By Stuart Hunt
Among the necessary, and at the same time, egregious choices in which education (choral education in particular) presently finds itself, perhaps we have (necessarily) focused on the immediate, and, at our own peril, not looked far enough down the road. In our research, nowhere can we find this particular topic being significantly discussed. It affects all of the planning and “putting together” choral conductors do, with or without pandemic and curriculum adjustments. Following are some planning areas we need to attend to.
Consider the methods and means you “normally” employ to demonstrate to your incoming students for next year or in the next few years. Usually, we
- perform concerts for them
- invite them to our concerts
- send them printed or email information
- talk with colleagues about the students or singers they have and, perhaps, who they might recommend even if they are not currently singing
- other strategies
- lots of other strategies
- Do we actually know who we will have in our choirs when rehearsals resume?
- Do we know when we could hold auditions or enrollments?
- Can we engage with counselors or parents (if private school choirs)?
- If you conduct church or adult private or children’s’ choirs, what are your plans and what resources will you need?
Perhaps we’d better discuss this – as a profession.
Long-time conductor, composer, administrator, and publisher Kenneth Kraintz (ChoirMix.com) shares his concern:
“I have come to the realization that not all public schools (districts) in America are created equal. This is a very broad statement and one that can almost be taken for granted. However, there are some glaring similarities that make outstanding music programs regardless of location. A dedicated, knowledgeable instructor, supportive administration and parents, access to a wide variety of students, an adequate budget and good facilities all add up to a successful, high quality music program.
“Another glaring similarity is how quality music programs are quickly damaged, dismantled or done away with entirely. I’ve observed that it takes several years of consistent, quality instruction to build a strong music program. But it only takes one year (or less) to destroy what had gone on before. We are now facing one of those “years” that could potentially ruin quality music programs throughout the entire country.
“Having gone through nearly a year of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, we have an idea of what we have to endure before we can resume regular classroom routines. When we are finally able to return to face-to-face classroom activities and rehearsals, what will we have left? I sincerely wish we could just pick up where we left off and recent times would become a distant memory soon forgotten. However, I just don’t believe there is any possibility of that happening.
“When we do return to our schools, administrators will be faced with some very interesting scenarios. First will be a diminished budget because of the stress individual states will have gone through. Lost tax revenues, closed businesses, mass unemployment and strained parental support will all have a negative effect. It could easily be several years before these factors begin moderation. As we have known for decade after decade, when there is a financial crisis of any sort facing public schools, the “arts” are first to suffer the consequences. This is something we live with and quite frankly it has made us work harder and become more accountable.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and all its negative consequences could not have been imagined just a few short months ago. It is my fear that the aftermath of the pandemic, coupled with decreased revenue and expanded curricular demands in our schools could possibly be the death knell for many fine music programs nationwide.
“Second, any sign of weakness (like falling enrollment) could mean music teachers assigned to other areas of the curriculum, part-time contacts or even total music program elimination. With the rise of STEM and increased graduation requirements, secondary curricula are already stretched to the max. I strongly believe that now is the time to begin a rigorous plan of recruitment to ensure the continuation of our quality music programs.
“Third, recruitment for music programs is like food to the body, without it, you will shrivel and die. Quality music programs in our schools don’t just appear overnight. They are planned, nurtured and developed into a living entity. What keeps them alive is an active recruitment regimen that is maintained over a period of time. Because of the pandemic, this regimen has been interrupted and will need radical intervention to get back on course.
“Therefore, I strongly suggest that anything we do at this time to bolster interest, enrollment and participation in our music groups will have an immense impact on the future of our standing in the curriculum when this disruption ends. A positive, proactive approach is needed to ensure our music programs survive and flourish in the future.”
Steve Stevens, founder and conductor of the Columbia Choirs, is one of the most experienced conductors of community-based children’s choirs in the United States (https://columbiachoirs.org/). He posits:
“There is no question that the online choir experience for singers, conductors and accompanists pales drastically when compared to in-person rehearsals and performances. However, to survive and thrive through this we must forge ahead and adjust to this new, temporary reality and not give-in to the pressures to suspend rehearsals until medical authorities feel it is safe once again. What we do through this unfortunate situation will determine what our future holds or doesn’t hold.
“Why do we exist? What do we do beyond preparing for performance? This new, temporary reality of not meeting in person brings our purpose clearer focus This causes us to do a gut-check about who we are as choral educators. What are the needs of the singers we are mentoring? Are we leaning toward mentoring singer-performers or singer-musicians? Is the content of our online sessions able to hold our singers’ interest and inspire them to come back each time?
