Candid Over Coffee ~ 2.23.17

This morning I am drinking my coffee at an Einstein Brothers in Athens, Georgia. My students are down the street in rehearsals for All-State Chorus, and I am relishing the chance to sit down with some coffee without interruption. Life has been a little extra crazy lately, hence my lack of posts these last few weeks. My husband just got a new job (praise God!) and so our two younger children are going to daycare. This means all new responsibilities at night to prepare for the next day and new routines for our sweet little baby. Our oldest child started t-ball, which means more commitments to write in on our calendar. And then of course, just our daily schedule with three kids under the age of 5 is a little nuts. But everyone seems to be doing really well. We are healthy, we are joyful, and we are starting this new season of our lives with excitement.

At school, my choirs are rehearsing for our Large Group Performance Evaluation. We perform two pieces for a panel of three judges and receive feedback and scores. Then we sight read for another judge to again receive feedback and scores. Some days I leave work thinking how great our rehearsals were and how well we are doing. Other days, I leave wondering why it’s not coming together like I want it to. Teaching singing can be so challenging; I can’t tell my sopranos to just move this vocal cord to this place. That’s not how our voices work. It’s such an experimental process for the singer to find what works. It’s a lot of “try this” and “relax” and “don’t do that.” But I have a fantastic group of kids this year that are eager to learn and improve. Seriously, a teacher’s dream.

And this weekend I am with three of my students as they participate in All-State Chorus. They are having an amazing time, just as I did when I was a part of All-State as a student. I can’t help but remember my own experiences every time I come to this event. This event used to be held in Savannah, so it’s a little harder to be nostalgic in a completely different city, but when I sit in on rehearsals and listen to the concerts, I feel like it was just last year that I was performing with the All-State Chorus. And now, as a teacher, I have a whole new appreciation for my music teachers, for the time and resources they invested, and always with great enthusiasm. Those people have impacted my life in tremendous ways. There is no doubt I am who I am because of them. And even if I had not chosen a career in music education, I know that their impact would still be a lasting one. They nurtured a love and appreciation for music within me, but they also chose to love me as a person. I can’t tell you how often I hear from someone that they took piano lessons or a music class in which the teacher was “mean” or “so strict” and those people walked away from that experience with a bad taste in their mouth. Thankfully, I just can’t relate to that sentiment. My teachers have been truly wonderful. I will forever be grateful to them, and it reminds me of my responsibility of carrying on their legacies to my students now.

Do you have a music teacher that left their mark on your life? Good or bad? I would love to hear about it here, along with any crazy memories you have from their classes or being a part of ensembles.

A Love-Hate Relationship

Sometimes I think I was overly ambitious by choosing a career in music.  By choosing to study performing arts, I think I have sentenced myself to years of great joy while also enduring extreme frustration.

Sometimes, for me, music is just too subjective.  I can drive myself crazy when I don’t achieve that perfect sound that I’m looking for.  There are some moments when I am looking at my students, envisioning the sound I want, pulling out every rehearsal technique in my arsenal, but I am just not connecting with them.

Thankfully, there are plenty of “AHA!” moments in which students do get it, and so we make forward progress.  Those are the moments that I remind myself I’m supposed to be in the classroom.  Those are the moments I can’t wait to write about here on the blog.

But sometimes, those moments seem distant, and I am left listening to recordings of my rehearsals trying to figure out what I am doing wrong.  Maybe I’ve tried to use an analogy about voice placement that was always helpful to me in my own voice study, but it doesn’t work with my students.  Or maybe no matter how many different ways I try to have my students correct my vowels, it isn’t sticking from day to day.  The feeling of defeat can weigh on my like a ton of bricks.

With Large Group Performance Evaluations around the corner, this stresses me out more than any other time of the year. It seems that every February, I start wondering what other line of work my degree in music qualifies me for.  Still, in the midst of my frustration with my own imperfections, I continue to love what I do.  I love the students, I love the music, I love the singing.

With music, I suppose it will always be a bit of a complicated relationship.

Choral Tone

Large Group Performance Evaluations are coming up for my choirs, and the first item on the judge’s sheet will be “tone”. I talk about tone almost every day in rehearsal, and I have realized that I continue to use the same words over and over again, year after year.

Sopranos, sing lightly!”  “Altos, darken your tone!” “Support your sound.” 

  These are just a few of my go-to phrases. I use them daily, along with words like “covered” and “mature”. I have a list of descriptive words that I have heard from other professionals over the years when talking about tone, and so they are ingrained in my mind. I think all choral directors have them. Naturally, I regurgitate these words when working with my own choir.

