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Section rehearsals for beginning choir

I am a pretty new teacher, having been an assistant choir director at the high school level for two years. This is my first year flying solo at the high school level, and I am not sure how to go about changing the dynamic of my beginning choir group.
This class is made up of 51 students, and while many are freshman, there are a few 11th grade students who have been in choir for 2 years already at the high school level. The previous director, it seems, had the students breaking up into sections for section rehearsals quite early in the year, and the MS director had them doing this, too. I don't believe these kids are at the maturity level or the musical level to go off on their own to learn their music. I need to teach them how to read music at a faster and more efficient rate first, and practice their group/ cooperation skills first before any of this can happen.
Upon entering choir, I think many of these students were under the impression that they would be allowed to 'do their own thing' about a week into choir, and I have not allowed them to do this. Some of the kids think I am babying them by not allowing them to do this, but they do not see the long-term effects yet. If I don't give them direction and we don't work well in a large group setting, they will not progress or work well in small group settings. They of course do not believe me because they don't know me
My fear is not that I am doing the wrong thing, but that because students don't trust me yet and many 'just don't like choir anymore,' that I will see a big number drop choir at the end of the semester (we are on a straight block schedule, so kids can get new schedules in January).
Any ideas on how to draw kids in and keep them in choir while also teaching them well and helping them see real progress throughout the semester? I mean I want kids in choir, but if they are just there to be friends with everyone then I might be OK if some of them dropped bad as that sounds :/
Thanks in advance!
on September 3, 2013 10:04am
Hi Leigh!
First, the issues you are facing are the same ones faced by every director at the beginning of their career! Know this; whatever you do is the right thing! Trust your training!
I'll handle the other issues you mentioned one at a time:
1) Sectionals - These CAN be a very helpful exercise if they are set up and executed in a careful manner. Give your students SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-Oriented) to accomplish during sectionals. For instance, you could say:
"We will now have sectionals for 15 minutes. During that time, each section is to work on measure 15-30 of the Allan Petker piece. You are working to improve intonation and tone. At the end of 15 minutes, everyone will come back together, and each section will sing for me. A grade will be assessed based on how well the section does on the elements you are working on."
What this does is sets very specific parameters for what they are to do during their sectional time, and it puts that "stick" there at the end to keep them honest. If they waste time and don't accomplish what they were supposed to, their grade will suffer. You can also tell them that if they can't work efficiently during sectionals, then sectionals will not happen in the future. This is their chance to prove to you whether or not they can handle it. If you give them this chance, that will start to build that trust. As the students grow as musicians, sectionals can become more and more specific.
2) Do not let them bully you with "the last director did this." It's ok for them to tell you that stuff, and it IS important for you to know it! You need to know where the students are so that you can go to them. By going to where they are, and leading them to where you want them to be, you're taking the steps to build that trust. You can't expect them to follow blindly! When they say things like, "Mrs. So-and-so did it this way," just say things like, "Thank you for letting me know that. It's very helpful to know what you've done in the past. I will take that into consideration. I am familiar with that practice, but I wasn't taught that way." Help them understand that there is more than one way to go about different things.
3) Not only do I not worry about losing numbers when starting at a new program, I EXPECT it! There are always going to be those students whom you just can't win over. You'll never be as good as their last teacher, in their eyes. That's ok. Don't lose heart. Focus on the students who are there, and who do what you ask, and who do trust you. In 2-3 years, through recruitment and retention, you won't be compared anymore, and YOU'RE way will be the "right way." 
4) Recuit young! Go to your feeder and recruit! Your freshmen and sophomores are the ones to focus on. Don't ignore the older kids, but understand that they're probably not going to totally buy in to your system and methods.
I hope this all helps! It was an excellent questions! 
Noah Cornelius
Central DeWitt High School
DeWitt, IA
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