By Odell Zeigler
New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common. – John Locke
Have you ever gone along with the majority or followed a script and felt it was not something you should continue to do? Well, let me begin by saying that this blog isn’t about comparing non-urban to urban chorus programs, criticizing scripts, or rejecting conventional approaches to choral pedagogy because I subscribe to foundational principles, and have learned at great institutions like you, but I want to share my unconventional approach in the urban choral setting. This blog is intended for the new high school choral director in the urban setting.
I know some of you may be silently saying to yourself, “Children are children,” or similar. While this statement is true, I want to encourage each of you to think about the population you serve, and ask yourself, “What is best for this group or for my program?” Only you will know this answer. My post is based on my experience in urban education, so feel free to take what is helpful and discard the rest as you know what is truly appropriate for your program.
In graduate school I spent quality time in various chorus classrooms across the states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. I went above the allotted full-time credit hours so I could formulate independent studies to get a taste of what leading choruses in various communities looked like and felt like. I was able to observe and teach in each of these school districts. I learned and gained a lot, but I learned that no program operates exactly like another, and that some choral programs might operate completely in an unconventional manner. Rather than point to the overall barriers within urban education, I instead want to share a few issues for the new choral director that may be permeating through their urban choral program. Here are a few issues that choral leaders may face (these are not indicative of all urban chorus spaces and may apply to some who teach outside the urban space):
- Solfège (they may have always sung on words)
- Sheet music (they may have always been taught by rote without a score)
- Sight-reading (May be completely foreign)
- Maintaining an arched soft-palate (It feels weird to sing like this)
- Tongue placement (what is this?!)
- Classical literature (unfamiliar with the style overall)
These are just a few of the potential issues, but hopefully they will challenge us to reflect on our approach to the choral space in the urban setting. I know you have learned from a great institution; you may have attended several conferences, you have great books in your care written by choral legends, and so on. Fundamentally, however, you need to figure out how to handle situations when your singers come to choir with one or more of these challenges. You could jump right in and follow your script, your notes from your choral methods course, or utilize other conventional resources and approaches, but I want to encourage you to try the following:
- Build relationships (make it personal and not general)
- Music literacy (find fun ways to teach music literacy skills)
- Begin with rote teaching, if that is the method they are most familiar with
- Creative programing (collaborating with orchestra, band, dance, or theater)
- Ask for song suggestions (be careful here, you may choose one selection)
I believe one of the biggest goals is getting the students interested in singing choral music before we start trying to operate out of formality. How do we get students interested in something they are not familiar with? We know that buy-in is of utmost importance; definitely the new choral director entering into this environment.
As cliché as it sounds, relationship building would be number one on my list. As you know, students will always try their best to succeed in a space where they feel valued and connected. I do not want to give you a script (no pun intended) but I would suggest focusing on individual relationships, and being intentional about getting around to speak to different students before the bell rings, during breaks, after the closure of the lesson. Personally, I do not view general greetings such as “Good morning everyone,” or general questions such as, “How is everyone doing?” as being an impactful way to build solid relationships. Try to ask these questions to each student independently when you get a chance, and think of a few more casual conversation starters.
Secondly, I would suggest finding fun and creative ways to teach music literacy skills. If students were never taught to read music or challenged from a musical notation standpoint, then teaching it straight up may not yield the best results. As you are introducing a piece, you may not want to have them sing on solfège or a neutral syllable. Why? If they do not have strong reading skills, then they will not be successful. And, students will become bored and feel defeated because they are tasked to demonstrate a set of skills they still need to learn. There are many ways to incorporate the music literacy piece. It would be best if you had a dedicated segment focusing on music literacy (make it fun like a general music class). Let’s call it like it is: chorus is considered an elective at most high schools even though we do not like to view it as such. Students do not want to feel like they are in a music theory class. In essence, creating fun and energizing ways to teach music literacy will get them there eventually.
Briefly, rote teaching is a good thing. I think we often forget about “sound before symbols, rote before notes, ear before eye, etc.” We all know the pros and cons of rote teaching, so I won’t go down that street. If music literacy levels across the ensemble are low, then rote teaching is a good start.
Next, I would suggest thinking about creative programming. Students love collaborating with other students on the campus, and if you can find a piece that your chorus and orchestra or chorus and band can perform together, then that would be great and will get students more interested. I have done pieces where we used our school’s dance team and theater team at the same time, which was something unconventional to say the least, and it was electrifying, and students still talk about it till this day.
Lastly, and this is a bit tricky, I ask for song suggestions so that my students have some buy-in and feel they have a voice. If you ask, you should choose at least one. Here’s what I do: I look at the list of songs suggested and choose between three and five songs that I feel are appropriate and doable. Then I have the class vote to select ONE of those.
As I travel to different colleges or conferences to speak on this unconventional approach to teaching and learning, the question always arises, “What if the unconventional way does not work?” I typically chuckle before responding and explain that this approach is not supposed to replace the conventional or foundational way of teaching chorus, but it can be a jump-start to the conventional approach. Buy-in is important before we try to introduce something that may be completely foreign. Once students have bought in, they are ready to learn anything from you! They will certainly try their best!
Odell Zeigler, IV, is currently the choral director at Booker T. Washington High School (Academy of Visual & Performing Arts) in Norfolk, Virginia. He conducts the Concert Choir, Women’s Chorale, Men’s Chorus, and Mixed Chorus. An active clinician, and public speaker, Odell has presented music education workshops in Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, and South Dakota. Odell has also written for the Teaching Music Magazine (NAfME) and the Massachusetts Music Educator Journal. Odell is an active member of the American Choral Directors Association and the National Association for Music Education. Odell holds a B.A. (music & psychology) from North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, and holds an M.A.Ed. from the University of Rhode Island.