As we dive headlong into the summer of 2023, we at YouthCUE have never observed a time when student choir directors seem more insecure than now.
It could be suggested that this June, July, and August will be the first “normal” summer since 2019. It has been four years, which means an entire generation of our young singers has moved from middle school completion to high school graduation during the pandemic meantime and recovery.
The four-year gap has created what feels like a washed-out bridge in our program momentum, musical development, recruiting, and retention of the relatively few students we have been fortunate enough to recruit since the pandemic began. Another way of saying it: the time since 2019 has inflicted a significant short circuit in the sustaining energy we as directors seek to generate and maintain through choral traditions and healthy program modeling. Many have said they feel as though they (we) are starting over … from scratch. And, in this case, “scratch” may be used as a verb as well as a noun … as in scratch and claw.
Whether we are actually back at square one or not, there are days when it may certainly feel that way.
As we directors stand on the pool’s edge of 2023 seeking the courage to take the first dive of the summer, we will do well to remember some utterly critical components in youth choir leadership, directives which are somewhat timeless and will be helpful reminders, not only for the summer, but also as we come back again in the fall.
1. Maintain a superb organization. A very high level of organization is required for any student choir success. It has never been more important than now that we present cogent, well-constructed, clear schedules and expectations, readily discernable and attractive, to both students and their parents.
2. Plan and calendar ASAP. As difficult as it might be during the rebooting times, we need to plan and calendar as far in the future as possible. This in itself is an enormous challenge in 2023, largely because family schedules tend to be more fluid and impulsive now than in 2019. And that very fact makes our advance planning and calendaring not only more difficult, but also more important.
3. Practice flexibility. Flexibility is a basic necessity and arguably now more important than ever. #3 may seem to negate #1 and #2, but the challenge for is to be strong enough to live in the constant tension between each of the first three directives.
4. Engage creativity. Programmatic creativity is a must. An entire book could be written on post-pandemic creativity for student choirs. Suffice it here to say that humdrum has always been the kiss of death for this age group, and it has never been truer than now.
5. Foster innovation. Innovation is paramount for program/ministry sustainability. We differentiate creativity and innovation by this nuance: Creativity might be described as fresh and timely touches added as distinctive touches, flourishes, refinements, and shadings to our ministry offerings. Innovation is more systemic, widespread, and all-encompassing … the design of the whole program is engineered with timely vision to powerfully impact the direction of the whole ministry model.
6. Reinforce the vision. The big-picture mission of the choir needs to be clear and constantly reinforced. Even when the mission is abundantly clear to the leadership, the communication of that vision to the students and parents continues to be a big job. I wonder how many students we lose out of our choirs because we have failed to communicate the big-picture vision and how it can impact the students’ lives in ways they cannot even imagine.
7. Provide uniqueness. To quote Mark Acker, “Give the students something they cannot get anywhere else.” This quote was first uttered at a YouthCUE Roundtable three decades ago (in 1993), and it continues to challenge us today to provide utterly unique offerings and opportunities for our students.
8. Remember what it was like to be 15. As student choir directors, we must always remember our own adolescence and what we needed and wanted in our teenage years. To lose touch with our own wonder years is to also lose touch with our students in 2023.
9. Model strong leadership, vulnerability, and approachability. This is a tall order for us leaders. Since our work is not only about the group but also about individual students with a huge range of personalities, reaching the hearts of the teenagers and becoming their friend is not a challenge for the faint of heart.
10. Initiate thoughtful collaboration. What does this mean? It means looking beyond the confines or our little groups to figure out ways to engage a larger community. And the chances are, if this is going to happen, it will be dependent upon us as directors to initiate those connections. Even the few of us who have 100+ singers in our student choirs need to look beyond our comfortable cocoons and lazy echo-chambers to engage a much bigger world of opportunity awaiting our groups. For those of us who date to think big enough, the blessings to be experienced are myriad.