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When your choir dislikes a piece on your program

Greetings, fellow Choir Directors!
I'm a first-year high-school general music/choral director/everything-and-anything woman learning the ropes as a public school teacher in Maine. I have decided that a recent problem of mine would be worth posting for some helpful solutions, so here goes! Any feedback is encouraged and definitely appreciated.
My Chamber Choir is currently working on an A capella piece called Tenderly (arranged by Steve Zegree). They don't like it at all (which came as a surprise to me, considering the jazzy, highly-expressive nature of the text itself). Something to note: the harmonies are very tight...the style in which it is written does not lend much room for adjusting/finding pitches. That being said, we have been working diligently at correcting intonation in our effort to become independent of the piano (the tenor solo at the end has been consistently flat, the sopranos have a habit of coming in sharply when they have a high register section-solo).
Anyhow, my question for you, ChoralNet community, is: how do you combat this disinterest in a way that forces them to be expressive? (Trying to convince them that worthy ensemble skill-developing repertorie can also be enjoyable is proving to be pointless)
As stated above, any and all advice is appreciated. My real aim at this point is to move beyond the technical demands of the piece and get them to sing with conceptual interest/energy.
Replies (15): Threaded | Chronological
on May 1, 2014 3:06am
Have you got a good recording of the piece that you can play them? "You could sound this good" is a good motivator.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 2, 2014 8:45am
That's a fantastic idea. Itunes, here I come!
Originally there was a great video on youtube that I had come across with the exact arrangement...didn't access it for about a week or two and it has since been removed. A virtual quartet ("the Hi-Los" as they call themselves) has a youtube video of it, as well. Their rendition is IMO problematic for a few reasons... some "Hi-Lo" harmonies are different than our version, for starters. Although, it has occurred to me that I probably don't need to find an exact carbon copy of what we will be singing in the ensemble... just something similar enough to pique their interest and generate some ideas about style/delivery.
I'm willing to do whatever it takes to motivate these singers because they absolutely have the talent to pull it off. Thanks so much for the feedback!
on May 1, 2014 5:19am
First off, let me state that "Tenderly" is one of the best of the many fine songs from the "Great American Songbook" era, and Zegree's arrangement is top-notch.
With that said, based on my experiences with my college students in both small and large choirs (largely non-music majors), I find that most students nowadays have a great deal of trouble relating to the type of warm, gentle love portrayed in such songs - they have been desensitized by a current culture in which the subtler and more vulnerable aspects of love are minimized, esp. in the music they listen to. In an environment of "hooking up," the students wil treat these lyrics as if they were written by someone from another planet.
The fact that the music is also slow (which is absolutely essential to properly rendering the song) and SO "non-Pentatonix" (the a cappella group du jour) in style, is probably another negative in their minds.
My most recent experience with this was when I had my small a cappella choir learn "A Ditty" by Nils Lindberg. It is slow, with the wonderful, tender poem by Sir Philip Sidney ("My true love hath my heart") set to gorgeous often jazz-like harmonies. I fell in love with it based on an excellent recording by Musica Intima, and used that recording to hopefully inspire my singers as I was. Yet, many of them found it depressing(!!), which floored me, and nothing I offered to them in terms of explanations moved them to view the song in a more favorable light. While our concert performances of the song were satisfactory on a technical level, it's clear that their own opinions prevented them from moving up to a higher level of performance.
The fact that this is your first year at the school means that deeper student/teacher bonds have yet to take place in which they are willing to let their guard down and really trust you, your musical choices and the rationale behind them. A lot also depends on the student make-up - all it takes is for one or two of the dominant personalities in the group to like/dislike a song, and the rest will usually follow their lead. If you can change that to your advantage, then the rest will follow.
So, my advice? Do the song as well as they will allow for now (or if it's really unsatisfactory, drop it, and devote your efforts elsewhere), and move on. Maybe in a few years you can resurrect it with new students who will know you and your musical aesthetic better.
Best of luck!
Applauded by an audience of 2
on May 3, 2014 11:50am
"Tenderly" is SUCH a gem! I couldn't agree with you more on that statement. I fell in the love with its gentle, sweeping gestures (those harmony lines, those tender fermatas)... as for my ensemble, it doesn't seem to 'speak to them'. Recently, one of my sopranos told me it was "growing on her" and that felt like a personal victory.
You brought up a good point about the "non-Pentatonix"-ness (I'm no English teacher) of the piece.
I'm going to take your advice and do the song for now, wait to see if their opinion changes...then move on if nothing comes of my efforts!
The more they learn to trust me and get to know my teaching style, the more success we will have overall, as an ensemble.
