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Ask a Conductor

ACDA • ChoralCornerNovember 2023 • November 1, 2023

SBO+: These ideas are equally applicable to all ensembles and general music classrooms.

Question: My morale coming back from winter break is low, and I’m struggling to get myself and my students excited about a new semester. What are your favorite games or activities, especially geared toward getting students out of their shells and engaged in the learning process?

From Mark Lawley, director of choirs, Willard High School Willard, Missouri 

I have found these ideas to be both safe and engaging: 

1) “What I Like About You!” I have a little jingle that I sing with this activity using those words. Everyone stands up, you are allowed to sit once you tell someone in the ensemble something you like about them. Students are encouraged to name a noble character trait (like I love the way that Brigham is an example of how a young man can be both masculine and caring). Students are encouraged to avoid comments like “hey nice shoes!” This activity proves to be heartwarming, sometimes funny but always brings us together. 

2) “The Hope Awards” This semester for the first time we began with what I called “The Hope Awards!” I shared with the students the reasons that they give me hope for our future. Then each student told why another person in the ensemble gives them hope. This entry to the semester was heartwarming and brought a few tears. In the end many felt closer and described the ensemble as their family.

3) “Tell Me Something Good”  There’s a popular song that has these words in it, and I sing to the choir in between them sharing something good that is happening in their life! 

4) “Pows and Wows” Let’s face it life isn’t happiness. This activity allows students to get negativity out if they want to. “Pows” are negative things in our lives, and “wows” are positive things. Some students share both pows and wows. 

5) BIRTHDAYS – after singing happy birthday to the person we are celebrating – everyone opens their backpacks and finds a random gift to give to the birthday boy or girl! This is so fun! Some give actual presents and others might give just a stick of gum! FUN! Life is so serious and isolating right now, I love employing these ideas to get students out of their own story and engage in and with others. 

From Jason Leigh, general music and choral director, Poquessing Middle School Feasterville-Trevose, Pennsylvania

Many years ago, I created a summer session for my choir students. The purpose of the session was to bring new members into the culture of the group, teach our warmups, and begin working on our repertoire. I soon discovered that one of the most popular segments of the camp was those dedicated to getting to know one another. I did this primarily with theatre games. While I am the musical theatre director at my school, I somehow underestimated how successful these same exercises and games would be for the entire choir. I wish I had realized sooner that you don’t need to be a member of the school musical to reap the benefits of these theatre games. 

With that in mind, I pick a Saturday just after winter break where we have a day-long event that reprises all the best parts of our summer session. I am always pleasantly surprised by how quickly the singers want to revisit the theatre games, no matter how many times we have played them! Use your school’s stage and let your students use these games to explore the space, their relationship to themselves, and to one another. Some choir directors may hesitate to do this because they may not feel comfortable in the theatre realm. I understand that hesitancy! However, with just a handful of games and some general directions, you can empower your students to essentially run the games on their own. Trust me, you have some kids in your choir who can’t wait to show you their improvisation skills. What always floors me is how many of them want to participate and the overall effect that has on our morale. Once one group goes, hands quickly go up after that. Who knows, maybe they’ll have you up there too and perhaps you’ll enjoy it! 

Don’t underestimate, too, the power of being vulnerable in front of your singers and how that might encourage them to take more musical chances. The internet is a great resource for these games and, if you don’t direct theatre, I guarantee you have a colleague close by who does and knows some games to recommend. A classic that my kids love is known as “party host.” One student (the host) leaves the room while 3 or 4 students tell the choir who they will be. It could be someone famous, a teacher, a movie character, etc. If they choose someone familiar (you will inevitably be chosen!), it is helpful to remind everyone to keep things respectful. The Host returns and one by one the host “answers the door” as the “party-goers” enter. After several minutes, the Host attempts to guess who has entered the party. After the first round, many hands will go up! These games don’t need to be relegated to a few times a year. They can be sprinkled throughout rehearsals, especially when you feel energy or morale lagging. They have certainly served me well, and I hope you will find them useful, too! 

Reprinted from ChorTeach with Permission from ACDA

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