Why Do School Choirs Suck?

cartoonchoir2

I hate to say it, but I think they do.

Every time I meet new students or check in with my regular students at the start of every year, I ask them if they’re in the school choir and a huge majority of them say no. When the rare child says yes I like to sing with others, I am so shocked my eyebrows nearly meet my hair line and the student looks at me with a blank expression that says, yeah what of it. Because most of my students decide to have singing lessons instead of doing choir.

Now for me as a singing teacher with nearly 5 years experience teaching contemporary vocals, I still think choir is necessary for a trained singer’s foundation of musical learning and experience. So I think it’s important to encourage students in both primary and secondary school to be a part of a choir at some point in their education, if they’re taking singing lessons.

Because so much about music can be learnt in choir that can’t always be taught as well in a singing lesson, such as:

  • Learning about form & different arrangements of compositions.
  • Learning pieces from varying genres.
  • Learning how to harmonise with other singers.
  • Learning about the arrangement of different vocal ranges.

All taught in a more active style of learning that encourages full involvement with the teamwork of other like minded singers.

I just think it’s a shame that most of the kids I teach in both primary and secondary school feel put off by the way choirs are run at their schools. I mean, when did singing songs with complex vocal arrangements you definitely couldn’t perform on your own, become boring and dry? Do we really need a cheesy movies like the Pitch Perfect franchise to get kids liking choir again? Is a cappella the only cool or interesting group vocal style?

I personally don’t think a cappella is the only answer to kids of all ages being interested in choir again, and I really hope mainstream media isn’t the only form of media educating young musicians. Because there is much more of a variety of interesting music genres outside of what mainstream media shares in general. It’s just that, as educators whether it be as classroom teachers, instrumental teachers or even as tutors, we still need to be showing our students various ways of finding other genres of content that assists them in expanding their current base of knowledge and understanding of the world.

School choirs need choir instructors and leaders who choose material based on both of what the students are interested in singing and what the choir instructor thinks is beneficial for their choral education. Because most students I teach tend to feel discouraged by the songs they are being given to sing in choir rehearsals, and end up leaving out of boredom.

It’s not that they will be able to find individual pieces that please both parties every time, but the choir instructor needs to be developing good rapport with their students, so:

  • Students feel encouraged to commit and enjoy being involved.
  • Students stay engaged and interested in what their learning.
  • Students trust their choir instructor and feel involved in the organisation of the choir with their instructor.

So that when they are given a piece chosen completely by the choir instructor, they are told exactly why they are given that piece to learn and why it will be beneficial to their development as singers. Both kids and teenagers are more switched on than we think, so they deserve full explanations of why they are told to learn and complete pieces they may not be so familiar with. Because once you are transparent with your students, the more willingly they will do their best to learn what you are teaching them and the better they will be at applying their newly learnt techniques.

I’ve noticed throughout my own experience as a teacher, that if I give them an honest reasoning behind why I’m giving them a piece based on the improvement of a specific aspect of their vocal technique, they are more likely to give it a go.

For example, I may tell them:

  • the biological reason, of choosing a song with a higher range than they would normally attempt to sing in. Just so they can extend their range and improve maintaining a higher tongue/larynx position for longer because they may be falling a bit flat or sound like they’re straining their voice in their other songs.
  • the aural reason, of assisting them in developing more depth in their tone, by teaching them how to combine different vocal qualities so they can convey more emotion in their performance.
  • the educational reason, of choosing material to not only teach them a new vocal technique but to improve their current knowledge of contemporary music history. To see who their favourite artists of today were influenced by.

I find that once the student hears me out, the more interested they are in their lessons and the more willing they are in the future to try new or challenging pieces/vocal exercises in their lessons.

I think school choir needs to be seen as more of an opportunity for young singers, to sing more challenging, interesting and fun material they wouldn’t usually get the chance to perform on their own. And if choir instructors aren’t creating a meaningful, transparent relationship with their students, then I don’t think they will be seeing a regular turn up at choir practice.

Image credit: http://www.kodaly.org.au/designing-learning-for-boys-in-mixed-choirs-part-1/

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