As a first year teacher at Zion Lutheran School, this was my first year taking my middle school students down to Concordia University in Portland, Oregon for L.E.S.T (Lutheran Elementary School Tournament). As a teacher and a person, I am always looking for ways to continue to learn and grow, and this weekend was no different. Here are some of the things I learned this year:
1. Make the kids memorize their music
My biggest, most obvious mistake was that I did not make my choir students memorize their music. My goal heading into the year was to improve their music reading ability, and making them memorize seemed counter-intuitive. Unfortunately, they were the only choir to not have their music memorized, and I believe they were docked points for that. Another unfortunate move was that I did NOT work with them on the appropriate way to hold their music books, and they had their books in their faces- which was NOT helpful. This also leads to my next failing....
2. Look up, Look around!
As far as I could tell (I left after about the 4th choir because I had an antsy 3 year old with me), I was the only director who directed from the piano. Everybody else brought in an accompanist- including a student accompanist. Not to toot my own horn, or anything, but my choir had the BEST accompanist. Seriously- I feel great about my accompanying skills. However, there is an unfortunate side-effect of directing from the piano... I have a hard time looking up! My own face is buried in music! I am busy reading the piano accompaniment, the choral parts, making sure that my hands go to the right place, my page gets turned at the right time, and my head nods at the right time, but I don't LOOK UP or CONNECT with my kids! My kids didn't look up from their music, because I DIDN'T LOOK UP FROM MY MUSIC! I didn't SEE the problem, and they followed my example! Always set a good example!
3. Open up avenues of communication
This was another huge failing of mine- but I'll let it slide this year because it was my first year- I WILL do better next year! My student list for the year was a quickly put-together list of first names only. I had no idea which kids were in which grade, or what their last names were- but I rolled with what I had, which is fairly typical Amy :). Random aside: I'm fairly proud of my flexibility- HOWEVER, it caused some problems... I was unsure of how to reach out to parents, so most often I just spoke to the kids in class about my expectations regarding dress code, private lessons, etc. and didn't put forth any other information other than what the L.E.S.T folks sent regarding the schedule and event locations. There was a last minute flurry of questions, scheduling conflicts, and one student who didn't make it to the choir festival because they got lost. Next year, I will be sure to have kids give me last names so I know how to address parents, AND I will be sure to send regular emails to parents, and not through the students.
4. Find ways to support (all) your boys!
This is just a general struggle of mine... how to encourage adolescent boys to sing! It's something I continue to try to work on both in my private lessons and in choir. Boys in middle school are struggling with voices that change EVERY DAY! It's got to be incredibly frustrating- at least I find it frustrating! They are also dealing with finding their place in the social order. Both of these combine to make it extremely nerve-wracking for boys to sing- they are unsure of what will happen when they open their mouths, and scared that they'll be embarrassed by whatever sound does come out. I made the mistake of relying too heavily on one baritone who could sing well, and all my other boys followed his lead. UNFORTUNATELY, he was the boy who got lost on the way to the festival and didn't make it. Because I was relying on his voice (and all the other baritones were as well), the other boys were left in the very uncomfortable position of having to carry their own weight- something I hadn't prepared them for, because they were (superficially) doing great. Their last piece started with a baritone part solo, and it was not as strong as normal. Here are some of the best tips I have found to working with adolescent boys:
1. Sing in your own octave! For a long time, I have made the mistake of singing with my boys in THEIR octave, not realizing that that is extremely confusing! A woman isn't supposed sing a baritone part. I cannot demonstrate how to sing like a man- they need to find where their voice fits, and it'll never sound like a woman's voice.
2. Experiment with octaves. This is a soprano trick I learned a long time ago... when trying to learn a new melody that is very high (or very low) move it down (or up) the octave and learn the part in a comfortable register, then shift it to the correct octave. This way they are not blowing their voices out while still learning a new part.
3. Match the pitch to the boy. If you have a boy singing a wrong pitch, or a wrong octave, help them by matching their pitch, then moving stepwise to the correct pitch.
Many of these were taking from the nafme site: http://www.nafme.org/keeping-the-boys-singing-how-you-can-make-a-difference/. It is worth reading.
5. Keep a "back pocket" piece
This was actually something I did well, so I'm sharing, because it was something I learned... When I selected repertoire back in December, it felt like we had a ton of time. I kept a piece from the Christmas concert, added an easy familiar hymn arrangement, and added a "challenge" piece. The challenge piece was just that, and when we missed school due to snow, I was worried that they wouldn't be ready, and I didn't want to add the stress of an uncomfortable piece. Two weeks before the event, I switched pieces on them. Way back in the fall, we did a piece called "The Concert Etiquette Rap"- it was a way for me to work through rhythm notation with them. The kids thought it was fun and we did it for the Christmas concert then put it away. But... it was still in good enough shape that two weeks before the choir festival, we could dust it off and perform it. I will always keep an extra piece in my "back pocket" just in case.
6. Embrace uniqueness
Each choir is unique- find the character of your choir and embrace what it is that makes them special. For my choir (at least this year) their ENERGY was what made them special. They excelled at upbeat, fun songs, and I managed to channel that through sheer luck... at least that's what it feels like. As a director, much of your own personal strengths come out in repertoire choices because that is what WE feel comfortable performing, and teaching, but we need to make sure that our choices are good choices for our CHOIRS- which has a unique identity created by each individual who is a part. Each member is important and contributes to the general character of the choir- we are all members of the same body, and it is important to support each other and the whole group.
Always look for the positive! While there were flaws and obstacles, I am PROUD of my choir! Last year, Zion didn't have enough kids for a choir, this year, I had 20 kids in choir. That is worth celebrating! Last year, there was not a Zion Lutheran choir at LEST- but there was this year. That is worth celebrating! My choir performed 3 pieces of music in the festival- most did only 2. That is worth celebrating! My choir did mainly 3-part harmony- most choirs did only 2 or limited 3. That is worth celebrating! My choir sang well independently, without a director in front of them- the others had an adult standing directly in front of them helping them out. That is worth celebrating! My choir received 87 points out of a possible 100. It wasn't a level 1 rating, but we will build from there next year. I have learned better what needs to happen, and I will be there next year to help them out. That is worth celebrating!
Thank you so much for reading! Now go practice!
is a professional pianist, teacher, singer, and Music Director currently residing in Snohomish, Washington. She is the Director of Music at Peace Lutheran Church in Monroe, WA, and also teaches private piano, voice and ukulele lessons at The ARK in Snohomish, WA.