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Choral Priorities: What Really Matters?by Judy Bowers, Florida State University Editor’s Note: This article appears as one of a series written especially for Ala Breve by experts in the field of music education.

For professional choral musicians, the good news is that every year we increase professional knowledge of how to best teach and conduct our choirs. This is also the bad news, however, as it requires a time investment to learn about and possibly implement new methods and materials. Often new knowledge is gleaned from the music education research community, or highly successful practitioners, or composers and publishers who provide new music options, or graduate study, etc.


question then becomes: How can we best disseminate new information so that teacher/conductors can make informed decisions and perhaps prioritize what is most important? Complicating the process of defining priorities is that they may very well differ among schools, dependent on variables which impact student learning and success: student population demographics, school size and infrastructure, administrative and parental support, available funding, etc. The purpose of this paper is to provide some suggestions for prioritizing those things that have strong impact on teacher and student success in middle and high school programs that include developmental groups, those just learning to become choral performers.

Music Pedagogical Knowledge/Content Research activity among choral scholars has lagged behind other musical and pedagogical research for several decades; however, within the last 15-20 years, choral research activity has greatly increased. Information on a wide array of choral topics is readily available electronically, reflecting a breadth and depth of study.

As young teachers prepare for

careers in choral music and pedagogy, they likely enter knowing the professional current “best practice” gleaned from their university curricula. Such topics as teacher effectiveness, strategies for establishing instructional pace in rehearsal (a great deterrent for classroom management problems), vocal pedagogy methods that contribute to healthy vocal training, programs that develop students (such as leadership development), specialized training to embed critical thinking instruction into rehearsals, teacher leadership development that supports professional participation, creating competence in teaching


students to perform expressively, new methods for attaching musical learning to performance activity (concepts, skills, etc.), as well as and many other important topics. Teachers not recently graduated may lack some of this training, and could be at a disadvantage when functioning within a school environment built around current knowledge and practice.

Thus, it seems important to

provide opportunities for professional growth, perhaps even above and beyond typical district in-service programs. Staying current in any field is a lifelong challenge, and teaching choral music is no exception. It is not enough to acknowledge that new information exists just because it is found in scholarly music research journals that all can access. It is unrealistic, however, to assume that music teachers will independently find this needed information—-let’s not forget that dragging home after a long teaching day probably does not lead to reading music research journals until 2:00 am. If true dissemination is desired, then some method of delivering knowledge and training to teacher/conductors is required beyond just suggesting particular journals to read.

The phrase “Don’t try this at home”, often used in television commercials involving some daring deed, suggests that a specific, controlled environment is required for safely accomplishing said task. In the case of choral teachers remaining fresh via learning new teaching knowledge and practices, I believe similarity exists: there must be a safe, nurturing environment to successfully acquire new pedagogy.

Perhaps a “translator” to

connect research findings with busy teachers might support success. Such things as earning a graduate degree, taking a single graduate class or summer workshop, attending professional conferences with carefully targeted sessions aimed at new information, or any other opportunity that provides a specialist to inform, encourage, and perhaps inspire is likely a helpful choice. This means money, if a school district is not supporting the event, but it is money well spent. Consider it an investment in yourself, and we are all worth it. The following text offers guidance for (1) choosing repertoire that enhances the probable

success of singers who are novice, or who just lack experience, training, or exceptional ability, and (2) creating a possible strategy for empowering novice choral students to sing expressively.

Repertoire Selection (Bowers, 2008) Structuring successful learning environments has been a prominent topic in for several decades, and Madsen & Kuhn (1994) have long recommended an 80/20 success ratio between achievable and challenging tasks. This ratio implies students should achieve success approximately 80 percent of the time, but 20 percent of the task should represent a challenge. The 80/20 ratio links directly to motivation, because if a student succeeds too often (tasks are too easy) or fails too often (tasks are too challenging), they can become bored, or lose interest and cease trying. Frequent success paired with occasional failure is one formula for maintaining high student engagement that can aid teachers in establishing a desired rehearsal environment. Literature selection for beginning middle/high school singers, however, may well be the number one variable affecting teacher success with developing choirs.

Repertoire must be accessible for singers to maintain a reasonable success rate. However, middle/high school developing singers often reject appropriate music taken from elementary school curricula that might seem childish or immature, so step one is that teachers must work to select age-appropriate singing material, even in the early stages of singing development. That being said, one elementary teaching strategy that should not be omitted with beginning singers who lack training and experience is the Independence Hierarchy (Bowers, 1999). Keeping students singing increases their engagement, supports well-paced rehearsal instruction, and serves to motivate when success is accomplished. The Independence Hierarchy structures sequenced, successive progress from unison singing through independently singing part songs (these often have identical rhythm and text, with difference occurring only among pitches—-this music is the hardest for developing singers to manage yet many

February/March 2015

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