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Fitting Chorus Into a High School Schedule - How Do You Do It?

Dear Colleagues –
I work at an international boarding school whose daily schedule is death to performing ensembles like chorus.
Problem 1: It’s a small school (330), so the pool from which I can recruit singers is somewhat limited. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that about a third of the students are from cultures where such extroverted and exceedingly public means of personal expression as singing are not a natural part of a student’s makeup. There are many exceptions, of course, but it still means that a significant subset of our 330 students simply won’t go near chorus.
Problem 2: “Core” academic classes are scheduled every period, so any elective class (like chorus) is automatically competing with English, math, social studies, and science classes, no matter when it is offered. Furthermore, core academic classes are given priority in scheduling. Only after students have been assigned to their core classes can they look to see which electives happen to be offered during their few remaining unassigned periods. Because it’s a small school, many classes are only offered in one section. So, no matter when chorus is scheduled, a significant number of singers are not available because they’re scheduled for a “priority” class that is only offered at that time.
Problem 3: There is no traditional “after school” time during which we can rehearse; academic classes are scheduled straight through to 4:30pm, and dinner starts at 5:30. [Athletes are enrolled in a sports “class” that meets at the 3:20pm period, and then goes straight until dinner.]
Problem 4: Evenings are poor for rehearsal as well due to AP classes and study halls.  AP: The school offers a large number of AP classes, and at least half of my choristers take at least one. Every AP has at least one mandatory weekday evening meeting (Sunday through Thursday nights). No matter what evening I try to schedule a chorus rehearsal, a significant handful of singers can’t come because that’s when they’ve got AP. Also, individual teachers are increasingly scheduling their regular help sessions/study halls on specific pre-set weekday evenings, so if a student needs to see a specific teacher to do a make-up test, they are pushed to see that teacher at that time. If this conflicts with chorus, guess what usually wins?
Problem 5: Weekends aren’t great either – students have mandatory recreational activities many Friday nights, and will soon have mandatory rec on Saturdays as well. Sundays are fairly open, except that many of my singers are active in church through mid-afternoon, and some won’t come in on Sundays at all. Sunday nights we’re back to the AP/study hall schedule.
SO… thanks to all of these issues, my current chorus is just twelve singers strong. We meet once a week as a group, and also manage to fit in one men’s and one women’s sectional. And they’re great for the time we have, so the whole thing makes me sad.
Does anyone see any solutions here? Do any of you face similar challenges? I am hoping that some of you can share the strategies and solutions your school uses to facilitate enrollment in and regular meetings of performing groups. Thank you!
on November 23, 2013 8:28am
Hi Stuart,
I have a similar issue, and I teach at a private international school as well.  (Mine is not a boarding school, however.)  One of my biggest issues has to do with IB classes, which present similar issues to AP, in that they get preferential treatment by the school in all respects.  
The way I have dealt with this in this year is by having two morning rehearsals a week, before classes begin.  We meet twice a week for 45 minutes each.  It's not ideal, and it requires a sacrifice of time from me.  The student attendance is spotty, but we have still been able to learn decent repertoire for the concert.  I have 12 students in this group, and 8 students in my curricular HS class.  So combined they are 20, and sound quite good together.  
Another thing that has helped is having a choir field trip.  This year, I am taking 16 kids to NYC.  I have found this to be a great motivator for student attendance and enrollment.  
on November 23, 2013 12:32pm
It doesn't sound like there's a silver bullet solution to your challenges in terms of the scheduling. When do the school clubs meet? You might have to put together a non-curricular choir club (before school, during lunch, or whenever the students clubs typically meet) to involve the kids who can't fit it into their schedules, and then combine them for your concerts. Also, get on very good terms with the administrator who is in charge of setting the master schedule. Make sure he/she knows what kind of choir program you would like to build, and its potential benefits to the school (they might not have any idea). The administrator could have some helpful feedback as to the best time to schedule your choir class.
Beyond that, it seems like you've basically got the same kinds of recruitment issues that a lot of us have. Keep in mind that you aren't just recruiting students, but you are also recruiting administrators over to your cause. And like the recruitment of students, it is a multi-year process. If you want them to prioritize your ensemble more in the future, you need to be aggressive about getting your choir to be a highly visible and positive presence in the civic life of your school. Make your choir indispensible, and show the administration how a choir can be ambassadors of good will like no other group on campus. Make sure the kids do some caroling in the halls before your winter break, get them to sing at graduation, sports events, rallies, and if your school doesn't have an alma mater or any other traditional songs, make sure to write some (or get somebody to do it). Get your kids to write thank you cards to the administrators at the end of the year, thanking them for their support in building a choir program (do this even if they haven't been particularly supportive). Really create a buzz at your school.

The beautiful thing about a small school is that word of mouth goes a long way very quickly. The scheduling conflicts will never go away, you just need to build up your program so it is popular enough that you'll have good sized choirs nonetheless.
on November 24, 2013 12:28pm
I've heard of this problem, but can't comment directly, as I don't teach at the high school level.  However, before-school rehearsals might work, and may I recommend Rafe Esquith's inspiring book Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire ?   He's a Los Angeles inner city 6th grade teacher who gets kids to come in at 6 am for tutoring, guitar lessons, rehearsals for his annual Shakespeare production, etc. The latter, by the way, is performed unabridged and from memory, with  other students performing related rock classics on guitar at various points in the play.  He puts on a different play each year and has had world reknowned actors visit his students' productions.
The bigger question is why is any high school--especially those that claim to be "better" and have "higher" expectations--neglecting the arts??  Who are the theorists, reformers, administrators and board members who think like this, and how on earth did they get to be in such positions of irresponsibility?  And why is this tolerated by the supposedly concerned parents who send their children to these schools? Sounds to me like they all need to take a refresher course on the history and philosophy of education, going back to the Greeks.  
And-- with all respect, and with full knowledge of the inherent difficulties--it sounds like you need to find another job at a school that understands education better and values and appreciates what you do. 
on November 24, 2013 5:18pm
Hi Stuart,
I teach in a very small independent school grades 6-12.  The Upper School has approximately 115 students.  Our chorus meets twice a week as an elective for credit during the school day and this year, has 40 members.  All electives meet in a dedicated elective time. This is in spite of being a small college preparatory school with the standard requirements including AP offerings, and having a time every day that is devoted to mass, all within the hours of 7:50-3:00.  The choral program started a little rocky because the administration was reluctant to give chorus time during the school schedule.  However, there was strong interest in developing a music program and so it was made a priority.  I might have an advantage in that all middle school students are required to take music for a full three years (It doesn't sound like you have a middle school so you don't have that opportunity to build music into the culture.) After trying to have upper school chorus once during the school day and once after school each week and seeing how it put the students in conflict between sports and music, chorus was added to the list of electives during the school day.  I was lucky that I didn't have to convince admin of the value of a music education and now over time, the chorus is seen as a real asset to the school community.  In addition to regular concerts, we sing at the annual fundraising gala, have sung with the local community orchestra, travel (including Italy this year!) etc.  The parents are very enthusiastic about the music program.  Get as many parents behind you as possible.  Have your group sing at as many events as possible.  Advocate for music education with the administration and board.  I'm guessing you might have researched choir programs in the countries from which your students come, but if not, you might gain some insight.  Yes, you have a challenge, but it is not insurmountable. Believe in the wonderful work you are doing!  Hope this was at least a little bit helpful...
Best Regards,
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