I am beginning my 29th year as a vocal music teacher and each year I am always a little nervous the first day of school. Whether it is a new school year, a new church or community choir year, or maybe just a new season of music, I am guessing many conductors are a little nervous. I am also very excited to see who has joined choir. I ask myself, who is going to walk through my door? Why did they choose to be a member of my choir? What will we be able to accomplish this year? And, what will we sound like? It is a mystery and I am fortunate enough to be the leader who will facilitate how this mystery will unfold. As you noticed, I did not say I control how the mystery unfolds, because the only one I can control is myself. That is a lesson I do my very best to teach to my young singers, as well. They have the controls and I am just there to navigate each of them through the process of learning to be great choir members and singers.
My main focus is helping my singers to feel comfortable in the choir room. I wholeheartedly believe the singer must feel safe and accepted if they are going to sing out with any support and attain any sense of success. They need to trust the director, as well as the person they sit next to, if they are going feel confident enough to sing. It is difficult as a developing singer to find the confidence needed when they are singing next to someone they may not be familiar with, knowing they might make a mistake in front of this new person, or their voice might crack. My goal, as the director, is to get my singers to understand we are working toward the same overall goal, but we each may have different needs. My objective is to have choirs who sing confidently, with expression, and are open to trying different techniques. This will not happen until the singer feels safe and comfortable.
If I am most concerned with the dynamics or the tone color, but forget to create a safe, inviting rehearsal space, I will struggle to get my choirs to accomplish the goals I have set for the ensemble. As you begin this new season, whether it is a new school year, or new choral season, whether the singers are young or old, make sure to take time to get to know your singers. It is also vital the singers get to know each other. I do this in my rehearsals through team building exercises and through questionnaires and other bonding experiences. It is always eye opening to ask the students why they chose to join choir, or why they sing. It gives me a little glimpse into what drives them as a singer and makes my singers actually have to consciously think about why they are in choir and why they sing. It is good for the singers to be a little introspective and their answers may surprise and delight you.
At the end of last year, I was thinking, “wow, my choirs have really progressed since the beginning of the year.” As I sit and write this article, I now wonder if they progressed as a result of what they learned throughout the year or maybe because they started to feel more comfortable with their surroundings and with their fellow choir members? Most definitely it is a combination of the two. So, here’s to new beginnings and building a space where learning and great singing can happen because we remembered to make it a safe place for our singers.