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Fostering a love for traditional and classical choral music

I was hoping we could start a discussion on developing and fostering a love for traditional and classical choral music in our young people. I don't think I am alone when I say my students are almost exclusively interested in pop music and roll their eyes and sigh when I present them with a beautiful piece of traditional choral music. They couldn't look more bored and getting them to invest in it is like puling teeth. I have no problem with pop and jazz music, but it saddens me that the students don't see the beauty, excitment, and fun in choral music. As I choose repertoire I find myself trying to "please them". While I don't want to spend the semester pulling teeth, I want them to see how rewarding and wonderful this music can be. Has anyone had success in expanding their student's musical horizon's?
on September 8, 2013 7:43am
There are probably a lot of opinions on this – none of them definitive – so here’s mine. In a nutshell: The best way to foster a love for virtually anything, worthwhile or not, is to “start young”.
Recently, I had the privilege of holding workshops with two fine, well-established children’s choirs in preparation for choral works that I would be writing for them. What really struck me about both of these choirs was that they were the ‘final’ or ‘top’ stage in a sequence of several levels the first one of which, known in one choir as the ‘Preparatory Choir’, accepts children as young as 5 or 6. In this particular choir the young singers then move through three levels of Training Choirs levels eventually reaching the main choir which itself includes several subgroups, including a Touring Choir. I believe there are mentoring programs in both choirs, where older singers mentor younger ones and of course all sorts of life’s lessons are learned in such situations.
Most importantly, all along the way the singers are introduced to fine choral music. Of course these singers, probably to a person, listen to popular music; this can hardly be avoided save on a desert island, but even there the airwaves are crammed with every conceivable sound. Anyway, who would really want to avoid it? It is part of our culture. However, these younger and older singers are well buffered by almost a lifetime of music that satisfies the soul (let’s just put it that way!) and this surely carries into adulthood. I know there are many fine children's choirs which have similar programs.
It almost goes without saying that the youngest children must be taught by the same best music teachers and conductors ­ concerned people with experience and vision ­ as the oldest children. Yes, one teaches ‘music’, but the most effective teachers inculcate through music. It is almost futile, I believe, to think one can all of a sudden introduce adolescents to ‘music for the soul’ and have them swallow it hook line and sinker. The progression, which I mentioned above, is surely adaptable to schools and out-of-school choral programs (community, church…) in small towns through our largest cities. It takes foresight, insight, patience, love, and faith in the human spirit.
It can be done– one small, precious step at a time. There is no easy fix except: "start young"!
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on September 8, 2013 9:26am
I'm so glad you raised this question.  I think the solution lies in the music we choose.  I teach high school students and I tend to avoid contemporary pop and jazz altogether.  I am careful to choose classical repertoire that is challenging but not too difficult.  In the beginning, years ago, students complained either about the style of music, or singing in Latin etc., or the religious text.  Now that is not a problem.  They know what to expect and they ultimately love the sound they produce.  The music speaks for itself.  I work hard to make it fun to learn.  For balance, we sing world music selections, beautiful folk song arrangements and occasionally a musical comedy medley.  The Stephen Hatfield pieces are usually very successful.  Last spring we learned a wonderful arrangement of Misty Mountain from the film The Hobbit.  It was very difficult for this group, but a big success.
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on September 8, 2013 11:20am
As I was contemplating this I was thinking many of the same things. I have the fortune of teaching 4k-12 vocal music and it dawned on me the importance of starting them young. I have the privilage (and the responsiblity) to introduce them to music they aren't familar with. It is vital that we remember Rome wasn't built in a day and it may take a few years to get the students to a place where they are able to appreciate this music. Katharine, I was encouraged to hear that you were initially met with resistance but are seeing some positive changes. 
Does anyone have any repertoire that you would reccommend for a group of students who is just being introduced to traditional choral music and it also at the beginning of their music reading journey? I am structuring my choral program differently this year with an emphasis on teaching music to foster more independant musicians and less emphasis on learning X amount of music for a concert. I am looking for that repertoire that will allow for just enough challenge so that they can learn and not too much that they get overwhelmed. 
on September 9, 2013 7:51am
As other posters have wisely alluded to:
Allowing the excitment in your own voice, tell them why a specific piece or passage excites you; "Do you hear the building in this chord progression?  What do you suppose [Beethoven/Mozart/Bach Josquin]  was thinking/feeling here?"
Remember that teens don't always complain about the things they truly don't like - but their peers expect them to complain!  (It has been, unfortunately, a *fashion for far too long. ;/ ) Due to various conventions, they can't always complain to their parents, teachers, peers when they'd actually want to.  Complaining about classic music makes "me look cool", and "gets me attention".  It is also a way of saying, "Hey, teacher, I know how to sing pop/jazz 'cause I hear it frequently, and I sort of understand that it has more flexibility/improvization/room for individual interpretation.  But classics have such specific expectations - they are for the highly-trained and knowledgeable like you.  Help me to understand and do this well.  I don't want to sound like an uneducated "bumpkin" singing Handel."
(Years ago) Personal story:
My youth choir was working on Pitoni's "Cantate Domino".  Yes, difficult for rural youth with no backgroudn in Latin, harmony, etc.  "Randy" got so frustrated that he said, "I hate this music!" and dashed the octavo to the floor.  Something told me to not respond in anger, but to gently/positively share how my high school used this piece - because it was so [light, acapella] "portable" - to serenade friends in the college dorms when we would do visitation tours.  Randy relaxed; they all grew to love the piece with it's syncopation, imitation, overlapping parts.  Later I found out that Randy's parents  - the day he threw the music down - had just announced plans to divorce.  I think we all understand what he really "hated" and what he was trying to "throw down".  The frustration of reading new music and Latin were a catalyst, though.
* there are students who are refreshingly enthusiastic, and acapella groups are soaring in popularity, esp. at large colleges.  Try to get those students to share why they like it.
Try getting them to sing it on "do-wop" syllables - "da nyoo be da nya.."  the "ny" before the vowel helps to glide the tone forward - success! :)  While you work with one section, say, tenors, the other sections (sab) can sing it on a light staccato "di '( dee) or nee - cleans up the parts and keeps them interested.
on September 9, 2013 4:28pm
My only experience is on the other side of things-- as a high school choir student, but I believe it brings valid advice. I believe from my experience, that kids will love whatever music they sing together IF there is a positive/ bonding experience to go along with it. Choir retreats, concert experiences, singing in the school stairways during class time etc. All of these made me associate certain pieces with very strong emotional highs and ties to my friends and directors. Is there a composer in the area that wrote one of the pieces? Try to get him or her to stop by. The buzz in the air will help them bond and create that memory as they sing it. Is there an area of the school where the accoustics produce an etherial or echoing effect? Try a classical piece there--squish them into a small space and make them sing Do na nobis pacem or some other exercise that sounds 'cool.' Can they plan a flash mob in the school cafeteria with their favorite piece? Or sing through their repertoire at a nursing home? IF singing 'Simple Gifts' makes them cringe, plan a rehearsal with a $5 gift exchange. It may rob a few minutes of valuable rehearsal time but will produce bonding memories to go along with the music and help them sing better.
That's my 2 cents based on my own experiences. I did not like every piece but I loved the friends I sang them with and the experiences with them. That alone made me enthusiastic. Cheers!
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