 Just like students have different methods in which they learn new material in our classrooms, they have different ways of grasping how to create just the right tone in their singing. This point was made clear to me yesterday in class. I found some recordings of fantastic choirs whose sound is one I would like my students to achieve. I told the students to listen specifically to the sound of the choir and come up with words they would use to describe the tone. They came up with an incredibly long list and had some really interesting ideas. Some of my favorites were:

Graceful.   Free.   Floating.   Moving.   Flowing.   Celestial.   Ringing.   Rich.   Like the whistle of the wind through the hills.   If calligraphy had a sound.   Elevating.   Oceanic.

All together, each class came up with about thirty-eight words. We put the words on the board and will be leaving them up as we continue to rehearse our music in the coming days.

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The students now have words of their own to connect to when striving for a beautiful tone.  Perhaps these words translate my ideas to the singers better than others.  The words will remain at the front of my classroom as a visual reminder of sounds we are striving for in our ensemble.

What are other words that you use in describing a quality tone?  I would love to hear some tips and tricks for improving tone in the choral rehearsal!

Why Train the Students?

It is fairly common to hear ensemble directors talk about how they “train” their students.  Of course, all classroom teachers do this, really.  One of the first lessons taught in classroom management courses is that of teaching your students routines.  You are to train them to know where to turn in papers, where to find passes, how to transition in and out of the classroom, and so forth.

In the music classroom, we train our kids in these same areas, but also in how to be responsible, independent musicians.  I always start my classes with vocal warm-ups, ensuring that they are becoming mentally focused for rehearsal while also creating healthy habits for their vocal use.  I work with them on their sight reading skills so that they can learn music on their own without always needing someone to pluck out notes for them on the piano.  I constantly remind them to give me good posture, always keeping their hands at their sides, feet firmly planted on the floor.  I promise them I’ll wear extra make-up – even paint my nose red – if they will just watch me conduct!

I have a group of students leaders that I have made sure to train for various roles.  Some have taken on the responsibilities of recording attendance, leading warm-ups, or setting up risers.  Recently, I even went so far as to run timed set-ups of the risers to prepare for our annual Fine Arts Showcase, a concert in which we would need to set up the risers backstage quietly and quickly while other groups performed.

The Fine Arts Showcase has been a tradition at my school for the last six years.  We perform a two night show that includes students from dance, theatre, chorus, orchestra, band, and even visual art.  It is a great event, but can be very stressful as there is a lot of transitioning that takes place.  While one group performs, another group quietly sets up in another part of the auditorium.  There is no down time at all so that the audience constantly has some entertainment going on.  I have been a part of it from the start, but this year things were a little different for me.

Last week, my sweet Grandmother passed away.  Oh, what a special lady she was, not just to me, but to so many.  I am still dealing with so much heartache, and when I am ready I feel certain I will have a blog post to share just how wonderful she was.  She passed away unexpectedly the week of the Fine Arts Showcase.  I was in such a fog.  My colleagues knew what she meant to me, and they knew I would need to be with my family for the visitation and funeral.  They immediately jumped in and took care of everything for me.  The band director, who already had a tremendous amount of responsibilities on his plate for the week, jumped in and directed my choirs.  He rehearsed with them as much as he could so they could get used to one another, and then he did a fabulous job conducting them in the concerts.  What a relief it was for me to know my students would perform with everything they needed even though I could not be there.

Through this Showcase, while I was gathered out of town with my family, my students proved to me the value of “training”.  The other directors share how the students came in dressed and ready to go for the concert.  Somebody stepped up and led warm-ups, and all of the students participated.  They lined themselves up to walk on stage just as we had practiced, and the riser team had the risers set up in record time without disrupting the other performances taking place on stage.  They were in their places ready to go with time to spare before the curtains opened.  They performed their pieces beautifully, and when everything was over, they had the risers broken down and put away. They even cleaned the room as if no one had ever been there.

They impressed the other directors that night and represented our choral program extremely well.  They were professionals.  They gave an outstanding performance, and they allowed my mind to focus on my family instead of worrying how to be at the concert to ensure that chaos did not break out.  This was the best gift they could have given me during my time of grief.  They gave a beautiful, impressive performance that allowed their audience to pause and enjoy the holiday season without distraction.  This is why we train our kids.

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Nashville

As a musician, I was always slightly embarrassed to admit I had never been to Nashville, Tennessee.  Maybe not as shameful as admitting to never having been to New York City (who, me?) but I had just never had the opportunity to visit.  My chance finally came last month when one of my students was accepted in to the National Association for Music Educators’ (NAfME) All-National Honor Choir.