Thanks so much for your advice! I appreciated it.
on May 1, 2014 7:08am
If they like 2 out of 3 pieces, or 3 out of 4, it's a win. Remind them that each person has their own individual taste, and for every piece of literature they don't like, there's someone on the other side of the room who does like it. This is a way more important life lesson than a musical one. Learning in any class needs to go on in spite of obstacles, (for example: " the teacher is boring," "I hate social studies.") Small issues cannot get in the way of growing as a musician or scholar or person. Of course, we know this as adults, and we hope we can impart this to our students. Best wishes.
Applauded by an audience of 5
on May 1, 2014 5:10pm
Maybe part of the reason they don't like it iis because it is just a bit beyond where they are at and they feel like they are beating their brains out and still don't sound very good.  Singers, like most everyone, need to feel that wonderful feeling of success and competence.  Maybe they have learned what they can from the song at this time and it would be wise to put it away for another day.  I have certainly brought  pieces that I have loved to my choir and over time realized that maybe it was just a bit too much for them,( and maybe for me too :)      it is great to try things that are a bit beyond, but a good idea to "let go"  if they are having to cllimb a hill that is just a tad too steep. 
Applauded by an audience of 3
on May 2, 2014 7:34am
I would suggest that, at root, there are a series of identifiable "problems" here, and they're worth listing:
1.  Nothing is so full of itself as an empty mind.  By that I mean, an individual who has "decided" (on what basis?) that something isn't worth doing will resist all efforts to inform them so that their "decision" is a truly fully developed and understanding one.  And, as we have all experienced (personally), nothing is so stubborn as the uninformed teen mind - "My mind is made up, do not confuse it with fact."
2.  Eileen's point is extremely valid - we are all asked at times to do something or go through something which seems utterly pointless and boring and....and yet, after a space of time, we realize we've learned something about it and from it. There have been threads here from teachers whose students want to do something "new" and "cool" and "modern" and, whatever - except that they do not understand that what they hear on the radio or iTunes or wherever is not transferable to a choral setting.  The main theme of the replies is:  "Deal with it, kids; even when you do something you don't like, you learn from it."  And if the only lesson they learn is that, sometimes, somebody who is in charge imposes tasks that are not personally satisfying - they're preparing themselves for the future, where we ALL encounter that.
3.  Teachers (as in Barbara's post) sometimes have to sigh and admit that something they love is not accomplishable at the moment or with this specific group.  It hurts to admit this; it seems like a slam on our own judgment.  It isn't - what WOULD be a slam is if you insisted on batting your head against the issue when it is clear and evident that forward movement on the piece isn't going to happen - no matter what.  That said, you need to continue to challenge them every step of the way - if not with one piece, then another which they may be able to begin to approach.  
4.  I think, as well, we have a tendency to want to reach the fullest realization of the meaning and intent of a piece of music.  That's not possible, not in a first reading; not necessarily in a fifteenth reading; not for everyone; not at the same time.  Sometimes, they have to consider that they are (in St. Paul's words) "looking in a glass darkly."  At some point, they will begin to gain a glimmer of the meaning and intensity of the piece.  Our job is to expose them to that possibility and, sometimes, to let that thought go after apparent "failure" - but someone in the room begins to capture a glimmer, even if the rest don't.  (This goes back, somewhat, to what I tell my church choirs:  "Remember, our job is to help one person take one step closer to God; if that happens, we've done our job - even if we don't know about it.")  That is a teacher's task and glory - to help one person take a step closer to fuller humanity.
5.  Finally, the culture works against us - in any endeavor where words and emotions are involved.  "Desensitization" is merely a more crafted word for "indifference."  I do not excuse the students (whose only excuse for looking at this stuff is that they don't know any better), but we do have to admit that the tacky, the downright horrible, the lewd, the exploitative elements in our society in the U. S. have engendered a sense of indifference - of not caring one way or another, because to care hurts - either in a good or a painful way - and the kids are told "you don't need to hurt."  (I was going to use a short but very strong response here, but I will limit it to...)  Utter nonsense.  This is our task, whether as teachers in a school or directors of musical organizations in the public or in the church.  Our mission is to go beyond the "safe" and to propose that to be fully human means to be vulnerable and caring and, indeed, risk hurt.  At age 15 or 16 that doesn't make a lot of sense - I mean, after all, Mom and Dad are protecting you every step of the way, so you must be so precious and so vulnerable that you can't afford to hurt, right?  Utter nonsense again. Adulthood, that much desired and feared state, involves the possibility of failure, and hurt - and joy, and glory.  But not if you watch TV a lot...
Bottom line:  Kids are owed our best efforts, and we are owed theirs.  Our best efforts are to teach them about the whole business of being human; theirs is to be open to the possibility they might start learning what it means.  Sometimes, the vehicles we choose to teach aren't perfect, and we have to put them to the side.  But we have to find others.
