Change: Are You Ready to Play the Game?
The choir in your mind isn’t always the one standing in front of you, especially when taking a new position. The realities of feeder programs, previous choral directors, curricular offerings, retention, and student engagement all can affect the quality of music making in your choral program.
Transformational change of the choral music program from one that “can’t” to one that “can” doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it happen without diligent and strategic planning. Organizations, including choral programs, are frequently slow to change often pushing change agents to believe their work is ineffective or not worthwhile.
Good sports coaches begin their season not by looking at the games and opponents that they will play, but instead at their players. What can they do? What are their weaknesses? What strategies, plays, or exercises can be used to create a team capable of competing and winning? While choral directors don’t play weekly games with a scoreboard indicating success or failure, wins and losses in the choral program are based on successful rehearsals, student engagement and performance, and a carefully crafted and well-executed vision for the choral program.
The vision and mission of the choral program serves as the primary macro-level step and is the backbone and foundation of all decisions that affect students. It should encompass the tenets of the program and elude to important aspects of your philosophy, such as: The GMS Choral Department is an organization that prides itself on outstanding musicality, academic excellence, and service to the school and community. Whether you choose to elaborate on the mission by writing a philosophical statement or just reflecting on it, doing so will help align your plan to what you feel is most important.
Next, aim to create strategic goals. These should align with your mission. In the example provided, the goals would focus on outstanding musicality, academic excellence, and service to the school and community. The strategic goal elaborates on the mission by describing how you and your students will find success. An example is again provided:
Strategic Goal 1: Outstanding Musicality
Continue development of exemplary musical skills, including tone, timbre, dynamics, etc. in both the individual and choral group settings. Demonstrate through performance(s) and participation/success in competitions.
From there, aim to create objectives and measures that align with the goal. For the provided example, objectives would be repertoire selection, curriculum analysis, and individual/choral excellence. Measures would include repertoire chosen, scope and sequence of curricular offerings, and indicators of performance. For individuals, this could mean 50% of students compete at district solo and ensemble while choral measures could state: “all choirs achieve superior choral performance with improvement in fall concert flaws. Sense of musical line is superior but inconsistent, especially in training choirs.” While the mission, philosophy, strategic goals, objectives, and measures are crucial, teachers must exhibit situational leadership strategies to achieve the highest levels of success.
I recently began working in a choral program that, if they were a basketball team, would have finished the season 2-20. Singers lacked most all fundamentals necessary for success in a choral program, including basic vocal production skills, sight-reading ability, appropriate literature, ability to sing a cappella…the list goes on. When I arrived on my first day, I was ready to be the coach, cheerleader, and change agent that my new students deserved. I began by getting right to work with engaging warm-ups, high energy activities, and then followed with a question: “What does choir mean to you?” I chose this question because it was important for me to meet my students where they were so that I could take them to where I wanted them to go. The first response took the wind out of my sails: “Yeah, we suck…we know it.” Here I was hoping to hit the ground running and I quickly realized that the changes I would have to make would not only be musical, but psychological. The strategic plan I had made would have to be adjusted to include ways of getting to know my players, not just showing them how to play the game, reminding me that the micro-level steps are just as important as those at the macro-level.
In the end, I came back to my philosophy: “keep the students first and everything else will take care of itself.” I got to know them, engaged them in difficult conversations, and praised the small stuff while still modeling high (yet reasonable) expectations. Slowly but surely, the psychological insecurities related to singing began to chip away, especially after a very successful first concert. It wasn’t the concert or the music that did it. It was the pride and the audience response that cemented their own beliefs that “they can,” not “we can’t.”
Changing a choir culture is a difficult task for any director, but stay the course, stay passionate and make every day count. It’s worth it in the end.