Creation of the Jubilate Choir for children with special needs
The Indianapolis Children’s Choir, created in 1986 by Founder & Conductor Laureate Henry Leck, nurtures and inspires student achievement through quality music education and the pursuit of artistic excellence in choral music performance. The ICC reaches 2,500 students in Central Indiana each year, and under the direction of Artistic Director Joshua Pedde, envisions a future where excellence in choral singing is valued and supported for all children in the community – bridging cultures, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds.
As Director of Outreach and Choir Programs for the ICC, I experience first-hand the numerous ways the organization reaches out to the community. Our choir division programs are located in the center of the city of Indianapolis, as well as in various regional locations in order to be most accessible to families and in tune to their needs. We reach out to schools and after-school programs in the area that would not otherwise have the opportunity to provide musical experiences to their students. We offer free support to area music teachers for professional development and individual support to help grow their music programs. We offer financial assistance to families enrolling their children in the choir. There is a place for everyone in the ICC – be that a non-auditioned group, a beginning level choir, or a limited spot in the top advanced ensemble. However, every once in a while we realize as an organization that there is a need in our programming – a need that we are not serving. There is always a series of events leading up to that realization, that makes it abundantly clear what needs to be done.
Recognizing the Need
During my first years at the ICC, through our outreach into the community, I became involved with area preschools and began integrating and further developing our early childhood music program. It became common for our program to serve multiple developmental preschool classes each week in area schools. I even added an Autism Certificate onto my graduate coursework and eventually completed a Master of Arts in Applied Behavior Analysis. I wanted to look into every resource available to me that could help me create the most beneficial music curriculum for my students. These classes for students with special needs were an opportunity for me to be truly innovative in my teaching. I have always had a passion for early childhood music, and embraced the opportunity to adapt lessons to better serve students with disabilities. The music classes needed to be just as equally beneficial to the students with moderate to severe autism, for example, as they were for the typically developing peer friends attending class with them. This task has been one of my favorite responsibilities of my job, and one that is so close to my heart. I feel very strongly in the benefit that music classes can have on these young learners with and without disabilities, and find so much beauty in the music that they can create and the progress they can make with their other learning goals through music. One of the preschool teachers at a partner school sums up the progress she has seen as a result of the music program in her developmental preschool class:
For two of my students in particular, music started as a challenge in their first year. They are both fairly non-verbal children, in need of daily routine and structure, and often prefer to work and play independently…Over time, they started to enjoy the predictability of the beats we hear. Then they stared adding hand motions, sitting patiently, and truly practicing the social skills they were learning…They started demonstrating remarkable skills.
Because of the exposure our early childhood music program received from our work in preschools, I was soon asked to come work with a couple of area camps for older students with special needs during the summer. This was yet another opportunity to expand upon what the ICC curriculum entails into use with students with disabilities who required further exposure to certain areas of the curriculum and more adaptations in other areas. The progress seen in individual students during one 30-minute music session could be remarkable at times. It was a real opportunity for camp counselors to see a side of their students’ personalities that were otherwise hidden, and provided insight into how the camp staff could reach the student and prompt growth in new ways. After seeing a non-verbal camper respond so enthusiastically (and vocally!) to music class one summer, I felt the typical urge to hand her an ICC flyer as I headed out the door and offer her a “spot” in the choir. This was a tough moment for me – realizing that, for the first time since I had begun my work with the choir, there was no appropriate place for her at ICC. A non-auditioned early childhood or elementary group was not appropriate for a 12 year old. An auditioned choir with high performance standards at beginning, intermediate, or advanced level would never be appropriate for her, as ICC is a professional children’s choir and finds itself in fast-paced, quick-decision, spur of the moment performance situations. The social and sensory situations ICC singers are exposed to in our typical choir program would prevent certain children from participating in the choir due to their very specific needs and sensitivities.
Thankfully, I had confidence in my colleagues and the organization I had grown to admire for its willingness to do whatever it takes to serve the children of Central Indiana. I sat at home that night after my day at camp and developed a plan for a choir for children with special needs. I was confident that, if the plan were carefully designed to integrate the basic principles and procedures of the organization, and if it fit the mission and vision of the ICC, there would be a team of dedicated ICC staff willing to find a place in the choir for, truly, all children. From the day I met the spirited “non-verbal” singer at camp that summer, to the evening of the first rehearsal of the Jubilate choir of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, was a mere 6 months. The support I received from my colleagues was overwhelming, and I am grateful to Henry Leck and Josh Pedde for supporting me in this new endeavor and allowing me to add yet another branch onto the ICC family tree. I have never stopped being inspired, since then, to continue my work with ICC and to push myself towards the excellence that ICC aspires to.