When I first learned about the All-National Honor Choir last spring, I shared the information with one of my outstanding singers, Keshav.  He was a sophomore at the time and was eligible to apply after he made it in to the All-State Choir.  After discussing the program with his parents, he decided that he really wanted to be a part of this.  After completing the application and sending in an audition video, we waited about six weeks before receiving the news that he had been accepted.

Keshav spent four days in Nashville with other outstanding musicians from across the country.  He spent many hours in rehearsal with the choir, but he also had the chance to hear concerts by groups brought in by NAfME.  He stayed with the other singers at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and performed with the Honor Choir on stage at the Grand Ole Opry.

Keshav

I could not work out my schedule to be in Nashville for the entire NAfME Conference, but I did not want to miss the final concert.  I invited my best friend and fellow music nerd Amanda to make a whirlwind road trip to Nashville.  We left on Tuesday afternoon to make it in to the city just before dark.  We stayed in The Gulch and had dinner at a really fun place called Whiskey Kitchen.  Great food, great atmosphere.  The place was growing crowded as the night wore on, so as we left we were bumping in to all sorts of people, including John Corbett.  My first run-in with a movie star!  I was totally unprepared.  I didn’t know his name right off, but I quickly recognized his face from “Serendipity” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”  From then on I was convinced there were celebrities everywhere in Nashville, on every street corner, and was certain I would run in to more.  I kept my eyes wide open.  Alas, on a Tuesday night, the town is pretty quiet and I did not have any more exciting run-ins.  Finally Amanda and I trekked back to the hotel in the pouring rain and got some sleep.

The concert started at 9AM Wednesday with the All-National Jazz Band. We had fantastic seats.  The Jazz Band was incredible and included a performer from Jazz at Lincoln Center.

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The All-National Honor Choir followed the Jazz Band, and their concert was truly impressive.  Afterwards, I was able to find my student to congratulate him.  He was on cloud nine and was having to say goodbye to all sorts of new friends he had made.  It made me a little nostalgic for my own All-State Chorus experiences as a kid.  I love having the opportunity to introduce my students to these experiences just as my teachers did for me when I was a student.

I fell in love with Nashville, and cannot wait to return.  Next time my plan is to stay for a little longer than 18 hours.  That would be nice.

A Sigh of Relief

Another Fall Concert is in the books, and what a relief it is to have it behind me.  It went better than I had hoped.  My students made me incredibly proud with their hard work, focus, and professionalism.  I’m actually a little sad to have to move on to new music.  The music we had been working on was so much fun, but also rich in educational content and musicality.  Our concert theme was “Celebrating Today’s Composers”.  All of our music was written by living composers who are still actively composing.  It is amazing to me that so much incredible music is still being written today, music that I believe will continue to be performed by choirs for generations to come.

We had a larger audience than normal, which is fantastic.  I am so glad to see our program drawing in new people and greater support.  There were a great number of people there who do not typically attend the choral concerts–some of them were probably seeing their first Chorus concert.  After the concert, I overheard a few of those audience members talking about their favorite pieces and even downloading one of them to their phones.  I just smiled to myself as I walked past them, thrilled that our concert had introduced them to new music.  Isn’t that part of our goal?  Our purpose?  Not just to reach our own students with new music and performance techniques, but to have them go out and share what is learned in the classroom with others?  A love of music can be infectious.  May it always be so!

I have been walking around with such a sense of contentment after having a successful concert.  Now it’s a new week, and as always, I’m looking around my home and office realizing how many chores I had neglected to spend more time preparing for the concert.  Time to play catch-up and get back on track.  Winter performances will be here in the blink of an eye…

Motivation for your Monday

Mondays can be tough.  They can be tough for students and teachers alike.  A couple of years ago, I was trying to come up with some different weekly activities to use on a regular basis in my classroom to enhance our rehearsal time.  I decided I needed something for Monday to get us going for the week with our music, and I called it “Motivation for your Monday.”  I would share articles, videos, or quotes with the students on Monday to try and get them pumped up for rehearsal.

After a few weeks, I was running out of ideas and I honestly felt like the whole idea had fallen flat.  I decided to drop it.

Several months later, students began asking about it.  “What happened to our Motivational Mondays?”  “When is our next Monday motivation?”  I decided to poll the classes to see if anyone really cared, and it turned out they did.  They were enthusiastic in their response!  They wanted it back.

So it’s back.  And I am finding it a lot easier to come up with activities, and so far it’s going pretty well.  They aren’t all huge successes, but this week I had a pretty great one.  I decided to give them a short writing exercise in which they answered two questions:

What motivates you in life?  What motivates you in Chorus class?

