Be the leader they need

minidabYou wouldn’t know this since I’m the guy who wrote “Your choir sucks because you suck”, but I’m a sappy, open, and vulnerable choir director. It doesn’t take much to get me all choked up in rehearsal when I’m lovin’ on my choir and I feel it in return. Today, I want to share with you the things I do to make my choir members fall in love with singing in my choirs.

Let me just start by saying I would never want to be a kid in 2016. It looks a lot harder than it was when I was growing up. They have a lot more access to tools that allow them to compare themselves to each other, always trying to “be enough”, to gain the approval of their peers, teachers, family, and (lastly) themselves.  

Choral music has this amazing way of opening us up and exposing all our gushy inside bits, doesn’t it?  It’s one of those arts that the general public, parents, administrators, and colleagues won’t ever understand until they’re in it themselves. Or maybe they never will, because they’re not in YOUR choir, looking through the eyes of a young adult in 2016.

In my humble opinion, choir is the least parts technical and the most parts vulnerable. Sure, how we form our vowels is important to me, but it takes a buy-in from your choir before they care about vowels as much as you do. Here’s how you can love your choir so buy-in comes naturally, without canned compliments and insincerity.

1. Listen for what your choir needs in the moment by “reading the room.”

Listening is our #1 priority as choral directors, and for me the most perplexing part of the whole equation. If we’re prepared, we come into rehearsal with an idea of what the music should sound like, and we shape the choir into what we imagine. At the same time, we have to be free to respond in the moment to what the choir needs from us; an interesting dichotomy.

In order to be fully open to spontaneous music making, we need to listen to the choir.

Read the room. What is your choir’s overall mood, in this very moment? What do you sense from them?

    • Here are some possibilities:
      • Anxious
      • Excited
      • Overwhelmed
      • Hungry
      • Cheerful
      • Optimistic
      • High on life
      • Goofy

Now, what is the energy level? High, medium, or low?

Remember that there are varying degrees of emotion and each includes different levels and kinds of energy. For example, you can have a choir that is nervous about a performance and it could translate to loud, boisterous behavior or quiet anxiety.

The way you will respond has to do with the complete room reading, or the mood + energy level.

Here are some possible responses to the room reading:

  • High Energy/Cheerful: Start rehearsal with the rousing spiritual today then continue to the folk ballad.
  • Low Energy/Tired: Mix up the seating and sing through a song you know well.
  • Low Energy/Anxious: How about rehearsing under dim lighting?
  • High Energy/Excited: Go outside and soak up the sun for the first few minutes and do your physical warm ups out there.
  • Medium Energy/Contemplative: If it’s raining, run outside and get a little wet and laugh together.
  • Medium Energy/Overwhelmed: Why not dim the lights and do a guided meditation with the choir like this one

2. Share stories with your choir.

happy choir kidsSometimes you shouldn’t rehearse, but rather open up and share a story or memory that is applicable to the situation. Anyone who tells you that choir rehearsal is for learning the music from a technical perspective should be struck gently about the head and neck with a rolled up newspaper.

I make more progress when I tell a story that is hard for me to tell.

This year, 9/11 fell on a Sunday. On the Tuesday after, while working on Moses Hogan’s “Hear My Prayer”, I had to step back and acknowledge the day and share with my choir of Albuquerque teens what it was like to live back east on that historic and tragic day. The story was about keeping in mind who in your audience needs your music when you sing, what they may be grieving, what baggage they come in with, and how you can help them unload their worries and move them to a higher understanding of themselves through a connected performance.

I cried. They cried. *Which wasn’t the goal, by the way.*  But we sang a rendition of “Hear My Prayer” that changed the way we think about performing it in the future.

Sometimes a goofy story works just as well to lighten the mood.

Read the room (like above) and share with your choir. They’ll love you for it.

3. Be grateful for your choir.

Before, during, and after rehearsal, be full of gratitude for those you direct. Remember the tremendous privilege you have of working with students that are interested in what you have to share, and that you get to make music that changes the lives of those who hear it.

Isn’t that cool? I think so.

The other day, I was having a fit trying to stay calm on the phone before my Concert Choir class.  At the time of writing this, I’ve been a Southwesterner for all of a month and was still moving money from my accounts in NYC to Albuquerque.

