Nancy Lee

Nancy Lee

As the new school year begins, I revisit the three major goals I have set for myself as a vocal music educator:

  1. Provide quality music that serves the students by sparking inquisitive and creative minds.
  2. Reach out to new students so the choral program reflects the school population.
  3. Provide a safe environment where students are able to participate in a healthy risk-taking community. These are not radical ideas, and I believe most choral music educators would agree they are worthy goals.  While there are more elements to a well-rounded curriculum, this article will focus on the aforementioned overriding goals and discuss example practices and policies that I have used to develop an inclusive choral program.

Goal #1: Provide quality music that serves the students by sparking inquisitive and creative minds.

The pursuit of quality literature can be accomplished in a variety of ways.  For example, having conversations with colleagues, attending reading sessions, perusing publishing company catalogues, and doing thematic Google and YouTube video searches. I’ve often been excited to discover a new piece of music through one of these methods, but sometimes after score analysis and rehearsal preparation, I find that the octavo is beyond my choir’s skill level. I’ve also had times when my students were unable to make a relatable connection to the text of a piece. What I failed to take into consideration in these moments was my goal: music must serve the students.  An octavo should present challenges, but it should not overwhelm singers to the point of frustration. Therefore, understanding the skill level and maturity of the students as well as the cultural climate of the school community are essential.  So what do we do when the literature available to us doesn’t serve the students in our choirs? What if we have 10 sopranos, 15 altos, 2 tenors, and 8 basses?  This is a very common scenario for emerging programs and smaller school communities.  The typical SATB or SAB octavo is inappropriate. In these situations I have rearranged quality music. For example, I add soprano 2 to the tenor part, which also empowers and supports the two brave tenors. Also, consider modulations so the ranges are suitable.  When the text and music hooks your students, rehearsals will be filled with rich inquiry and creativity energy.

Goal #2: Reach out to new students so the choral program reflects the school population.

Are your school demographics shifting? If not, they will at some point in the near future. If you are already witnessing the change, does the choir program represent the demographic shift of your school community? Who are the new faces?  What type of musical culture are they coming from? Having taught in diverse school communities for over twenty years, I can say that reaching out to immigrant and minority student populations has been, and continues to be, an exercise in challenges and opportunities. First, I question what can be done to bring these students into the choral program. Then I seek help from the larger community.  Secondly I ask, “What am I doing to prevent or discourage participation?” I do my best to change these barriers. Based on the fact that most Minnesota music educators have been trained in the European tradition, we teach what we know.  If the curriculum (music selected) doesn’t validate or reflect the life of a certain student population, they may not feel inclined to participate. For example, while teaching in Milwaukee Public Schools, a large number of my students were African-American and had experience in the gospel music tradition. Since I had no training in this style of choral music, I became the student and my students became the teachers. This is an example of a dialogical choral education program. Once the students saw my openness, willingness to learn, and respect for their culture, they were willing to take a chance on what I had to offer. Employing the skills and knowledge our students bring to class is key to developing a dynamic program. This is also a practice that will attract new student populations to join a choral program.

Goal #3: Provide a safe environment where students are able to participate in a healthy risk-taking community.

I believe the choral program is the soul of a school community and plants the seeds of citizenship. Therefore, if the choir is a safe and healthy community, the school will benefit. It’s important to take time within our rehearsal schedules to develop trust amongst the students, to develop strong student leaders, and validate every voice through democratic practices. The choir should vote for their student leaders. The student leaders should be given both musical and administrative responsibilities. Reflections, open dialogues, regular journaling and community building activities are essential for strong and healthy choir communities. I shared an example at this year’s summer dialogue about one of my non-auditioned choirs that was divided racially.  In small groups the students developed thematic song ideas for the pop concert. A group of African-American boys suggested a Drake song set. Another group, which consisted mostly of Caucasian students, suggested a Beach Boys medley. The final vote by the choir was tied so my student teacher suggested we have a caucus where each group defended their ideas to settle the tie. Drake won. We then agreed that a healthy, democratic choir must learn compromise and openness to new ideas. It was a great lesson in citizenship!

An analogy I like to use to summarize these three major goals is A Mirrors and Windows Choral Curriculum.  The musical repertoire I select must reflect the culture of the school and the students in the choral program. Everyone is equally valid, so it is my responsibility to select literature that every student in my choir can perform. This practice reflects the importance of each individual; I must provide a mirror for students to see themselves reflected in the music. I must also offer windows into other cultures, time periods, and genres, which will allow my students to better understand our shared humanity.  As educators, we often have no influence to change national priorities, testing policies, or scheduling issues, but we do have the ability to shape our programs. A vibrant and inclusive course of study in a choral program should include both mirrors and windows, thus providing a place for all.