Constructing Successful Student Choirs for the Second Quarter of the 21st Century

Part One – Daunting
Part Two – Beyond Mere Possibility
Part Three – Listening
Part Four – Leading
Part Five – Following
Part Six – Courage vs. Shyness
Part Seven – Collaborating
Part Eight – Goodbye to Me First
Part Nine – Choral Music … Much More Than Singing
Part Ten – Revealing Riches and Building Lives

As choral directors, we know full well the importance of teaching our choirs to listen.

Singers listening to the director
Working with volunteer choirs of all ages — children, teens, adults, and senior adults — sometimes the first “listening exercise” required is simply teaching the singers to listen to and hear the director. Younger groups will need to be taught this skill, but often adults can also grate on our nerves when, every time we stop the music, the singers begin yakking in small subgroups. Even if they are discussing the music, it is unnerving when we stop to make a musical improvement and, before we directors can even open our mouths to address the issue, the chatter is already at full throttle.

After all, fellowship, fun, and community conversation are benefits of being in a good choir, right?

Well, sure. Good times, exuberance, happy conversations, extemporaneous exchanges, expressions of friendship, and spontaneous comedy are all parts of the joy of a choral organization. However, a “let the good times roll” mindset in rehearsal is inconsistent — on multiple levels — with a productive, exhilarating rehearsal experience. While perhaps a barrel of monkeys, a three-ring circus will not provide profound satisfaction for anyone.

Directors listening to our singers
(hint … it’s about, but not limited to, just the choral sound)
Much more needs to be said and will be written in other YouthCUE settings regarding the characteristics of a great choral rehearsal in 2023. We will also chart paths for how directors can tee up our choirs for successful practices in the context of current culture. For now, let us simply communicate this: If the pervasive rehearsal atmosphere among the singers is that of a big party, then we have a problem begging for a solution. The same can be said for choirs who are way too uptight, intense to an extreme, terse, and overly rigid; they need to be adjusted as well. There are ditches on both sides of the rehearsal highway. It will necessitate consistent effort and ongoing sensitivity to strike and sustain the healthy balance.

But how? How do we achieve the productive balance between fun and intensity, between laughter and seriousness, between enjoyment and concentration? It all must begin with the director’s ears and eyes. We conductors must observe, perceive and discern what is actually going on in our rehearsals. We not only listen to the sounds the singers produce, but we also work diligently and sensitively to “see” and “hear” the unspoken needs that are often cries for help and pleas desperately seeking strong leadership. Deep down, every teenager wants a purpose greater than just themselves, a worthy all-in goal that will elevate their engagement and brighten their outlook on life. As conductors, we must remain constantly vigilant to ascertain the deeper meanings behind the choir’s behavior and overall vibe.

Once the director begins to assess the choir’s unique personality and disposition — and some of it will be perfectly obvious in the first five minutes (or less) — we can prescribe solutions and immediately begin to take action toward instant improvement.

Kindermusik and other specialized approaches have discovered the value of play in teaching music to preschoolers and children. Productive play needs to also be used with teenagers and adults. The playful approach must be highly intentional, well planned, and nowhere even near a free-for-all.

Back to the billion-dollar construction project
This is the third in a series of articles comparing major interstate highway construction to the building of a vibrant student choir. Let us now take another look at the billion-dollar project going on in northwest San Antonio connecting Interstate 10 with Loop 410.

Let me remind us that, at any given time of the day and throughout all hours of the night, there may be as many as 300 to 500 construction workers — specialists in their fields — in hard hats, running earth movers, cranes, dump trucks, jackhammers, setting up steel rebar, climbing the concrete towers, pouring concrete, stockpiling huge quantities of supplies and materials under existing bridges … the combination of these tasks is absolutely staggering in its complexity. The perplexing challenge of scheduling — the questions of when, where, how and with whom — is, as discussed in the first chapter, truly “daunting.”

Think about all the work and coordination required to move the project from groundbreaking to completion! What might be the result if none of those construction crews, team leaders, truckers bringing supplies from across the country, crane operators, subcontractors … if none of these people gave any attention to listening to each other and never developed any real respect for the communication process. In other words, what if nobody listened to anyone else?

What if 90% listened while 10% decided listening wasn’t important? What would happen if only 40% or 30% paid any attention to the communication? What if even 5% of the workers failed to listen to their fellow workers, supervisors, heads of their crews and forepersons of other task forces? What would be the result of that failure communicate?

It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out. It would be utter chaos. Confusion. A clown show. And very likely, the chaos, confusion, and clowning would eventually turn to carnage when, after the highway is opened, something turned out to be terribly wrong with the support systems of one of the flyovers towering 140 feet above the ground and stretching four lanes across three miles of bridges supported by those super-tall pillars. Whether a construction worker, a choral singer, an anesthesiologist, a teacher, a lawyer, a salesperson, an architect, a cashier, a professor, a research scientist, name the profession; failure to listen creates dumpster fires at best and tragic catastrophes at worst.

Everyone needs to learn the discipline of listening … hearing. The choral setting is a glorious opportunity and an open window perfect for imparting those exact skills to teenagers who may never be taught them anywhere else in their lives.

As choral artists given the honor of spending hours and hours with students, there is no more important lesson we can teach teens than how to listen … to the director, to their peers, their school teachers, their student ministers, to their parents and siblings, neighbors they have yet to meet, and their besties they may have known for years but have never heretofore really heard. When we actually teach the lessons and self-discipline of listening, we will not only find ourselves with greatly improved choirs, but we will also be developing world-class human beings, a new generation of highly capable and caring leaders.

Students listening to students and singers listening to singers
In the future, much more YouthCUE ink will be spilled as we more fully address the principles and nuances of equipping students with hearing ears.

Let us wrap it up for now with a short series of logical question regarding listening:

If students do not possess the ability — a learned skill for most, not an innate talent — to listen and focus on a message carefully crafted and lovingly communicated with them … if they simply cannot do that … then what does the future hold for that student or group of students? Is it logical to believe that these students will ever be able to sing well together if they cannot first close their mouths, be still, be quiet, and focus on something bigger than only themselves? The answer to that question is … absolutely not. They will not sing well until they first learn to listen and consider issues other than their own adolescent drive for fun.

If students do not learn to listen at some point in their high school years, how with that work out for them when they enter university life, or the military, or the work force? How will it work out for them when they become marriage partners? When they are parents? When they become leaders in community and parent organizations, homeowners associations, school boards, church committees?

Having come through our programs on our “watch,” if our students still fail to listen to one other, what are their likely futures as adults?

If highway construction crews were to fail to listen to one another, they would roll out to the population billion-dollar disasters, loaded with construction boobytraps and miscues with proverbial hammers cocked to kill those who are unfortunate enough to traverse the substandard freeways. Thank goodness there are required regular inspections, multi-matrix evaluations, and final approvals required to assure quality control. Should we be providing our teenagers anything less for the building of their lives?

Randy Edwards
Email Randy at [email protected]