I was really surprised and impressed at the answers I got.  I found myself very encouraged by their words and it helped me get to know each student a little better.  The responses were really well thought out.  Here are just a few excerpts:

“What motivates me in Chorus is the freedom it offers.  Other classes are fun, but the work involved isn’t usually as relaxing or fulfilling as singing in Chorus.  While in other classes you must be constantly evaluating what you say, in Chorus you are free to sing out loud without fear of discrimination.  This class has a higher percentage of positive, accepting people than my other classes.”

“I am motivated in Chorus by other people’s enthusiasm.  I am a people pleaser so if people expect me to sing strong and work hard, I will.  Enthusiasm is contagious, and it motivates me to work.”

“Learning new music motivates me.  It motivates me to be better and practice more.  Also, having such an excited teacher makes me want to learn more.”

My motivation in Chorus class stems from me simply wanting to better myself, as well as [it being] an outlet for me.  Music speaks for me when I cannot find the words to say.”

Teachers, try asking your students what motivates them.  You might be surprised at what you’ll learn, and you might find some new ways to encourage them in the classroom.

I plan on keeping several of these responses.  Just another reminder that our music classes are valuable places that allow our students to be authentic, creative, and collaborative.

Change it Up

I like change.  Not major changes, but small changes that break up the monotony of the day.  I can get in to ruts much too easily, so small changes, assuming they are positive changes, can be rejuvenating for me.  Because of this, I am always looking for ways to change it up as I teach Chorus on block scheduling.

Recently, I have been reading about various ways of standing singers in the choral ensemble.  The goal behind the various standing arrangements are, of course, to enhance the sound and the ability of the singers to hear one another within the ensemble.  I am always moving my students around to try and achieve a better blend and balance, so from day one I tell students to be prepared to move more than once throughout the semester.  And let’s be honest: I teach high school.  I’m not always moving you for the sake of blend.  Sometimes I am moving you because you just won’t quit babbling to your best friend.  Stop talking and sing!  But of course, I’m sure I’m the only high school teacher that deals with this, right?  Ok, I digress.

My classroom has risers built in, which makes it really unique.

My empty classroom after last year's spring concert.

My empty classroom after last year’s spring concert.

I am really thankful for a such a great space.  However, I have realized that because I’ve gotten so used to looking at the same setup each day, I have forgotten that there are better ways for the Chorus to stand in rehearsal.  While the students are somewhat angled at a slight curve, their sound is still focused only at me.  The sopranos rarely hear much volume from the altos.  They need to be in more of a semi-circle, which means breaking away from our riser setup.

And that’s just what I did this week.  After reading of some new ideas for standing arrangements, I realized this is just what I needed.  I got the students off of the risers and facing one another in new arrangements.  I started with my Advanced group.  They were perfectly willing to try it, and once we had our new arrangement, we started singing through one of our pieces.  The looks on their faces told me this was just the change we needed.  We were all (myself included) amazed at what a drastic change this move had brought about.  The students were able to hear so much more, therefore allowing them to create a much more beautiful blend and balance.

The beginnings of a new setup in rehearsal for one of the smaller ensembles.

The beginnings of a new setup in rehearsal for one of the smaller ensembles.

Another perk?  It forces the students to be much closer in proximity to me, which means I can more easily see if they have their cell phones out.  They have acknowledged that this discourages them from texting in class.  Score.

What sort of arrangement do you use in your classroom?  I am continuing to try out new arrangements within our semi-circle.  How creative are you with your classroom setup?

5 Ingredients for a Great Start to the School Year

Are you looking for an article full of teacher gripes, frustrations, if-only’s, and reminders as to why so many are burnt out?

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Well, this post is not for you.  I’m about to disgust you with all sorts of warm fuzzies, because my year has had a fantastic start.  The kind of start you dream about as a college student on the verge of graduating and embarking on your new career as a teacher.  I’m about to brag on some really special students and share with you how supportive my administration is.  Hard to believe?  I know!  I’ve got my coffee and I am ready to share it all.

Perhaps I am doing everything differently this year.  Perhaps I’m finally getting the hang of this teaching thing after several years of practice.  Perhaps my administration has made it all happen for me.  Actually, I think God is good and has orchestrated it all for me.  I am so thankful!  I can sum up my excitement by listing the five ingredients that I think have made for a fantastic start to the school year.