The nice lady on the phone at the bank was what I call “two walnuts short of a Chinese chicken salad,” and was not understanding my predicament. That being said, I’m always nice on the phone with customer service people, but that day I felt myself getting worked up.

Anyway, I’m sure it’s because I’m 2000 miles away from any of my east coast bank branches, and I felt absolutely helpless while money was flowing out of my account. All I was trying to do was stop the bleeding. In my opinion, the lady on the phone didn’t have enough gauze and proceeded to wrap it around my face instead of my severed leg. Let’s just say it wasn’t a good feeling.

When I finally got off the phone, I sat down on the bench outside the high school and soaked up some sun and reminded myself how amazing rehearsal was going to be and felt the warmth of gratitude pour over me.  Right there, I made a choice that today was going to be a great day, not only for me, but my choir.

And it was.

But I had to will it so.

We had one incredible rehearsal, because I took responsibility, chose not to be a victim of circumstance, and gave it everything I had for almost two hours. It paid dividends.

There’s something about teaching from a place of gratitude that makes it more authentic. Your kids will notice and come along for the ride.

Copy of Your Choral Experience is Your Fault

4. Get to know each member of your choir.

Let’s start with their names.

When you’re done reading this, read this article on the importance of a name, written by Colorado teacher Valerie Strauss.

You have an obligation to remember names and say them correctly. When you mispronounce a name and the child says “It’s okay. You can call me whatever…”. You must respond with “No. I want to get it right, and I will get it right. Please correct me if I’m wrong”.

This is part of loving your choir.

That being said…

5. Spend time with your choir even when you don’t have to.

bumper boatsAnother way, would be to spend time doing non-choir activities with your choir.

I recently went on a student-organized trip to the local “family fun center” where I rode go-karts, bumper boats, played mini golf, laser tag, laughed and got to know about 20 kids from my upper level ensemble. The day allowed me to learn about them in their “natural habitat”, see who the leaders are, and my inner twelve-year-old found the day quite enjoyable as well.

If you can’t get out to the amusement park, consider organizing an in-school field trip or team bonding day. There are many professionals that will come out to your school and do this for a period or the whole day!

6. Trust your choir, and discipline them when necessary.

“They want candy, so keep feeding them vegetables until they thank you for it.”
-Mark Lawley (paraphrased)

Keeping the professionalism bar just out of reach of your choir is essential to creating an ensemble that respects you, their audience, and most of all, themselves.

I have enormously high professional expectations for my ensembles; from the way they walk into a performance to how they dress, groom, use their cell phones, treat each other, and execute their music.

This set of expectations does a great job of weeding out kids who aren’t interested in being great and sometimes frustrates others. But in the end, however, I’m left with a group of graduates who say “Thank you for believing in me.”.

We’re often afraid of the effects of disciplining a student, because we don’t want to rock the boat, upset kids or parents and get administration involved. After all we have this “cushy” job and wouldn’t want to jeopardize it.

That’s looking out for YOU, not your students.

You have to believe a kid can do better even when parents don’t believe it or the administration doesn’t want the headache.

If you have a scuffle with a parent about disciplining their child, you can always say “I have high expectations for your son/daughter because I believe in them.”

How could they fault you for having that outlook about their child?

Also remember that your first teaching job or current job isn’t necessarily the right fit.  You should find a place that shares your values. Sometimes your job starts out that way, and because of administrative changes, no longer lives up to your expectations. In that case, it’s okay to move on. Your mental health and well-being are priceless.

Your kids need you to keep that bar high because you love them. They’ll thank you for it. I promise.

7. Tell your choir you love them.

This is the most simple, straightforward, and easy way to love your choir.

Tell them, and tell them why.

If you do steps 1-6, they’ll know, but saying it important.

I was lucky to grow up in a two-parent home with a mother and father that reminded me regularly. My father would lecture me for hours and end with “I love you.”. And although I continued being an a**hole for quite some time, I always knew he loved me.  

Think about the number of kids who don’t hear it from their mom or dad. Kids doing what they do naturally… seeking approval.

You can be the one in their lives that approves.

Love has no limits, expiration dates, and knows no boundaries.  

Thanks for reading. I love you.

Now get out there and love your choir!