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.

Technology Ideas: Padlet

Over the last two weeks I have been doing my best to bring more technology in to my classroom. This is something that is greatly emphasized at my school, and yet I still struggle with it. It’s not that I’m opposed to technology in my classroom, it’s just that I feel that there are always problems that pop up. Sometimes I feel that we are trying to incorporate technology for the sake of incorporating technology instead of actually increasing our classroom’s efficiency or learning. There have been several instances in which I’ve tried to use the latest app or web-based activity to teach a new lesson, but after trying to help students recover passwords, gain wi-fi access, and giving out separate instructions to Apple users and Android users, well I feel that I’ve lost too much instructional time. My classes are much too large to purchase tablets for everyone and even the computer labs are too small for my groups. So many obstacles!

Still, I know that there are those brilliant teachers out there using technology with such ease, and their lesson plans always go smoothly and are loved by the students. Their students are engaged and productive. Maybe I can find my way to this dream world? I’ve decided to give it another shot. So this past month I decided to try out one new idea. My goal was to focus on one new techie idea that could enhance what I’m already doing with my students and then I could try to work through the hiccups as they came along. I decided to use Padlet in my classroom, an oldie but goodie. You can find it at Padlet.com and it’s free. It allows myself and students to post anything and everything on the screen in real time. I decided perhaps this could enhance my classroom listening exercises.

If you’re looking for something fairly simple to start with, this is a great one. I already have my students listen to recordings each week in our “Listening Fridays”. After we listen together, we have a class discussion over what we heard. This is one of my students’ favorite activities each week, but it’s impossible to take input from every single student in a class of 50. With Padlet, I found that I’m finally giving every student a voice.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Have your students go to padlet.com and create a user account. If using cell phones, there is a free app that you can use.
  2. Create a Padlet! You can customize it in so many ways. Then post questions on the Padlet wall that you want students to answer.
  3. Give a link to the students to get to the padlet you created. There are a number of ways you can do this. I had the most success with embedding my padlet to our class website (as hosted by the school), so since students already were accustomed to going to this site, they had no trouble finding the padlet. OR, you can easily create a QR code just by looking at the “Share” options on your padlet. The padlet app has a QR reader built in.

Begin your discussion! Have students click anywhere on the padlet to share their response. Their answers will immediately pop up on everyone’s padlet no matter what screen they are looking at. I love this for our listening activities because the students can begin discussing the topic while still listening in silence. Students are held accountable for their answers because their user name will show up with what they type, thus taking care of the class clown that is always looking for the chance to be inappropriate.

It took 3 or 4 days for me to work out the best process for using this program, but now that I have the bugs worked out, I’m making it a point to use it with the students every week. They seem to be enjoying it and now since it’s a regular part of our class, it fits in to our lessons seamlessly. Victory!

I would love to hear how you use this program or another techie gadget in your classroom. What are your favorites?

 

 

Candid Over Coffee: Mommy Needs Her Coffee

I attribute my love for coffee to my grandmothers. While my mom loathes the taste of coffee, my Granny always drank her morning coffee, and my Grandma can not function without it. Coffee is a staple for my day, and it has to come early in my morning routine. When I was a kid and would spend the night at my Grandma’s house, my siblings and I knew the rule: don’t talk to Grandma until she has had her coffee. This was not a joke, either. I can remember coming out of the bedroom to find Grandma sitting by the window overlooking her rose bushes as she stared out at the North Georgia mountains. I could usually tell if she had just poured her coffee, in which case I went back to my bedroom to read for a few minutes while she had her quiet time.

I now hear myself telling my boys that “mommy needs some quiet time” while I drink my coffee. Like my Grandma, I am not a morning person, but coffee helps me cope. As my siblings will tell you, this is just one of many traits that I inherited from my Grandma. I think she is smart to have always insisted on quiet time in the mornings. I have found that when I can get it, my quiet moments in the morning with a hot cup of joe in my hands are precious for many reasons. Mostly, it gives me a chance to reflect. Put the smartphone down, turn the tv off, and just think. That’s when I am really “candid” with myself.

