Making the Dash Count

By Margaret Campbelle-Holman

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In watching the movie UP recently, the main character looks back at his life and holds on to what ‘was’, and then makes a choice to act on someone else’s dream. During this movie, there are many adventures he encounters, new soon-to-be friends and the discovery that holding on to the good may include letting go in order to grow again. As a general music-choral educator in urban public schools, and now as a (choral arts) nonprofit entrepreneur serving singers and music educators in middle Tennessee, the letting go, has sometimes been painful, but somewhere along the way I realized I was – I am – on a discovery journey, even 40-plus years later, with singers and their choral directors.

Clarity Point: Every classroom music teacher should consider themselves as a choral educator – in other words, choir begins in the classroom, not just in the rehearsal setting. A choral teacher in the classroom and choir/chorus setting, plans and leads daily adventures in scholastic and artistic journeys in the e pluribus unum of choral singing.

You exist as an island in your school, as well as collaborating with fellow like-minded educators, maybe. But the best collaboration to produce, observe and discover comes with the interaction singers make as they sing, create, explore, listen, read, and write: unison or harmony. Now hold that thought because what music educators/choral directors offer, is vital to the “dash” in every child’s life that enters our learning domain.

Teach. Reach. Each…(repeat ad infinitum)

My second teaching job was in Memphis City Schools, now Shelby County Schools, and my music supervisor was Nancy Ferguson. I was transitioning from Junior High music (grades 6-9) in Ohio to elementary music after taking my first Level I Orff Schulwerk course. One of the key points I remember Nancy sharing is that it would take three-plus years to grasp how the schulwerk engaged curricular based integrated learning. I had already taught two years quite successfully through what was supposed to be a ‘rough’ inner city school setting. My approach was to challenge students with singing (classroom and choir) as a change-catalyst. In Memphis, I knew it was going to only take me a year.

Nancy Ferguson was right. To teach effectively, I had to reach inside myself, hold on to that which was my strong foundation, let go of any driftwood, add new scaffolding and build additional muscle. Nancy had a plan, a mentoring plan. She would come teach my classes while I visited seasoned music teachers multiple times a year (repetition counts).  No other teaching experience offered that on-site teaching incubator. Have you ever considered what you could learn from this type of experience? The value you would gain from this type of on-the-job mentoring, especially where choral was-is- embedded in the classroom regimen? Talking to a music educator after observing their class, gathering new strategies, seeing REAL singers in action as they are learning to be engaged in the thinking, as well as vocal artistry process was like opening a room full of Christmas presents.

No other school district in which I taught offered that quality and quantity of reality-based professional development.

Fast Forward to Servant Leadership

Seven years ago, my music mentee, Nita Smith, moved to the Middle School of the Arts in Nashville to begin and build a choral program in a setting that did not audition its clientele. Smith is a seasoned music educator and professional consummate performer. She seeks to reach students through her teaching by continuously honing her craft and translating it into processed strategies and measurable achievements for singers. My colleague, Karen Mueller and I were asked to visit her classes and engage in assessment discussions as a base line of the program she inherited. It was from these sessions that I began envisioning how our nonprofit, Choral Arts Link (CAL), could assist her quest: offering a cycle of the best choral artistry and scholastic mastery.

MET Academy. Choral Activator and Mentor Incubator 

CAL offers a choral activator academy in the classroom/choir setting. MET Academy in the Schools is a mentor incubator for the music educator and choral engagement for choir development and/or a tool to energize current choristers to the next level of quality outcomes. It is a community arts resource designed as a team collaboration with the teacher and our choral staff to work in tandem with h/his goals and needs based on district, state and national standards. 

Me vs. We

Together, we planned and shared leadership with Smith in after school adventures through scholastic and artistic journeys in the e pluribus unum of choral singing, which of course led to vocal ostinati, rounds, canons, unison with multiple vocal ostinati, unison with descant, two equal parts, SA, SAB and beyond.

Smith continues growing as a master teacher in middle school choir development. Her work with MET Academy has provided opportunities to observe our seasoned choral staff working with students while she observes, assesses and takes notes on individual or sections of singers. In addition, post sessions included brainstorming additional strategies, assessing what did or did not work well with singers which was as rich for us, as it was for her and her singers. She works in an urban school district, but before (or as) you assume it must be a horrible place with students of any stereotype you can conjure, let me say this… “If you hold the bar high consistently, they will rise.” MET Academy offers/ed an artistic support base, a complementary tool for an integrated learning design meeting the needs of her school community.

Smith was (and still is) eager to discover habits to shed and new skills to embrace in her personal teaching-directing craft, but more importantly, she challenges students to let go of whatever is holding them back, so their growth in artistry and scholarship emerges through, and beyond the choral setting.

“Your life is just two dates separated by a dash…Make that dash count.”

We are part of each child’s dash, which when you look at it (-), our impact seems infinitesimal. Do not be deceived. Your impact in the classroom and choir rehearsal is impactful. Seek out community arts resources in your district that focus on or will commit to supporting Your students’ choral development in the school; seek and develop liaisons with music departments in local colleges and universities; discover quality community choral organizations, like barbershop and Sweet Adelines choruses and quartets.

Push your singers, choirs UP. They will rise.

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