Kerry Johnson

The other day, I got a text from a former student who has since become a friend (one of the greatest joys of being an educator.) It had been months since we had spoken, but he asked one of my favorite questions: “Hey Ms. J! How are you? I have a song stuck in my head and I can’t remember the name of it. Can you tell me the name of the piece Vox sang at the spring concert when I was a 10th grader? I want to look it up on YouTube.” He wasn’t asking about an exceptional piece of choral literature. You wouldn’t find it on any contest lists. However, my tenor/bass ensemble brought down the house with it that spring. Of course I remembered it. I smile every time I receive a question like this. I feel lucky to have learned how to create these experiences for my students. I wasn’t always so adept.

As a new teacher, in what now seems like another life, I often found myself caught up in games of comparisons. I remember sitting at professional music conferences listening enviously to choirs who effortlessly sang the pieces I wished my choir could sing. I longed for the day when every student in my program could match pitch and sing dissonance on purpose. I heard the voices of mentors and instructors in my head who began lectures with “quality choral programs include….” The imposter syndrome was real – not for any one person but for the program I thought I was supposed to have.

In those early days of my career, I know I did a great disservice to my students. Far too often I programmed for the choir I wanted rather than the choir I had. I avoided pop music and other pieces my students would have loved because “good programs don’t sing those pieces.” I became obsessed with doing everything “right.” I wondered why my students didn’t always reflect my passion.

As I have now passed the midpoint of my teaching career, I reflect back on those early days with nostalgia – and sometimes more than a bit of embarrassment. Most of the time, when I think about that young teacher who began her career as the only choir director in a small school, I wish that I could go back and tell her this: There is no “right” way to do this.

Yes, teaching vocal health is important. Yes, exposing students to a wide variety of musical genres and composers is ideal. Yes, teaching music literacy is an important component in a successful program. How you do it, and how quickly you and your ensembles meet milestones – does. not. matter. Students, by and large, will not remember the history of the Baroque piece they sang in 10th grade. They won’t remember the scores they received at music contest. They won’t remember the names of the modes or be able to tell you the difference between natural, melodic and harmonic minor.

They will remember the times they felt seen and valued in your classroom. They will remember the melodies that spoke to their hearts. They will cherish the feeling of accomplishment that came when the whole ensemble reached a milestone together. They will know that they found a love of singing with you.

So, if you are finding yourself caught between what is and what you think should be, don’t be afraid to start where your choir is. Program pop music, if that’s what your choir needs to ignite their interest. Sing in unison. Teach in the oral tradition. Celebrate victories – no matter how small. Competition scores and accolades are nice, but the things that last can’t be measured in this way. If your students feel safe in your classroom and love what they are singing, what you are doing is “right.” Don’t let the experts tell you differently.