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#TeachersAreEssential: Music Educators are #CriticallyVital

By Margaret Campbelle-Holman

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The superhero description “faster than a speeding bullet” belongs to Superman. Let’s consider that phrase as we figuratively turn our heads from one side to the other: looking back to March 2020’s abrupt end of schools nationwide – to now, late summer 2020. Schools are reopening cautiously but determined to provide the same high standards serving children and families of our communities. For some of you, there will be several weeks behind you by the time you peruse this article, but this season of transition may shift throughout the school year.

Whether we are music or choral educators in the classroom or community, the view at this point of this particular year is not the same in so many ways. And yet, there is something that remains constant: the need for the arts in every life we serve is vital, and you are the dedicated “composer” of each classroom or rehearsal session. Your innovative, artistic approach is paramount as students enter your learning circle and your community of making music.

Remember: I come from the perspective that every music classroom is a choral immersion, not just in the separate choir rehearsal. Don’t get me wrong – #SingingIsEverything – but choral prep begins in the classroom as early as Pre-K and Kindergarten and is inclusive of many factors beyond singing.

Please allow me to share a point of affirmation: you need to refuel yourself with personal artistic immersions, restful sleep, and laughter whenever possible. Be patient with yourself and share even more patience with your students.

“A sense of community and acceptance” : this was the response by Ronda Armstrong when asked to describe what is most important for you to provide students right now. She is music specialist at Stanford Montessori Elementary School (Nashville) and a 2018 recipient of the Country Music Association Foundation’s Music Teachers of Excellence award.”

You, music, and your artistry are #criticallyvital. Don’t let the “shifting sands” of this school year hold back or stymie your creativity. Singing together is a community of voices working in unison or harmony, in rhythmic sync or counterpoint, and in expression of mood.

#shiftingsands

So you’re thinking, “But we can’t sing.” That depends on if you are in the school room or virtual, whether masks mandated or not, the city/school district policies, if part of the week is in school and part of the week is virtual, and how comfortable you are in any of the aforementioned  scenarios.

Let’s take a look at what you provide within and surrounding the context of music that establishes community and acceptance. Each class is a community, meeting together for a purpose presented by the teacher. Every student, as a member of the community, needs to be acknowledged for their individual participation and contribution to the community’s outcome: making great music together!

The Community and Learners Need Structure

Music within itself has structure, whether through singing, playing, or listening. Whatever the limitations of “singing” in your setting, use this time creatively by having students study the sections within the selected repertoire. There is a basic kindergarten concept of recognizing “same and different” for use in identifying how to group objects and how objects may be grouped. In students’ music lessons – choral or classroom – think about building singers’ visual (reading) and aural (audiating) skills through an innovative analysis process. Discovering the “insides” of a piece of music can be fascinating and productive. As your students’ skill increases, self-confidence sparks their ability to read and memorize. This maximizes their individual contribution to the singing community and their acceptance as a productive member.

Think of it as putting puzzle pieces together. Same and different rhythmic/melodic patterns assist their ability to understand its sequential flow (songform). Up the ladder of cognition and application it becomes same, different, and similar. The task can be as small as identifying a rhythmic/melodic motive in a song (classroom) or comparing whole phrases in a larger (choral) composition where recognizing similarities versus “same and different’ can make or break the community’s performance accuracy.

Process in your daily teaching regimen is the “outer ring” of structure students need. Whether classroom or choral session, the structure of the sequential learning steps surrounding the selected material (song, poem, listening selection) offers a sense of security.

In my current choral setting, warmups are a mandatory routine. Here is a list of  options that begin rehearsal based on each ensemble’s experience and repertoire:

  • Low impact body warmups, stretches and selected exercises from yoga for singers (Google “yoga for singers”)
  • Energizing body and building focus: synchronized jumping jacks, folk dances (yes, in choir!)
  • Vocal: Articulation, breathing & vocalize, then scales, harmony tuning
  • Rhythmic to Pitch Accuracy Framework: (Body Percussion) echo  4 beat patterns to 8 beat phrases; mini canon in different meters; mini canon using rhythm and melodic patterns. These may include patterns drawn from current or future repertoire
  • Rhythmic/Melodic Layering: Vertical ostinati structures using melodic phrases to build harmony; Rhythmic (body percussion) using convergent and divergent patterns
  • Repetition of certain routines across lessons, such as warmups and sight reading at every session, offers singers a learning scaffolding to build upon. Materials used will differ, but the routine sets a high standard of expectations for the entire lesson (and into the future).

Contemplate this: a performance is a final outcome for family, friends, and peers. Class sessions or rehearsals should include a musical/singing closure when possible – a “performance” review that includes a small or total group demonstrating a portion of the session. Use a performance decorum rubric that moves the learning during the lesson-rehearsal to a higher level: aka performance decorum.

The rubric could include:

  • Singing or playing (using body percussion) was in sync with the steady beat
  • Expression followed score discussed and practiced
  • Singing presentation (posture and focus) was consistently present for all

Create statements based on where your singers are in the learning cycle you have set. Eventually include singers in setting the rubric. This is always a huge step in singer ownership of performance (and rehearsal) decorum. Recognize and identify contributions made by each participant that “raises the bar” and builds a better artistic community.

Consider pairing the above thoughts with this advice from Nita L. Smith, choral and piano instructor at Isaiah T. Creswell Middle School of the Arts and a 2019 State of Tennessee Blue Ribbon Teacher. When asked to describe what is most important for you to provide students right now, she responded:

“It is important to provide a sense of normalcy, something that the students are familiar with during this time. This includes common phrases I regularly say to them, my smile, the tone of my voice and my motherly approach to teaching. Because I live close to the school, I believe it’s worth the effort to travel there to do virtual online teaching from my music classroom. I told the students that being in that space without them is a little lonesome and that I Iook forward to the day when it is safe to be together again making music. We sign off with optimistic closures like fingers forming the shape of the heart and friendly hand waves. These suggestions may sound simple, but they soften the blow caused by miles of distance in the new normal.”

I wonder what #hashtags (three words or less) you will post, or have already posted, that describe your first day, week, or month. I offer these as you infuse the total school culture through the arts in the school building or virtually.

You are: #Creative #Innovative #Dedicated

You are #CriticallyVital.

I welcome your comments/questions via LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/mcampbelleholman).

Reach Margaret
Campbelle-Holman at
mch@choralartslink.org.

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