To Cell, or Not to Cell?

Michael Jeffrey

The theme for this issue of Star of the North is “Common Threads,” an exploration of the ways in which choral music brings people together. I think that as choral directors we are probably in agreement about the many ways choral music connects us, but perhaps we haven’t thought as much about what can help or hinder music’s ability to do that. So I thought I would consider another object associated with connection: cell phones.

I’ve been thinking a lot about cell phones over the past few years, as has nearly every choir director who works with kids, and this technology has been especially on my mind the past few weeks. With school starting, annual conversations around classroom expectations and procedures have come up, including the question of what to do with cell phones.

My band colleague attended a conference this fall and came back inspired by one of the speakers. She talked about how different the generation of kids we are teaching now is from earlier generations, how they’ve grown up with technology—cell phones in particular—in a way that many of us currently teaching did not. Cell phones are how our students feel connected now, and they are using their phones differently than many of us as well.

These differences in cell phone use were highlighted for me at a meeting last week in which another teacher described how he had taken students to the state fair and struggled to communicate effectively with them. He had tried Remind and texting and found that students did not consistently respond to either. Instead, he discovered that the only way they would respond was through Snapchat. My mind was blown! He described how students were ignoring text messages in the same way that I’ve ignored emails. While I have the little red icon over the mail app reminding me about hundreds of unread emails, students now have the little red icon over their messages app indicating unread texts.

It’s not the idea that students are all about social media, particularly Snapchat, that surprises me. It’s the idea that even a text message—something someone else theoretically wrote directly to them—isn’t important enough to read immediately anymore, while a fleeting snap is instead. There is so much to discuss about cell phones, apps, social media, etc., but let me begin to tie this all back to choral music.

The bottom line from my band colleague was that she wanted to do something different with phones in her room. Instead of banning them outright, she wanted to take an approach that respected where students are in their relationship with phones, so she worked with students to adopt a policy of appropriate use. Over the course of the last three weeks, instead of fighting battle after battle when cell phones appear during rehearsal, she has students taking responsibility for their cell phone use and making decisions about when to use them or not and holding one another accountable.

I’m not yet sure I agree completely with my colleague in terms of adopting the same policy. However, I have been deeply considering the underlying philosophy, and I’m inclined to agree on that. The students in my rehearsal are different from me in many ways by virtue of the generation in which they have grown up, and I believe it’s essential for me to make sure that my approach to choral rehearsals and choral music acknowledges those differences. This involves me understanding that they have different relationships with their phones than I do.

Choral music is a social activity by definition: it takes two or more to “choir.” We have to work together, and in working together we create and develop relationships: connections. Beyond that, there are opportunities to connect through the text, evidence that we physiologically sync up when we sing with one another, and so on. Choral music, and music in general, certainly does bring us together.

At the core of this article is the following question: if I consider the ways in which students today relate to their phones, then how do my classroom policies about cell phones enable or prevent choral music from actually bringing my choir together? To cell or not to cell?

As much as I would like to wrap up this article with a neat conclusion, I’m afraid that won’t be the case. On the one hand, I’ve seen how cell phones offer a constant distraction during rehearsal, preventing some kids from ever fully engaging because they receive a notification and simply cannot stay focused until they take care of it. On the other hand, I’ve seen how the relationship that some kids have with their phones prevents them from feeling secure and able to focus unless they have immediate access to the very device that may in turn distract them. In either case, I suspect the ability of choral music to bring people together would be hindered. Does my colleague’s solution solve this problem? I’m not sure we could say yet, but I do admire her radical thinking and willingness to approach her band rehearsal policies “out of the box.” If I want choral music to be able to continue to create common threads and connections, then I’ve realized I have to consider the relationship between my rehearsal environment and where my students are culturally, and perhaps that means taking a creative approach regarding another tool of connection: cell phones.

 

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