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Choral Elitism

Michael Sellheim

 

Michael Sellheim

Michael Sellheim

Greetings from Central Minnesota. As I am writing my first article for ACDA of Minnesota, we are on tap to receive even more snow in the month of April! I am so ready for Spring! Hurry up!!

The theme for this issue is “Thinking Outside the Box,” and I’m sure we’ll have many different articles and hopefully one that will ignite some deeper thinking by our ACDA members. Interestingly enough, I came across a short post in a Facebook forum that I subscribe to. It was written by Chris Maunu who teaches at Arvada West High School in Colorado.

The post deals mostly about his idea of “Choral Elitism”. Here is his post:


I have been a high school choral director for over 11 years. The last decade has been filled with many beautiful moments, wonderful music, and even some students who have learned a few things. There is another constant, however, that has a less than positive edge to it. Many of my years have been spent second-guessing myself, wondering if I’m good enough, comparing myself to others, and suffering imposter syndrome. Much of my journey in working to get over that in recent years has involved recognizing my own innate insecurities. However, there is something else going on in Colorado and the United States choral landscape in general – choral elitism. I couldn’t put my finger on it in those early years, but as I look back on it, elitism was at the core of a lot of my anxiety. Here are some things that weren’t specifically said to me, but I felt…

“I’m better than you because my choir is performing at this level and your choir is not.” “If your choir isn’t performing at a certain level, you aren’t as valuable to the profession.” “If you aren’t the best, you are nothing.”

Perhaps I will be dismissed as just being an overly sensitive director. However, I have overhears and even been a part of the post concert reactions/discussions at festivals, CMEA conferences, and ACDA conferences. I am not immune. I am just as guilty as anyone else. What is said often comes from an elitist perspective. There is no denying it. This is a real thing. Last year’s National ACDA, for example, was a hotbed for some of the most pretentious/elitist conversations I’ve ever heard. This has been going on for a long time in our field and it’s passed down from one generation of choral directors to the next.

I believe that two questions should be addressed. What is the problem with this? And what do we do about it?

What is the problem with choral elitism? Directing choirs is an incredibly vulnerable thing. We have to put ourselves and our kids out there in order to grow our programs and improve our craft. We should receive authentic feedback from trusted professionals as often as possible, self-evaluate performance videos and recordings, and soak up as much knowledge as we can from experts in the field and shape those tools to best fit our teaching personality. The problem is that putting our kids out there in front of our colleagues is scary. Sharing our work is scary. If someone walks out on stage not feeling as if their work isn’t valued, it not only harms the director, but it harms the students. If we are not lifting each other up, it can destroy the confidence needed for teachers to truly hit their stride. And what we are modeling for our students? They pick up on elitism as much as adults, but their self-confidence is even more fragile. We can miss out on an opportunity to teach a very important life skill to students at this crucial age. There are many other issues to bring up, but this article doesn’t have the room.

What do we do about it? I can’t pretend to have the tools to single-handedly solve a deeply embedded problem, but I think there are some simple things we can do. First, there is room for greatness from all of us in the field! We don’t have to be threatened by someone else’s success. Seeing someone’s work should be celebrated – every time! Second, our world needs to know what we are doing. SHARE SHARE SHARE…all of it! Share videos and recordings of your kiddos on social media. Post successes of all kinds. This does not have to be an award, it can be a beautiful letter a student wrote you, a great fall concert, or even getting everyone in your men’s chorus to match pitch for the first time! And for goodness sake, make a positive comment when you see someone has shared something. It was likely really vulnerable for them to do it and they need to be lifted up and given some affirmation. Lastly, allow yourself to listen to your colleagues performances with a critical ear, but also keep a mind and ear out for things that are being done well. Approach them after and highlight those good things. When talking with your colleague about it, bring up some elements of the performance. Chances are they are well aware of what didn’t go well. Let’s not deny it – we ALL need to hear some positive cognition when we put ourselves out there.

Choir is a beautiful thing everyone. Maybe one of the most beautiful things amongst the negativity in our world. Let’s do all we can to make it more beautiful. Peace everyone.

Last year I tried to make a personal commitment to stay positive when talking to other directors about their programs. I don’t know where the director started with his singers, or if this is a year with lots of talent or not as much. I don’t know if there are extenuating circumstances affecting this performance. The truth is we really don’t know unless we have honest conversations with each other. Hopefully as members of ACDA MN we can feel confident in having those courageous conversations with each other. I’ve had many of them during summer dialogue and sometimes they don’t even involve choir! I look forward to meeting more of you this summer and connecting with members in my district! Enjoy the end of your school year!

 

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