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Help! Instrumentalist dealing with attitudes

Hi everyone,
This is my second year as a choral music educator, having graduated from college with an emphasis on instrumental (mostly band) music. Last year I taught at a middle school, and this year, I'm teaching middle school AND high school in a district with a rather well-established program.

Middle school is great, and the high schoolers have been (for the most part) pretty welcoming. However, I have one girl who thinks she knows everything about music. Today, she raised her hand in the middle of class and asked, "When are you actually going to teach us about tone like Mr. Jones would? Half the people in here don't know how to sing and we sound like a bunch of 5-year-olds." True, I haven't sat them down and had a lecture about how to sing. It's a 9-12 choir, so there's a variety of abilities. We've been slowly learning our music by rote while reviewing/learning how to sight-read and use solfege for a small time everyday. When we sing, I often give demonstrations of how to use tall vowels, use enough space in the mouth, head voice vs. chest voice, etc. I figured we can fix tone as we go along, especially since we don't have a lot of time to learn the three pieces before the fall concert.

My question is this: is there something I should be telling them that I'm not? Should I actually sit them down and lecture about "good vocal technique?" Is there something I'm missing here? 
Please help!
Replies (11): Threaded | Chronological
on September 24, 2013 7:07pm
This is a very common problem for incoming directors into an established program. One effective tool is to have a one-on-one chat with this student: be warm and friendly, and acknowledge the strength of her background and possible leadership potential. But be very clear and firm as to your expectations regarding how she should express her concerns. What she did was inappropriate, and you can tell her this. Gently let her know that there are more effective ways for her to express her concerns, and that in the future you will expect her to come to you one on one rather than bringing things up in the rehearsal. In this conversation you might also ask her for specific suggestions regarding her concerns - "Jenny - you mentioned that you have concerns about the choir's tone, and that Mr. Jones had some good solutions for tone problems. What suggestions do you think he might have made in this particular case?" This gives her an opportunity to share her knowledge base, and gives you an opportunity to show that you are open to ideas, and that you have respect for your predecessor. 
As to addressing vocal technique as part of the choral rehearsal, yes, this is absolutely part of your job, but not as a lecture. You can gradually address various aspects of vocal technique through your warm up exercises. You can make this part of your curriculum - for example, spending time on breathing and support during the first few weeks of every season, then moving on to things such as resonance, posture, and so on as the season continues. From what you describe, it sounds like you are already doing this to some extent. 
Hang in there - I have been in your situation and I can tell you that it does get better.
Applauded by an audience of 7
on December 22, 2013 2:14pm
This is wonderful advice!  You can use it for your entire career!
Stay with it, you have what it takes!
on September 25, 2013 7:06am
Liz's sensitive reply to Heather is a good example of how ChoralNet can help all of us, young and, as an important reminder, old!
Ruth McKendree Treen
Cape Cod
on September 25, 2013 7:08am
I'd say Liz's advice is excellent.  
If you plan to continue teaching choir, IMO you will discover that choral/vocal pedagogy is more complicated than--or at least very different from--instrumental pedagogy.  (I grew up in band. It took me awhile to understand how different choral teaching is....)  Learning fingerings and having to read music before you can even play a note by no means ensures a good sound in a band, but those fundamentals do ensure that right notes (for the most part) are going to occur and that you don't have to continue monitoring that. As you know, choir students have no mechanical aids for conceiving pitch.  You have to teach them how to read (which can be great fun).  Until they can conceive pitches, their attention is divided and you probably won't hear good sound. If band students practice at least a bit, the teacher can assume that tone quality will at least be decent. In contrast, very little can be assumed with singers, not because they're "stupid", but everything about singing is largely internalized and takes longer to teach.  For a singer most of their "instrument" is hidden, from them and from the teacher.  Good singing depends more on breath management than does good playing.  (With singers there is no resistance to air flow, unlike that provided by most band instruments.) For a young singer it is very possible (and likely) that they will sing poorly and sound bad until they have learned and internalized ("embodied") decent vocal technique.  Rather immediately singers must habitualize singing with an open throat. Rather immediately they must learn how to use and to manage their breath.  (And again, daily reminders & rehearsal techniques.)  Rather immediately singers have to learn vowel awareness, which entails a combination of open throat and the outer shape (lips, tongue, jaw, etc.)  This requires daily teaching and constant monitoring (using your ears and eyes).  In time all this good singing technique becomes habitualized by singers, but the process takes longer (perhaps) than with band students.  It sounds like you are on top of some of the basic fundamentals of good singing.  Be reminded that young singers have to be reminded of these fundamentals daily (and in somewhat different & creative ways to avoid boredom).  And, as Liz said, lecture isn't the best way, rather guided practice with thoughtful rehearsal techniques.  If you sing fairly well, teacher modeling is perhaps the fastest way to teach many things.  (Have your best singers model for others; bring in an outside soloist. You'll be amazed at the immediacy of the change in your singers' sound.)  Excuse the length of my comments, but all this is to say that IMO you need to continue to learn, to listen to good choirs and maybe, depending upon how well you sing, to even take a few voice lessons (with a GOOD teacher).  There is also a wealth of good choral methods books which address good singing and creative rehearsal techniques. Lately, I've enjoyed Tim Seelig's books. (google them; I forget the publisher). It sounds like you're on the right track.  Best...
