The Problem With High School Programs: Are You Doing These 3 Things?

Last weekend, one of my colleagues attended a collegiate NATS competition. NATS stands for National Association of Teachers of Singing, an organization in which I have only recently become active. I didn’t register any of my students this year; most of them are in their first year of voice, have never had lessons, come from conservative / small / developing high school music programs, and are not really ready for the technical challenge, not to mention the indirect psychological ramifications.

Yesterday, this friend came into my office in a tizzy, and recounted for me the events of the competition, which mainly included a lot of highly-prepared, overly-careful singers who sang accurate notes, but didn’t really sing. So few of the competitors from the larger area universities, he said, performed with real freedom, openness, and musicality.

…which is a damn shame.

I wasn’t there, of course, so it’s hard to assess the actual situation having listened to only one person’s perspective. This friend said there were good performances, but at the end of the day, the quality of selections from the winning candidates just didn’t hold a candle to those from previous years. The whole event prompted a long-winded discussion on how an entire state of college vocalists are being trained to perform technically complex foreign-language arias in which all the notes are present and accurate, the dynamics are mechanically executed, and the musical effect is void of real emotion and expression.

The conversation turned to potential sources: changes in administration, budget deficits and economic downturn, limited resources and the like. In our particular school of music, we’ve had to re-braid the musical habits and training of so many of our incoming freshman that it’s kind of ridiculous. Some of the musical “truths” these singers come into college “knowing” are either vague assumptions of trivial knowledge or are totally inaccurate, and I can’t help but try to fathom what some high-school directors are teaching in their programs.

I would like to point out that there are some really great programs in my immediate community (and state) that are doing awesome work, and I think that most students in my local public and private school system would enter a college music program at an advantage. I’m also not saying I’m the perfect educator. I’m fully aware that most directors do the best they can with the resources they have, and that their concerns and issues will vary drastically even within one school district. But the issues are still real.

Teachers: Know Your Limits and ADVOCATE

The very first full-time job offer I got was for a rural K-12 school in which I would have taught choir and band. I turned it down because I didn’t know jack squat about directing a band (unless it would have been entirely made up of pianos, gongs, recorders, and kazoos). I was certified vocal, not instrumental. The district insisted that they would support me in the learning process and that they would pay for my instrumental certification and give me a year’s grace to do so.

Even as a fresh-out-of-college newbie,  my response to them (other than flipping them the bird, which I wanted to do, but I didn’t) was something along the lines of “very few people are actually qualified to teach both choir and band, and despite what you may want, I am not one of them.” I didn’t care how cushy (ha!) or demanding the job was, how much support I may have had, how much I needed the job, or how desperate they were to fill the position. I knew what I should and shouldn’t be teaching, and accepting that job would have done a disservice to the instrumental program there.

Sadly, this scenario is not uncommon, and the only way to fix it is to advocate for our profession. It is unacceptable to consolidate two seemingly yet totally unrelated positions because times are hard and budgets are low. Unfortunately, that’s the reality, but it is up to us as teachers whether or not we acquiesce. Part of any person’s job is to explain to the uninformed why you should or shouldn’t be running a program in which you have little or no knowledge of the content area. If you’re an “instrumentalist” leading a choir, and you choose not to give as much focus to your singers as you do to your instrumentalists, your singers will likely leave your program with little knowledge about how to sing properly, which should be obvious and certainly is problematicOf course, in order to address this issue, one must…

Know Your Instrument(s)!

One of my female private voice students just was cast as a male in her junior high musical. This isn’t unheard of, and I totally support this kind of thing if done correctly (like a stepsister in drag, a la Cinderella). However, this student has come to her lessons desperately seeking some sound instruction because she doesn’t know how to sing “like a guy.” She’s confused on the octaves, the placement, and the mechanics; things her choir director (who cast her) are not addressing because he probably doesn’t know how to. Apparently, her choir director, who is an instrumentalist, told this fourteen-year-old female to sing more “in the back of the throat” so that she would sound “more like a man.”

…. I stifled a scream and tried to avoid hurling my music stand at the mirror.

