Creating, Changing, and Inspiring Choir Culture
Understanding, then Acting.
As the trees change colors, it signifies the end of another year and the coming excitement associated with the New Year. Often, this time just before the holidays pushes us into reflection, self-assessment, and reminiscence as we identify the successes of the year and resolve to challenge ourselves to new heights in the upcoming year. This November, I am challenging myself to give back by sharing in the spirit of Thanksgiving.
My career thus far has been blessed with thousands of students for which I am very thankful. As I have begun reflecting on my students and their respective programs, I have realized how very different each situation has been. My first position was in a growing middle school program where I served in the spring as a part-time associate choral director, transitioning into the position after student teaching in the same school the previous semester. This crazy first year, for me, was spent in survival mode, so reflecting on this year pushes me to want to apologize to those students and my colleague, rather than celebrate!
After figuring out what NOT to do, I took a position where I was to open a new school and start a new choral program from scratch. This was to be my first full-time position, and the thought of singing the very first pitches at a school was so exciting. But once the realization set in, I thought…I get to shape the culture of singing…but what does that look like?
Several years later, I found myself in a very unique position – not to create a new culture of singing, but to completely overhaul one. There were so many problems that it was hard to figure out where to start.
Fast forward. I now serve as a co-director of choirs in a high school program dotted with convention performances, superior contest ratings, national and international trips, healthy enrollments, and great parent support. Rather than simply adopting the “status quo,” I have strived to put my own stamp on this strong culture of choral music.
While these four programs have very different strengths, challenges, and students, I have come to realize their cultures all had the same starting place: determining what choir culture was actually in place before my first day of instruction. What values, beliefs, and ideals were most important? Do students internalize it or are they hungry for change?
To establish a choir culture of success, we must first seek to understand it before students can understand what culture we want to establish. First, we must observe. If you are taking a new position and are able to observe a rehearsal before you take the position, it is so valuable as you plan for the upcoming year. If you are not able to do this, try scheduling meetings with officers, student leaders, or sit down for conversations with students before the school year begins. Next, we must strive to take an inventory of the learning environment. Do students have what they need to be successful? Is the room inviting? Does it scream that singing is not only acceptable, but is a valued part of the school? Third, we must ask the right questions. Be prepared for a myriad of answers, some may provide you the answers you want, some may provoke more questions, while other students may react so honestly that you question taking the job in the first place! Regardless of the response, asking the right questions can help you on your track to making the choir culture yours. Finally, this last step may be the most important: identify key players. Whether the players are students, administrators, colleagues, or parents, identifying these important people can be incredibly valuable in creating change. Once you understand these individuals, they can begin to understand you. This helps to create belief in the director, build the relationship, and most importantly will be a deposit in the Choir Culture Bank of Trust!
How do we set our big picture of change into motion through little steps in hopes of creating a choir culture of success? Keep a look out for our next post on planning for choral excellence!