Music is similar to sports in that it is a team effort. Like team athletes, student musicians work on their individual skills and then come together in a choral or orchestral setting to create music. I am their coach: I teach private music lessons and I work with several children's choruses. According the Chorus Impact Study published in 2009 by Chorus America, choruses and group music programs have a host of benefits for students1. Music fosters more advanced social skills, strong senses of self-worth, self-esteem, and self-confidence, stronger listening skills, and greater empathy. The study also shows that children are better team players in and out of the music classroom. Students who participate in chorus are better participants in other groups and engage in class discussions more than non-choral students. Student choruses are excellent examples of what a positive peer group looks like. Without that positive peer group, a choir would be unable to learn their music.
As a choral director, my job is to keep the choral peer group on track. I must embody many of the qualities outlined in “Pupil's voice: My primary school teacher”2: knowing and understanding my students, organization, consistency, and communication. While I generally work with children who are older than those in the article, the needs are the same. A primary function of my job, highlighted in the article, is to “promote enthusiasm and motivation for learning” which means I share my love of music on a daily basis and help my students to see the relevance and beauty of a given piece. The only way I can do this is to know my students – their learning styles, their personalities, and their interests. It doesn't matter if I am directing 15 or 50 kids, taking the time to understand my singers is the only way I can effectively do my job.
By knowing my students, I am able to give them ownership in the learning process. My natural leaders take on responsibilities such as leading voice sections, mentoring new or younger singers, and assisting me with discipline (organizing groups of singers, keeping the chatter to a minimum during rehearsal, etc). These peer leaders become the role models for the group. All of my students learn aspects of conducting as this helps them not only hone their musical skills, it helps them follow me better and develops their musical leadership skills3.
For all my groups, I set high but realistic expectations. As we learn our music, I provide consistent feedback so they know what they are doing correctly and where they need improvement. My section leaders play an important role here. I selected them because I know they can learn music quickly and have a personality for teaching and mentoring. They are interspersed through their section so those still learning can hear the part being sung correctly. In some cases, section leaders may be grouped with one or more singers for individual practice. This provides more immediate feedback than I can give as a conductor.
Discipline is another key component with my groups. Throughout the rehearsal, there are always little pockets of downtime while I hand out music or take care of something small for one or two people. My students know that these are the times that they may talk amongst themselves as long as it does not get out of hand. My choruses are composed of children from several area schools, so they only see each other once or twice a week, and they appreciate a little time to catch up. However, they know that once we start working on a piece of music, they need to focus. My section leaders help maintain this focus if someone is still talking through gentle reminders to quiet down. They also help focus singers who are temporarily lost by helping them find their place in the music and/or helping them read the score. I keep everyone engaged and busy while rehearsing. Even if I am actively working with one group, the other groups are to quietly hum along on their part so they are reinforcing what they have learned. By keeping my practices consistent, I rarely have a discipline problem.
Choral music promotes positive peer interaction and helps students develop traits and skills that are valuable beyond the choral classroom. As a music teacher, I love that sharing my passion allows me to be a part of this process naturally.
1”The Chorus Impact Study: How Children, Adults, and Communities Benefit from Choruses”, Chorus America (2009) https://www.chorusamerica.org/publications/research-reports/chorus-impact-study
2”Pupils' voice: My primary school teacher”, Vesile Alkan, Academic Journals, June 2013 http://www.academicjournals.org/article/article1379764262_Alkan.pdf
3”Introducing Students to Conducting”, Debbie Galante Block, Teaching Music, January 2015