If you google the word, candid is defined as being “truthful and straightforward; frank.” My goal in creating this blog was to be truthful and straightforward about life as a high school choral director, both in and out of the classroom. Sometimes it’s easy to be candid on social media and in our conversations with others, but other times it can be difficult. Sometimes our life is just not going as planned. Other times, we are so distracted that we are missing a lot of what is going on around us. How often do we just sit without distractions? Really, when was the last time you just sat still, alone, and without looking at a screen? For me, it is rare. Too often, if I have a free moment, I am picking up my phone and scrolling through Facebook, or I am adding items to my “to do” list. I spend my work days with over 150 teenagers and then come home to three children under the age of 5. I need time to just be still.

This time to myself is best accompanied by lots of caffeine poured in to a mug that has a special memory attached to it. It is so good to be able to “just sit.” So today, I am reminding myself that my Grandma has it right when she makes her coffee time a priority. It’s ok for me to tell the kids that Mommy will be better after she has had her coffee time. That Grandma of mine is a smart woman.

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Waiting for fireworks to start after our 4th of July Family Picnic, 2009

 

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.

When your Mom is a Musician

When your parent is a musician, life can be a little different for you. There are quirks, really. I didn’t realize this until I had children of my own. Like when you are too sick to be at daycare, but your mom has rehearsal, so she sets up a pack and play next to the piano and manages to keep you somewhat entertained while also playing and scribbling down notes for the singers. Or even if you’re not sick, you find that much of your time is spent with Mom or Dad in the theatre or rehearsal venues.  Homework is done in the sound booth and naps are taken on the corner of a stage.

When your Mom is a musician, you listen to lots of Gershwin, Chopin, and some Beethoven mixed in for good measure. When you watch “Little Einsteins” and a composers’ name isn’t pronounced to her liking, she is sure to let you know.

When your Mom is a Choral director, your bedtime lullabies can be really strange. If it’s getting close to a big performance, you will probably be listening to her sing the alto line to one of the concert pieces.  Or maybe if the tenors were particularly squirrely that day, you’ll be hearing their part an octave higher.

When your Mom is a Choral director and she goes to conferences, she comes back with gifts, which is why you have your own set of Boomwhackers in the play room.

I’ve seen children tagging along with their band director daddies to our professional association’s planning meetings. I’ve sat in a corner of a convention center with choral director friends as our babies played and crawled all over us while we waited on our students to get out of All-State Chorus rehearsals.  I’ve seen our dance teacher make pallets in the floor for her children to sleep while she stayed at school late to finish building a set.  I’ve listened to our theatre director’s son recite lines from a play that he knows better than the actors because he has sat in on so many rehearsals.

Yes, life can be different for our children.  But there are also great memories to be made along the way as we include them in our crazy schedules and routines.  They are introduced to what we do at an early age, and they are given a model of hard work and dedication that they will always remember.  Hopefully, they will follow in our footsteps with a love for music, dance, and theatre, and we will have a special bond that spans from dragging them with us to rehearsals to one day sitting in the audience as they take their turn on the stage.

 

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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Book Queen

My students and I just finished a really fun project that I want to share here on the blog.  About a year ago, the media specialist at my school shared a music video with me in which a group of students from another school parodied a popular song to promote their media center.  She wondered if we could do something similar?  I told her once we had some time we could make something even better, and so after our fall concert that’s just what we did.

I brought up the idea with my students, and they really took it and ran with it.  They came up with the song, rewrote the lyrics, held their own auditions, and came up with the choreography.  It took us about a week to do.  One of my students handled the recording and video editing.  She recorded the audio first and then put it with the video she had captured.  She had it ready to go in less than an hour–amazing!

This is evidence that my kids are super smart and tech savvy while also being vocally talented.  I’m pretty excited to have such a great group of students this year.  Check out how great they are as they get our school pumped to read:

I am hoping that this will be the first of many efforts in collaborating with teachers and organizations outside of our Fine Arts Department.  The media center specialist was able to use this commercial on our school’s television channel as well as on the school’s social media sites and webpage.  I don’t think my students were expecting what we got in the final product, so seeing their faces as they watched the final video for the first time was really fun.  They were really proud and have been sharing it on their own social media.  I’m hoping this will be the first of many fun videos we get to make together.

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?