The Jubilate Choir
The Jubilate choir is designed to be yet another – equal – choir offering of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir in every way. The families register their children for the choir, pay tuition, show up to their evening rehearsals each week, mingle with singers and families from other choirs in the hallway, sign-in to the classroom, begin rehearsals with the traditional ICC warm-ups, learn music theory concepts throughout rehearsal, rehearse choral octavos from the ICC music library, and perform at ICC season concerts as well as outside bookings while wearing an ICC uniform. They are listed in the season program brochure, their parents are members of the ICC Parents Association, and they were front and center on the stage at ICC’s 30th Anniversary Gala Concert in April, 2016 along with 800 other ICC singers. The Jubilate singers and their families are true members of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir. They don’t sing “different” music, and they aren’t held to “different” standards. They sing the same music that a beginning level choir of the ICC would sing. They just reach that ending performance in a different, creative, unique manner. They are held to the same behavior and performance expectations as any other ICC choir member. But, they work twice as hard at those expectations if necessary, and if a Jubilate singer isn’t able to adjust to the circumstances of a particular performance, we find a way to include them in the day without taking away any of the value of the experience for the singer, the rest of the performers, or the audience. The performance experience is valued and respected, and personalized for each singer if needed.
Among the most personally fulfilling aspects of being the director of the Jubilate choir are watching the Jubilate singers interact with the peer friends from our advanced ensembles and seeing how Jubilate performances integrate into the rest of an ICC performance. Members of the advanced ensembles are invited to apply to participate in a year of Jubilate choir in addition to their regular rehearsals as a peer friend. This is very specifically not a “buddy” system. The Jubilate choir members cannot be dependent upon the attendance of one specific friend to help them through a choir rehearsal, as there are many weeks throughout the season where our peer friends are absent from rehearsal due to other performance commitments within their own choirs. The peer friends are just that – friends. The Jubilate singers do not depend on them in order to perform repertoire. The peer friends provide support so that I as the director can continue to move through rehearsal at a fast pace in order to keep singers of varying abilities engaged in the learning process. They jump into a situation when necessary, and sit back as equal peers when all is well. Our Jubilate singers range from non-verbal to high-functioning autism and can be highly talented musicians who are unable to participate in another ICC choir due to social skills that are continuing to be developed. These singers can sometimes phase out of the Jubilate choir and into another ICC choir when the time is right. The peer friends develop friendships with students they may have not otherwise had an opportunity to meet, and many peer friends realize a whole new set of gifts and confidence that they possess through their work with the Jubilate choir. These dedicated peer friends attend every rehearsal, stay in the background as much as possible during music learning and performances, and allow the Jubilate members to shine with minimal assistance. They are inspirational leaders.
The ICC family and Central Indiana community has embraced the Jubilate choir. The choir has performed at small events that are more sensitive to the needs of the singers, and has grown – based on the comfort level of the singers in the choir at that time – to perform in more public situations such as the Indiana Music Education Association Professional Development Conference in a joint performance with the advanced ICC ensemble Cantantes Angeli, and in the public performance of the ICC’s 30th Anniversary Gala Concert on the stage of Clowes Memorial Hall at Butler University. In each of these performance situations it is heartwarming to witness how each singer is embraced for who they are. In turn, there are no singers from other choirs staring at Jubilate members, wondering what is going on and why. There are no audience members who are not able to see and understand the value of what is taking place on the stage. There are no family members or singers feeling uncomfortable about who they are and what they have accomplished. The Jubilate choir has been set up for success and radiates its confidence and pride wherever it goes. I hope that the choir can inspire others to provide more opportunities in school and community groups for those who have so much to offer the artistic world, and just need a little adaptation to make it happen.
The Jubilate choir is for singers with special needs in grades 3-9. Peer Friends from one of the advanced ICC choirs attend rehearsal along with the Jubilate singers each week to provide a fulfilling musical experience and a chance for singers with varying abilities to grow musically. The choir meets once per week for 45 minutes (except for the Jubilate Festival) and participates in performances as deemed appropriate for the current members of the choir. Parents/Guardians remain in the rehearsal room during their singer’s participation in Jubilate.
The curriculum focuses on proper singing techniques, music theory, sight-reading, part-singing, and social skills involved in being a member of a musical ensemble. Though the choir has, at its core, the same goals as other choirs in the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, the Jubilate choir engages in additional activities during rehearsal that aid in reaching those goals. Music that is taught in other choirs might be taught in a different way using additional visual and tactile experiences that are catered specifically to the current members of the choir.
Some singers may move on from Jubilate into other ICC activities, the ICC Choral Festival, or a beginning level choir. Others will continue to grow through participation in Jubilate and through friendship with others who love music!
For more information about the Jubilate Choir and the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, please contact:
Director of Outreach and Choir Programs
Indianapolis Children’s Choir