When I first began teaching at Central High School in Phoenix, Arizona five years ago, the plan was to build a successful high school choral program. In my college music teaching methods class, I was taught that there are three steps to building a successful music program with high enrollment: quality of instruction and performance, marketing the product, and recruiting (see sidebar). We followed the playbook, and it worked in many ways. I implemented numerous changes over the first few years: implemented daily sight singing and rhythm reading practice, introduced lessons on music theory fundamentals, created a choir website, created a poster marketing campaign, performed the national anthem for almost every sport on campus as well as professional sporting events, and performed at every middle school and elementary school that would let us in. The quality of our musicianship and performances increased significantly. Our school, staff, and community recognized what we were accomplishing, and were very supportive of our success. The only thing lacking in the choir program was students.
The first year we had a total of 46 students enrolled in choir, and by year two it nearly doubled, but then remained static for the next two years. I was frustrated. How could I be doing all this positive work in all the areas I’m supposed to and see no improvement in the number of students in my classes? I recognize that numbers are not the most important element of the program; it’s about the learning and the experience. However, it’s hard to give a positive singing experience to a beginning men’s choir with only nine students because they always feel exposed. There is safety and security in numbers, and to be honest, it’s a lot easier to hide pitch mistakes within a larger group.
I was at my wits’ end, so I called a good friend of mine, Dr. Judy Durocher, and asked her for help. She has a reputation for being a program builder, an excellent educator, and a great motivator. After discussing the challenges I was having, she and I decided it would be best for her to come in and speak with some of my students. We both felt that they might be a little more honest with her than they would be with me.
When she visited, she questioned students about the state of the choir program: what they liked (singing), what they didn’t like (sight singing), and why they joined. The most insightful responses came when she asked why other students don’t join choir. Nearly all choir students agreed on two answers. The first was simply that other students think choir is stupid. The second, however, was, “Other students think that Mr. Meeker [me, the director] is mean.” Of course, the response that “Mr. Meeker is mean” intrigued Dr. Durocher, so she asked students to give examples of how I was mean. The answers were: “He never gives us a day off,” “He makes us do our best every day,” and “He never let’s up; he is always asking us to give more or work harder.” Dr. Durocher then asked, “So how is that mean?” The students said, “It’s not; that’s why we like it here. We know he’s always got our back. That’s just what the other kids think.”
After class, Dr. Durocher and I were talking about what we heard, and she made an offhand comment, stating that I should “own” the whole mean thing. “Heck, you should make a shirt and put a picture of your mean face on it,” she said. One of my choir officers overheard the conversation and loved the idea. He brought it up at the next choir officer meeting, offering the challenge of how we could use the knowledge of how other students viewed me to change the reputation of choir program and its director. The officers decided that if we advertised the “mean thing” and could somehow make fun of it at the same time, it might take some of the power out of the statement. To remove the negative stigma, the officers thought about it, and they decided to put “mean” on the shirt, converting the word into an acronym for “Making Excellence Available Now.” Then they designed the rest of the t-shirt with a caricature of me, deciding that a cartoon version of the director further served to soften the reputation.
Having isolated the weakness, reclaimed the statement, and created the advertisement, we still faced the challenge of how to use it to recruit new members. The officers brainstormed, and using a recent sporting event as inspiration, they decided that we would have a “white out.” We would make the shirts white with black and red writing and give them to as many people as we could. Additionally, since our choir is often recognized for the posters that we use for marketing, we decided to add posters to what was fast becoming a “white out” event. The officers created white posters with black writing that would be placed all over the school showing the same image and slogan on the shirts. Finally, we decided that each choir student would carry a stack of forms that would allow other students to sign up for choir in the fall. They could simply fill out the forms on the spot and turn them in to our counseling department. We selected a date, and the plan was set. We ordered shirts for every staff member and choir student. Posters were copied and prepared to be hung up. Signs and banners were painted with the slogan, “Get Mean.” Signup sheets were copied, cut, and distributed.
The day of the white out, every choir student and most staff members wore their t-shirts. Choir officers arrived at 6:00 a.m. to hang posters and signs on every open space on campus. A 40-foot “Get Mean” banner was mounted above the quad where every student would see it. The principal was even sighted in his “Meeker is Mean” shirt. Dr. Durocher stopped by to see what kind of chaos was stirred up from our little experiment. There was a buzz on the campus. Everyone started talking about what was happening. Students couldn’t walk into a single classroom on campus without seeing a t-shirt or a poster about choir. The support was fantastic, the kids were excited, and I was so busy making fun of myself and giving “mean looks” to everyone who I saw that the day flew by.
In a single day, 80 students signed up for Central High’s choirs for the next school year. Though not all of them were able to fit choir in their schedules, almost 50 of the students singing with me this year joined as a direct result of what they saw that day. We took what was perceived as our biggest weakness, put it on a shirt, advertised it, and used it to make ourselves stronger. My students and I still laugh at the fact that we told the entire school that I was mean, and they still joined my class.
Weaknesses don’t have to hurt educators. They are a part of us all as human beings. Weaknesses should be viewed not as anchors tying us down, but as opportunities for improvement waiting to be realized. I tried to shy away from the reputation that I had gained on campus, and it didn’t help. I tried to focus on the classroom instruction and marketing because they were my strengths, and it did not improve the numbers. Finally, I took the unconventional route and a little self-deprecation allowed students to see beyond the mean.
Troy Meeker is the director of choirs at Central High School in Phoenix, Arizona, where he has developed district curriculum in choral music education, music technology, and is currently piloting an online music technology course which he designed. He is an active member of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), Arizona Music Educators Association (AMEA), Technology Institute for Music Educators (TI:ME), and the Choral Directors of Arizona (ChoDA). Currently, Mr. Meeker serves as the All-State Jazz Choir Chairperson as well as a Member at Large on the ChoDA Board.
Mr. Meeker has presented at the Western Division ACDA Convention as well as the AZ Music Educator’s Convention. In addition, he has worked as a clinician for Greater Phoenix Junior High Honor Choir, Northern Arizona University Summer Music Camp, Paradise Valley USD Summer Music Camp, and the Phoenix Union HSD Summer Music Camp.