Applauded by an audience of 2
on December 19, 2013 4:50pm
God advice is never too lengthy, but what does IMO stand for?
on September 25, 2013 7:43am
I love what Liz said. My personality is very bubbly and passive-aggressively goofy. I use self-depriciation at times (for example: if I tell them it's an F, and one kid says isn't that a G? I say "I was just making sure you were paying attention..." In such a way that they know I'm kidding. Or, I have a tendency to trip over my own feet. I usually land or pose in a way that it looks like I meant to do it) I have responded to similar questions from student with "Do I look like Mr Jones? Do I sound like Mr Jones? Do I act like Mr Jones? Wait, I forgot, I'm NOT Mr. Jones! So, now we're doing it this way..." and I move on. (But not rudely - it's all in the delivery of keeping it humorous.) Then I would talk to her after class. I find that the high school kids respond well to this, and the ones who are not fighting to keep things the way they were agree with me and are glad that I said something.
Good luck! I'm glad most of them are on board.
on September 25, 2013 10:26am
I think that you can gain a lot of mileage when you find a way to incorporate student concerns/questions/needs into your teaching, no matter how annoyingly they are presented.  You may decide to make a list of any such items, and as you look into your plans in teaching, find the way that you think most works to introduce them.  For instance, in this case, there is no flaw in working on good choral tone while you are working on everyting else.  You can engage the students to listen to one another (half the class sing, the other half listen) during a few measures from a piece or during a warm-up, and see what they have to say about the quality of tone they hear.  They are taking ownership in the work of it, and at least one person has made the request for the work, so that is another level of ownership.  When you do someting like this, if you say "I would like to thank __________ for mentioning the use of technique, because you might not be aware of the way in which I am teaching you about technique."  You will get the kid on your side, most likely, and demonstrate your openness as a teacher without losing any respect for your work (I believe).
I think that middle school/high schoool kids love to have a "project" and one of those projects could surely be working toward better vocal production.  Maybe some kids would like to do a bit of research on vocal techniques and share with the class.  Or maybe you just bring from your store of knowledge some general principles and then implement them.  Maybe small groups of students would get together and sing for the class, demonstrating good vocal production.  
I don't think a lecture on technique is as useful as continued practice of it, and I also think that adding this skill incrementally is more effective than trying to get everyone up to speed after one demonstration.  
There are lots of people in this world like this child, and I have one of those currently, too.  One of my grad school teachers would deflect the pile-up of annoying questions by sitting down and playing something, which pretty well got our attention and reminded us why he was at the front of the room.  That may be harder for you to come by in this setting, but there might be something you can bring that gets the kids to go "Oh, yeah, she really knows her stuff."
Good luck!  It most certainly doeas get better!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 26, 2013 6:59am
Good suggestions, all!  To which I would add, Heather: if you decide to spend time focusing on tone and vocal production, use a demonstration rather than a lecture.  When you present a concept, you demonstrate it and then immediately have them do it.  They will stay more engaged and you'll know immediately whether or not they've gotten the concept.
Good luck, and I hope your "expert student" comes around.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 16, 2013 5:21pm
I just wanted to thank all of you who replied. It's been about a month since the incident, and she has calmed down quite a bit. In fact, as a senior, she's been coming up to me rather frequently to offer helpful (yet not pushy) advice about how they've run things in the past and has offered to help me with several logistical things. So, again, thank you for the advice! Things are definitely working out!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 21, 2013 5:48am
In my long career, I've replace 3 legendary choral directors in 3 middle schools.  In my first year, a child said out loud in class while I was teaching (and bombing, I might add), "You need to call Ms. Yokley up and ask her how to do this".  Wow.  For the student, a five minute phone call with the former teacher would solve all of the teaching ineptitude with which I walked into the classroom.  Nevermind that I walked into the room with a masters degree and lots of great training....and nevermind that I was already talking to Ms. Yokley daily about how to improve.
She made it look easy.  Why couldn't I?
It's hard to replace any teacher, but especially one that the students love.  The ideas above are excellent ones.  Just be patient with yourself.  Be patient with them. Everyone is adjusting.   Do what you do the way that works best for you.   Teach what you love to teach.  Continue to listen and learn, but don't beat yourself up.  You are going to get those comments for a year or so.  You will lose some children.  Don't take it personally.  
The ones who come in from now on will be "yours".  They will support you, and they will thrive under your technique.  
You are enough.   Know it.
Good luck!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 22, 2013 10:52am
Teach more, talk less.  When your students see your competence as a vocal coach, they will focus on the present and future, not the past.  You must then ask:
- what are my voice coaching skills?
- do you have a CLEAR picture of what you want them to sound like?
- what are you doing to TEACH sight reading?
If you keep them occupied with vocal improvement and growth as a team, when they begin feeling like this train is on track, other thoughts and distractions will disappear.
Stuart Hunt
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