Chris LarsonLast year, our Wayzata School District presented the idea of the “growth mindset,” pioneered by education researcher and psychologist Carol Dweck. The growth mindset, as opposed to the fixed mindset, is one where students believe that their abilities can grow and intelligence can be developed. I began to think about my own teaching, and how I could challenge myself to be a better educator. Was I really giving every student an opportunity to become the best singer that they could be? My perspective changed, as I lived with the idea of the growth mindset for a while, and I began to wonder how I could challenge myself as a middle school choir teacher. I decided that I was ready for a professional stretch goal: I would submit an application for my Boys Select Choir to sing at the ACDA-MN State Convention.

Many colleagues of mine had been brave enough to lead the way, and I had seen the benefits for their students, as well as for them as professionals. My courage was bolstered when I thought of the email of encouragement that I had received from Dan LeJeune earlier last year. Dan had mentioned that I should consider auditioning my students for a convention performance. I had my doubts, which are not unique to me and my program, I’m sure. I teach middle school, where I see every student in grades 6-8, on a rotating schedule. Would my kids be ready that early in the year? They only meet together two or three times a week. Is that enough time to develop a performance that we can all be proud of?

I decided to audition my Boys Select Choir because I knew I had some real talent there. They were passionate about singing, and they chose to rehearse before school every Tuesday and Thursday morning for about a half hour. I also have witnessed the power of having boys singing together through my work as co-chair of the 7-8 All-State Honors Choir, and I knew that the boys would rise to the challenge of a performance so early in the year. We had just participated in a commissioning consortium through Graphite Publishing, and we had worked to prepare the piece by Martha Hill Duncan, “Step to the Fiddle.” We made a recording after school one day, and I submit the audition. The students demonstrated some great singing in the recorded performance, but much of my pride was in the fact that we were all consciously demonstrating the growth mindset: we challenged ourselves to improve, and as we pursued excellent singing, each student learned quite a bit through self-reflection, discussion, and repetition. We held each other to high standards, and it felt really good.

I received a phone call from Sue Zemlin on the last day of school as I was driving home, and she said that we were accepted to be a clinic choir for the 2015 State Convention! I was so excited to share that with our Select Choir boys, and I immediately began planning our repertoire. When I found out that Mark Johnson, director of the Minnesota Boychoir, was our clinician, I was thrilled. What a perfect match! We held auditions for our Boys Select Choir at the beginning of this school year, and I had some amazing treble voices. I decided that we would voice our choir as an SATB ensemble, and focus on featuring our boy sopranos, as well as our lower changing voices. There were fewer of them, but we had some strength in the low range that I was proud of.

With the State Convention performance as our goal, we worked hard to learn our parts and unify our ensemble singing. This was a challenge for us, since we had only seven weeks (fourteen half-hour rehearsals) to put together our three songs for the clinic performance. I had to put a lot of faith in my students, as they worked to achieve this goal. We added three after school rehearsals to make it happen, and they dedicated themselves to being there for each rehearsal, using their time wisely. Mark Johnson was kind enough to come in and listen to the students one morning, a couple weeks before the concert. Just having Mark speak to the students before the performance helped to solidify our goal. Mark shared how amazing it was for these students to be selected, and how they should be very proud of their accomplishments so far. We knew that we could aim high, and we were capable of great things.

As we discussed the clinic rubric we talked about our performance goals, such as excellent tone quality, clear and precise diction, and professional poise and posture. The categories in the rubric helped to focus our conversation on the many different pieces to an excellent performance. Our growth mindset helped us to focus on these categories, and we did not settle for anything less than excellent.

My high school colleague Jeff Dahl was kind enough to act as our “host/presider,” and he met us at the entrance to St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church on the day of our performance. He greeted our students warmly, escorted us to our homeroom, and introduced himself to our students. I had asked Jeff to be our “cheerleader,” and he played that role perfectly. As we settled in for a long day of rehearsal and preparation, he helped frame our minds around the change that we all would experience by the end of the day. “This day will change you,” he said. “Allow yourselves time to experience that change, and think about how you will become different people through this opportunity.” I could already see my students sitting up taller.

As the day went on, we rehearsed and polished our performance. Jeff acted as our “pre-clinic clinician,” and gave our students some great feedback. It was so helpful to have another voice during the day to tell my boys how to improve. He was not only our cheerleader, he was also another educator in the lives of these singers. We rehearsed one final time in the choir room in the lower level of the church, and we talked about all of the preparations that led to this performance. Our singers were excited and ready to demonstrate their hard work to Mark Johnson, the rest of the adjudicators, and the audience.

As we walked in to perform our music, I tried to be calm and present. It was a thrill to direct my boys in the sanctuary where I had seen so many other excellent performances. We sang some beautiful music, and then Mark worked with my students to develop clear entrances and open vowels, as well as to further our professional practice through excellent posture and focus. After our clinic performance, we were able to watch performances by Minneapolis Roosevelt High School and Blake Middle School Choristers. Since Dan LeJeune had been so influential in my life as an educator, it was an honor to perform in the same concert session as his choir. My students continue to talk about that concert, and how exciting it was to watch both choirs.

As we returned home to Wayzata and in the weeks following our convention performance, I saw a real change in my students. They believed that they were capable of singing any note with power, and could learn anything that I gave to them. Our preparations and focus on a growth mindset really prepared us for an excellent year. I am confident that they will continue to sing with excellence for the rest of their middle school careers, and in the years to come in the high school and beyond. I also experienced a real change in my own professional life, and I learned what it means to prepare students for excellent performances. It starts with the basics: tone, diction, interpretation, and posture. However, excellence isn’t the sum of its parts. Excellence is demonstrated performance after performance, and year after year. The growth mindset carries on with these singers, as they continue to strive for excellence in every area of their lives. I’m very thankful for this opportunity for myself and my students, and I would highly encourage all choral directors in Minnesota to keep the State Convention as a professional goal.