“I believe the best thing to ensure the continuance and growth of your community-based choirs (children, youth, adult) is to keep rehearsing and adjust our approach; inspire your current singers by continuing to forge ahead with more compact (1 hr.?) rehearsal sessions online using Zoom or your choice of platform. Our singers need the social interaction to continue building choir relationships and community. Use “singer profiles” where each week a designated singer uses a form designed to guide sharing his/her personal profile. This is for the purpose of getting to know each other and to find out what we have in common. In your online rehearsal sessions, you can use screen sharing for a variety of purposes; to continue to offer sight-singing melodies, sight-reading rhythms, use Kahoot as a fun way to reinforce what they are learning. In addition, add brief components in breakout sessions for section rehearsals and for instruction in composition, music history, mystery recordings, guided listening using a listening journal, guest seminars on vocal technique, and so on.
“In short, we can
- use focused content and a positive approach to inspire your current singers to want to continue and to invite their friends to join you
- auditions can be done online, too
- beef-up your website content to enthuse prospective members to want to join your choir in the future
- enhance your online presence…your website/webpage. Everything prospective members see (photos, graphics, colors), hear (performance recordings, testimonials) and experience is an indication of the quality of the experience you offer
“We must do more than hang-in-there! Let’s use this set-back as an opportunity to enhance our skills as a mentor-educator and add even more substantive content to our rehearsal sessions.”
Erik Ronning, of Western Washington University and the University of Washington, is also the 2018 winner of Stanwood, Washington’s Community Man of the Year award. He is in year 26 of conducting choirs at Stanwood High School and his church choir, as well as musicals.
“It goes without saying that these times are challenging for choral music programs, yet the arts are more important than ever. We indeed need to hang on and do our best with our circumstances in the here and now, but we also need to have our eyes on the post-COVID-19 landscape.
“Recruitment is the lifeblood of a choral music program. Many of the opportunities that we usually have to reach out to prospective students are not available at this time. However, there are many areas we can still be active to keep our programs strong. As we strive to recruit kids and remind administrators that are programs are essential, here are a few things to consider:
- Be a presence at your school in the ways you still can. Drop in to the office, even if you mostly run your online work from home. Stop by to talk with your administration and tell them how you are creatively handling your program.
- Continue to create content, or at least send out archived recordings. Our communities are starved for current events. I have found such a strong response to anything new that we send out.
- Our current students are almost always our best recruiters. Connect younger siblings to your program. Ask your students about who is not currently involved with the program that should be. Bring these conversations to the kids for their ideas.
- Connect with the broader community. If you’re doing any virtual choir work, find a piece that you might be able to reach out to do with your school singers, alumni, community, and/or church choirs. Then be sure as many people get hold of that material as possible.
“There is no substitute for having that freshman tenor standing next to the senior in class, but we can still need to find ways to reach out to that freshman in the ways that we still can. Blessings on your endeavors.”
Stuart Hunt (ToolsforConductors.com), now in his fiftieth year conducting public and private choirs, is passionate about music literacy and helping colleagues:
“As conductors, we expend enormous amounts of energy planning and detailing a list of important tasks and skills to provide and present choirs of artistic musicians who touch the hearts and souls of our audiences. Every presentation represents an invitation to others to join in our artistry and fun. Without significant technical expenditures of time and money, those presentations are on hold. It is critical we, as a profession, become proactive and craft cogent approaches to bridge this gap. Failure to realize the repercussions and failure to plan could easily engender truly drastic results in the short and long term. I do hope I am proved wrong, but many of our colleagues recognize that it is entirely possible that choirs may not sing together until September 2021. We all hope to move up the calendar start, but it may prove difficult to imagine starting in, perhaps, March or April, or what we would do at that stage.
“Fast-forward to September 2021:
- Who is in rehearsal?
- Who should be in rehearsal?
- What is the skill level of those in rehearsal?
- What level of music can they sing?
“Scary? As the picture becomes more real, we should be solving this together, because, well, no one will solve it for us.
To that end, our colleagues at Northwest ACDA (6 western states) have created an interactive web spot: https://www.nwacda.org/nn-discussionpost.
Please visit the site, offer concerns, solutions and comments. We can and must solve recruitment challenges together. Students win, we win.
Regarding those who might desire to sing, we will wonder about their
- previous choral experience
- ability to match pitch
- ability to read
- age or class year (freshman, sophomore, etc.)
- part (for balance)
- Tech skills to handle online rehearsing and part learning
- digital equipment (computers, smart phones, microphones, earphones)
What might be your
- seasonal plans?
- concert plans (or no concerts)?
- schools plan: Where will counselors and administration stand regarding support and solutions?
For your consideration: If we do not find / posit solutions, we tacitly give those solutions to others in the educational chain, and, likely, we may not be pleased at all with the outcomes. Therefore, it is our desire to make a point of contact available for interactive problem solving and ideas, as well as for further problems to consider. This is, we believe, already late and a significant cause for concern.
May we invite all to join in discussion? By collaborative communication and problem solving, we will, as a profession, have solutions to recommend to administrators, boards, and recruits. This challenge faces all those who depend on reaching new potential members.
Kenneth Kraintz, Steve Stevens, Erik Ronning, and Stuart Hunt