Making Choir Camp a Success

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Summertime choir camps run by school music programs come in all shapes and sizes. Some are just a few hours of singing and introductions on a single day. Others can be a week or longer, with educators, staff, and students brushing up on choral skills and bonding in relative seclusion. While the circumstances of each school, educator, and group of students will dictate the appropriate duration, location, and content of a summer choral camp, there are a number of underlying factors that, when properly considered, can contribute to a fun and effective choir camp experience.

“Recruiting is essential to a successful camp,” says Ryan Marsh, the choral director at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky, who has been running a choir camp at his high school for the past eight years. “I can’t overstate the importance of this. It is important to have a good number of kids so they are able to perform a finished product at the end of the week. Recruit men so a good balance is achieved. Recruit singers individually that will help make the camp a success. Recruit upperclassmen for leadership within sections. More students attending makes for a more robust sound and there is synergy that a large group brings.”

Steve Lorenz of Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan has run camps ranging from several hours to overnight camps that are a week or more in length. Each type of camp has different benefits and merits depending on what the students and community can accommodate, but the key is finding the right length that will enable the most people to participate. “Rather than have a multiple day or overnight event, I started out by doing a single day camp to maximize the student turnout,” he says. “One of the overarching goals at the beginning of the year is to set a good tone with the students and to allow the upperclassmen to help welcome new students and set the goals for the years. Regardless of the length, the higher the turnout, as far as the percentage of students, the better the opportunity to have more carryover. You’re trying to build buy-in from the students, get them engaged in the process, and get them acclimated to the routines and expectations of the program.”

Michael Gaffney is the choral director and Arts Department chair at Baltimore, Maryland’s Archbishop Curley High School, where he founded the choral program in 1997.  The “essential ingredients” to success that he cites focus on scheduling and staffing.  “A well thought out, minute-by-minute schedule must be published to all participants, staff and choristers, and, thereafter, must be carefully followed,” he advises. “The second ingredient is a well-trained staff, thoroughly versed in the goals and procedures of the camp. Staff members must be models for the choristers.”

Honing Skills

Gaffney’s camps are generally repertoire-focused, with an emphasis on skills such as sight-singing, vocal technique, and interpretation. “This means that choristers are expected to leave choir camp with the ability to perform new literature, but also with new or refreshed choral skills,” he says. “Sometimes a choir camp might even be focused on a specific aspect of choral craft, such as sight singing or enhanced vocal range, using full group, small group, and individual sessions designed to enhance this focus.”

Ryan Marsh also has specific goals regarding skills and technique that he hopes to demonstrate, and that starts with choosing repertoire.  “I try to choose a variety of repertoire that is of high quality and will challenge students – accessible yet challenging,” he says. “Foreign language (Latin excluded) pieces are great fun and offer a good challenge, especially in pieces with fast tempi. I always choose one very fast foreign language piece – the more obscure language, the better. I also limit popular or show tune selections to one or none. It may be difficult to predict the ability level, especially with many new students, but have a variety of pieces and difficulty levels. If you have recruited strong leaders you can count on, this becomes easier.”

As for the specifics of the technique, Marsh uses Kodaly solfege syllables to aid in sight reading and in learning virtually all of their music. “During vocal camp, we often learn four or five of the pieces on solfege,” he notes. “So we spend part of the first day teaching students to write in solfege syllables and using it in rehearsal. We also use the camp to teach our All-State audition piece to give students a head start. Each morning we use extended warm-up time like a group voice class to teach vocal techniques as related to posture, breathing, tone, and so on.”

Staffing

Bringing in the right amount of staffers and counselors, and finding knowledgeable and trustworthy individuals, can be a huge relief for the choral director running the show. “Be sure to hire enough adult help,” advises Ryan Marsh.  “This might include private voice teachers, hired section leaders, assistant directors, and/or accompanists. Bring back former students who might now be studying music or music education to give them an opportunity to lead sectionals, vocalizes, and do some teaching. Involve newly graduated seniors to be student section leaders.  We hire one recently graduated senior in each section, in addition to any college students serving as section leaders. We pay them each $100. It’s a good idea to involve parents in organizing and delivering food, taking money, registration, and so on. Having extra people around is good practice and makes life easier for the directors. One director should not do it all.”

Steve Lorenz starts his search for help early. “I start securing cabin counselors in January or February, as soon as we’ve nailed down dates for the summer,” he says. “Most of the counselors are alumni of my choral program, although not necessarily music majors or professional musicians. However, they’re all people who have kept music in their lives in some way, and that serves as a really good for our high school students, most of whom will not pursue music professionally.”

Work vs. Play

One challenge directors must decide is the balance between choral activities and other forms of recreation or team-building activities.  “It’s always a hard balance for the kids,” confirms Lorenz. “When the kids walk out of the end of camp, it’s important that they’ve made musical strides and that we’ve established a foundation for learning. But that means that it has to be a positive experience. So it can’t be all rehearsal, all sectional, all music theory, or all sight reading all the time. I set out by selecting repertoire which is manageable within the time frame and then spacing our rehearsals so they last a maximum of about an hour and fifteen minutes. We have breaks, we change the format between sectionals, and we have some non-structured downtime in the middle of the day to give them a chance to rest, hang out, and participate in other activities or whatever they want to do. For us, we do a morning rehearsal, a post-lunch rehearsal, and a post-dinner rehearsal. After the post-dinner rehearsal, it’s all structured downtime until lights out that evening. Varying the format and what the students are doing matters a lot to the students, and finding that balance is really key to keeping everyone engaged.”

“Set up a good schedule that gives structure, yet allows for flexibility if needed as the week progresses,” suggests Marsh.  “Allow for sectional time and social time. We provide a lunch hour that allows student to be supervised but have social time. If a gym is nearby, consider providing free time in the gym or outside. We also schedule in group games or other group activities. Great activities include getting-to-know-you, leadership, and trust games. Have a designated activities director or spread out the responsibilities to multiple people. However, don’t advertise ‘Game Time’ on the schedule to the students. Make it a surprise and vary the length so if you need more rehearsal time, you can shorten game time without disappointment.”

Just Do It

To borrow a tired phrase from a popular shoe company, the bottom line with choir camps is to simply make it happen. “I’d say definitely do it,” urges Lorenz. “I have never had a bad experience, and I’ve never received negative feedback about the overall experience.  Everyone always walks away with a very positive experience.  Students want a musical experience, but they’re also very interested in the social element, as well. Giving students an opportunity to sit and eat together, to sing together, and to play together creates a great team environment.  Start with a three-hour retreat.  If that works out, make a day-long event.  From there, go to an overnight, and keep building until you have something that you feel really works for you and your group. Students find it incredibly beneficial.”

The benefits of choir camp will resonate all year long. “Choir camps are a crucial building block for a choral program,” agrees Gaffney.  “Not only do they provide additional, uninterrupted time for rehearsal and ancillary instruction, but also for the essential ‘bonding’ that must take place in a successful ensemble. Although choir camps involve a great deal of work if they are to be successful, the ultimate benefit far outweighs the initial investment of time and effort!”

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