This type of instruction is NOT OKAY. In this case, this choir director’s advice was totally inaccurate and would actually set her back if she didn’t have the means to take voice privately (and many don’t). When my pianists get to be a certain level, I start the “it’s time to consider a more accomplished teacher if you’re going the classical route” dialog, because my strengths are in collaborative work and “combat” accompanying, not necessarily advanced classical literature and technique.

This isn’t to say that there are instrumentalists out there who are very good choral directors, and vice versa. One of my good friends is a pianist in a tenured choral position at a high school. What he lacks in vocal know-how he makes up for in other areas: his choirs are top-notch sight-readers and are usually tuned to perfection, and he regularly and consistently has choir directors and vocalists come in to work with his singers and himself. He knows exactly what literature he can and can’t teach his choirs and singers, what musicals to choose, and the limitations of his abilities as a choral director. That’s how it’s done. As a singer directing a pit of instrumentalists, the first thing I do is profess that I cannot help them technically. I can’t show them how to play their instrument. I can show them articulation and try to arrange the most musical version of what we’re playing. I attempt to collaborate with instrumentalists who know what they are doing and are gracious enough to lend their talents, but it would be more ideal to know my limits and not put myself in the position of having to make up information and screw up someone’s musical learning in the process. Teaching is burdensome; you’re holding someone’s future in your hands. The least we can do is make sure we know what we’re talking about!

Encourage Your Musicians to Be Ensemble Members AND Soloists
(if you’re not sure how, be your own pedagogue!)

It astounds me how few choir directors are actually part of NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing). I know, I know. We’re not all made of money, and we have to pick and choose our professional organizations. I get it. But how many choral directors are in the lucky position of not having to teach anything outside their training and/or comfort zone, like musicals, show choirs, or vocal jazz ensembles (or driver’s ed)? How many choral directors are choosing not to address or are totally ignoring things like mechanical and anatomical changes when singing musical theater, opera, jazz, pop, world music, or show choir lit? You know what does address all these things? The Journal of Singing, a NATS publication. It’s my on my nightstand, and if you direct singers, it should be on yours, too.

Alternately, the well-being of the choral voice and the individual voice is so rarely addressed in high school choirs, as evidenced by the fact that most female college freshman don’t even know what the terms “head,” “chest,” and “mixed” resonance really mean or feel like, despite having participated in musicals and show choirs where they were encouraged to sing “as loudly as possible” (hint: this shouldn’t entail actual scream-yell-singing). I had a 19-year-old private singer who was essentially told all through high school to sing entirely in a straight-tone voice, and had never even heard the word vibrato. It’s up to directors to choose a variety of literature that encourages all manners of singing, and when we don’t know how to teach those styles, we need to be our own pedagogues. I’m not an expert in operatic literature, but I still give well-selected and researched arias and recitatives to my students, and I learn right alongside them. When they try to use their “pop” voice in those pieces, I don’t let them, but I also say “here’s how,” which is a type of instruction that many students just don’t receive in high school, where the pressure is to compete, perform, earn a “1” rating, sing loudly over a combo, “belt,” or sound the same as the singer next to them in choir. If you’re a choir director, know your performance practice and apply accordingly to Eric Whitacre and Brahms. The struggle is real, but it’s your responsibility.

I’d argue that in order to teach this way, one must actually know what to teach, and in order to know, they need the experience. I’m not the epitome of perfection, okay? But I have made every attempt to explore all sides of vocal pedagogy, especially in college. I played piano in a jazz ensemble, sang in a jazz choir, sang in an elite traditional choir, participated in the opera program, took traditional piano and voice lessons, took part in musicals, directed musicals, and even did things like ballroom dancing and tap dance to garner the most basic skills of rhythm and movement (which I’d say is necessary for any show choir or barbershop director). The trait of self-awareness and reflection is not innate to a lot of educators; evolutionarily, we are creatures of habit and comfort, which is why we have to be our own teachers. At the very least, we should never tell our singers to try to sound like something they aren’t and can’t be, and we certainly shouldn’t be doing so if we’re not sure that our instruction is sound (see what I did there?)

::puts away soapbox::

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