Applauded by an audience of 3
on May 3, 2014 5:25am
Good question and, as usual, thoughtful responses.  Although I certainly recognize the appearance of desensitization in our culture, I find that my high school students respond to intelligent texts that express deep emotion-although not always at first.
I had an interesting experience last year that may help.  A student, not one of my favorites at the time, announced that she TRULY disliked a piece- despite my rule that those sentiments be expressed to me in privately and not in front of others.  I asked her why and she hesitated before replying "It makes me feel stupid  when I can't pronounce the German."  This led to a very useful conversation with the group, in which we all learned some important things.
Find out why your students don't like the piece.  Insist that they articulate their reasons and encourage them to distinguish between their possible frustration, which can be legitimate, and their distaste for the text, the harmony etc. which is also legitimate.  Then decide whether it is a good time to ask them to trust you.
And rest assured that when you know them better and they know you better this will STILL happen but it will go a lot more smoothly.  Good luck and let us know what happens.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 3, 2014 12:41pm
Amen to all of your statements but especially #5.  Amen!! 
on May 3, 2014 11:58am
Thank you--everyone--for all of the helpful, been-there-done-that kind of advice I was looking for! This is such a gracious and welcoming's nice to know that I don't have to figure out all the "newbie" problems within our profession all by myself. They can never fully prepare you for real-life issues like mine when you're still an undergrad (which was not long ago, in my case!). I really appreciated all of the different perspectives on this thread drawn from the variety of personal experiences.
Best to all!!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 3, 2014 1:35pm
Seems that jazz is out these days.  My daughters, college and senior high school, scorn it.   They can take classical, or 'contemporary' a cappella (which goes all the way back to 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight') but jazz leaves them cold entirely.   Must be generational.
on May 4, 2014 5:52pm
Hi Leigh-Ashley"
We all have to go through that first year.  Hang in there, girl!  It gets better.
The first thing I would say is try not to give up on the piece, unless you feel singing it would not give your group the success they and you need at the moment.  
I have said many times, that even Rober Shaw could walk into your choir class, or in this case Steve Zegree and both would have to prove themselves to the choir.  As a first year teacher, you have not yet reached that point.  Five years from now you may pull out a piece that many may not like, but, that will be your choir and they will know and trust you and  will realize you  will still make them  sound good. 
Good luck,
Tom Council
on May 5, 2014 2:55am
Much of the negative feed back is because the returning students are still upset at the change in "their" choir with a new person.  Take a deep breath (or even a needed scotch) when you get home.
Recently, I did the classic Geographical Fugue with my advanced choir, and it was the most bushback I ever got in decades of using this piece.  I stood my ground, even played recordings of other HS choirs doing the work.  Still, we went into the concert with many "unsure".  When, after the audience went crazy and they had the chance to hear thier own performance, the kids were convinced it was great.
Such is the joy of working with teens.  And it the end, getting the ears to open IS a major part of the process.  My advice, present the music you think they will come to love and never let an insurrection or 2 or 3 or so stop you.  After 4 decades all I can say is that this is a sin of youth.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 5, 2014 12:22pm
How about giving it a different approach while teaching it? Having the kids walk the rhtyhms in a graceful manner to feel the phrasing, find a stairwell or someplace that echoes and let them sing it in there?  Challenge them to sing in quartets, talk to them about the level of maturity it takes to sing a piece such as this. It is a beautiful arrangement....maybe take a step backard and try Kirby Shaw's When I fall in love...infinitely easier... same idea. Get away from the piano. It ultimately will build their confidence and help solve intonation issues. Especially if they move...Basically, think outside the box with the way you are teaching it so they feel special while they are learning it. You would be surprised at the results.

on May 13, 2014 6:46am
I have noticed that through the years, the students are trusting my choices more and more. I do give them opportunities to choose their own repertoire, and we end the year with a pops concert, so I am able to ask them to trust my judgment about non-familiar repertoire. Every year there are those pieces that they aren't exactly loving learning, often it's a motet, an opera chorus, or something else in a foreign language. Yet after they take the time and energy to get those pieces up to performance level, it is inevitable that they end up enjoying and appreciating those pieces more than the Glee stuff that they thought they were going to enjoy more. As choral professionals we all understand perfectly well why something by Josquin des Prez is going to be more gratifying than music from Frozen. But with more and more experiences of the students coming out on the other end of the learning curve, I am able to point to these experiences where they didn't like something at first, when they were slogging through the process of learning it, but ended up loving the piece. If I hear grumbling (which I hear less and less) I'll say "yeah that's exactly what you said about Veni Veni Emmanuel, remember?" It's more than just an "I told you so," it's a reminder that the payoff comes later, and that they will come to love the piece if they have a good attitude and put the work in.
I realize this doesn't help you with your immediate situation, but it is something to keep in mind over the next few years as you build up your credibility with your singers.
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