teacher to organize a show choir, but play/musical rehearsal schedules complicates this

  • A musical once a year -- usually of a size that would suggest there are plenty of kids in the school who can sing in harmony

Obstacles to establishing a choral program:

  • 8 period day with one REQUIRED study hall limits the number of electives students can take

  • High-achieving students (who are the majority of the kids involved in school musicals and in my liturgical schola) prefer to take quality-weighted AP and honors courses that elevate their GPA


The issue: I am awaiting credential review through an alternative licensure path and am poised to be a “real” music teacher. Although I had planned to go on the job market, one of my options is to dig in at this school and try to build something from the ground up. Principal would really like to see me full-time in the building and is willing to shell out state funds to buy equipment to make a variety of music-related courses possible. Principal has in mind that one option could be that choir would be a REQUIRED course for all 9th graders (am not a fan of this approach); she also would like to force the theology teachers to have me come in once or twice a month to all classes to get them to sing (I am totally on board with that but the theology faculty might not be). Principal wants me to survey the current 9th-11th grade students to see what they would be willing to add to their schedule if they were allowed to omit study hall or skip lunch. I have proposed:

  • mixed voice choir

  • show choir or a cappella choir

  • men’s glee/women’s glee club

  • music theory/composition

  • the wonderful world of 3-chord wonders (rudiments of guitar/bass/drums for contemporary songwriting)


AND FINALLY, THE QUESTION: What do you think? Anyone out there with experience in building a program out of almost nothing? I crave a mentor in this process…

Replies (3): Threaded | Chronological
on January 19, 2014 6:20pm
Well, you're asking a roomful of choral professionals, so....
I think your critical next step is to establish a for-credit choir class that meets during the school day.  No music program worth its salt has no choir (and the group that meets before school "when they remember to get up early" to sing in chapel--I don't count that as a real choir, as it has no level of commitment, and no defined educational purpose beyond leading worship in chapel.) 
As you are thinking this through, I would suggest you meet with your band colleague and brainstorm what the two of you would like to see happening in this music program in 10 years, 5 years, 2 years, etc.  Starting from "What would it look like if we had a complete and excellent music program?" (the end goal), you can work backwards and determine what are the necessary steps to get there.  
I am in the process of doing this with my band colleague right now, (and yes, we are both building from the ground up in programs that were run not just into the ground but below the ground) and we've narrowed down from "this is what we ultimately want to look like" to "here's what we should do in the next 3 years to get there" to "the very next thing we MUST do is..."   It's been very helpful for us--we are going to present our plan to our board next week, and I hope that the presentation of our sequential plan will give them a vision for funding our next steps.  We are not yet at the place where we can say "we have rebuilt our program,"  but we're well on our way, and if you want to email me, I'm happy to have conversation with you about what we're doing.
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on January 19, 2014 6:58pm
Thanks, Laura: Great advice. I will contact you by email to hear what you have done -- and will continue my conversation with my band colleague to develop a sequential plan to build excellence.
I do wish to correct an false impression my description left with you, however: the kids who have trouble remembering to show up for rehearsal are guitarists -- not my singers. I have a lovely, committed group of about 8-10 young men and women who have worked their way from timid unison toward simple SAB literature and an equally committed quartet of woodwind players who show up every week to rehearse accompaniments I score for them.
Thanks for taking the time. - pw-h
on January 20, 2014 3:12pm
Since you've got administration behind you, with promised funds toward your program building efforts, go for it.  You'll succeed in what you set out to do, it will more greatly benefit your professional development to build than to go somewhere else and maintain, and it will benefit the world more to have one more strong program come out of the woodwork.
This is exciting!
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