1.  Enthusiastic Students.  On the first day of school, we had an abbreviated schedule in which the classes were very short so that students could attend a series of informative sessions to prepare them for the school year.  With the small amount of time we had, the idea was that we could introduce the syllabus and other typical “first day of school” items.  I, however, wanted to hear what I had to work with for the year.  I wanted the students to start singing right away.  I was prepared to hear some moaning and groaning as my returning students would probably want to socialize with friends they had not seen all summer, or hesitation from the new students as they were unsure of their new surroundings.  I am happy (and a little shocked) to say that none of those things happened.  Students were on their feet right away, following me in every new warm-up I introduced.  My Advanced students actually cheered when I told them to stand for warm-ups.  They cheered.  I thought I would cry on the spot.  All of my students – and I mean all of my students – wanted to be there.  Which leads me to item number two…

2.  A supportive administration.  Most people are under the assumption that all of the performing arts students are there because they really want to be.  I wish that were the case.  It’s amazing how many students choose Chorus with the belief that they will sit in a chair and chat with their friends for a full year.  There are also a lot of students that can’t manage to pick an elective they want and so they are offered Chorus even if they don’t really want it.  The poor attitudes that these students bring in to the class can become a poison.  They can steal their classmates’ enthusiasm as well as mine.  They will disrupt rehearsals over and over with very little concern for the consequences.  I’ve had so many of these students that I can typically spot them as they enter the room on the first day.  This year I am happy to say that I haven’t found those students yet.  My administrators have made a conscious effort to only place students in my class who truly want to be there.  The curriculum office staff has gone above and beyond to ensure that I have all of the kids I recruited and that they are in the appropriate course.  They have spent countless hours working on this for me, and it has made a tremendous difference in my classroom.  Even my returning students have commented on what a different atmosphere there is, and how much they are enjoying the enthusiasm that everyone shares.  I am suddenly teaching a classroom full of students that are engaged and anxious to hear all that I have to share with them.  It’s a fantastic way to spend the day!

This year, I am teaching three Chorus classes: Beginner’s, Intermediate, and Advanced.  It is wonderful to have three levels in which to place students so that they can be most successful.  I am so grateful that my administration has backed me on this plan.  On top of all of this, my principal is incredibly kind and is always looking for ways to encourage the faculty and give praise where it’s due.  Yes, life is good.

3.  Organization.  I am more organized this year than I have ever been.  Organization is not my forte, but this year I have found a system that works.  Instead of running back and forth to my office all day, I keep everything in a small desk at the front of the classroom.  It is on wheels so I can easily move it during rehearsal, and it has a cover that locks so that nothing disappears when outside groups use my room in the afternoons and evenings.  The best part has been my baskets.

organization

I realize that organization comes easily to some, and so maybe right now you are shaking your head at me over how sad it is that something so simple is so new to me.  I can’t blame you.  Still, I’m excited about it.  Each class has their own basket and in each basket are hanging folders full of flyers, make-up assignments, extra copies of music, rosters, and completed assignments.  Everything is in one place, and even the students caught on quickly to my system and so they know where to find everything without asking me.  The best part?  There are absolutely no stacks of papers or music on my piano.  It’s a blessed miracle.

4.  An exciting fall concert theme.  I don’t typically give our fall concerts a theme, but this year I had an idea.  What if all of our concert music was written by composers who are still alive?  Composers that we could e-mail or even Skype with questions about the music?  I pitched the idea to my students and they went crazy.  I couldn’t believe how much they loved the idea.  It made choosing music a little more difficult as I had to do plenty of research, but I have found myself in love with my song choices.  This certainly makes for some fun rehearsals.  Plus, the educational opportunities are endless.  Students are seeing that quality choral music is being written right now, and that music history is still being made.  Names like Bach and Mendelssohn are important, and we will study those guys later in the year, but let’s also look at what’s happening right now, all around us.  Names like Eric Whitacre and Rosephayne Powell are now well known among my students, and I could not be prouder.

5.  My own positive attitude.  Some days this comes easier than others.  This is the one I will have to work at once January arrives.  For now, I try to start each day with a little quiet time in prayer to God as I sip my coffee.  That’s my chance to get my head on straight for the day.  I often drink out of a mug that is decorated with words from Psalm 46:10:  “Be still and know that I am God.”  God has placed me where I am today.  And when I am quiet, I can remind myself how stinkin’ awesome it is that I am a high school choral director.  It’s the job I wanted back in high school as I watched my own choral director share his expertise and love of music with me.  I have an amazing opportunity to give students a creative outlet while also introducing them to music from cultures and time periods that they are learning about in their other classes.  I can be a bright spot in their day when everything is going wrong for a student.  I can build meaningful relationships with students who desperately need them, showing them I care and that I believe in them.  I can sing as often as I like throughout the day.  I can be creative and innovative and immediately see the results.  My job is challenging and tiring, but at the end of the day, I know I love it.

Here’s to a great new school year.  I hope I can write a post in May with as many smiles as I am today.