How to Thrive as a Choral Teacher

Robyn Hilger • January 2023UpClose • January 15, 2023

All I ever wanted to be was a band director. From the first day of 6th grade band class, I knew I would be doing this for the rest of my life. Fast forward to my first teaching opportunity…a brand-new school, a principal who was a true fine arts supporter, and a budget. But there was a catch. If this was going to be a full-time position, I needed to teach band and strings. Strings? Strings! What did I know about strings beyond String Methods and Essential Elements page 20? My degree said I could teach strings. My teaching certificate said I could teach strings. Could this band director really teach strings?

The answer was YES! Fortunately, I had a network of friends and support to draw from. Two people in particular, David and Kara Koehn, literally saved my first year of teaching. After four years of college and student teaching together, we had all moved into the same apartment complex. I spent almost every day after school in their apartment learning how to teach strings. All I knew was I simply needed to be one page ahead of my 6th grade classes in the method book. You would be amazed at the miracle that paper towel tubes are when trying to learn finger patterns! These friends spent countless hours tutoring me in finger patterns and shifting, bow placement and string changes, how to determine bowings, how to change strings, and even how to reset a sound post. We spent hours discussing the nuances of tuning simply based on whether your string was in tune to start and then the slightest placement of your finger a little too far forward or backwards which is an entirely new concept when one comes from a system of fixed fingerings (I am a classically trained clarinetist). 

They encouraged me to join the American String Teachers Association (ASTA) and I went to as many professional development sessions in strings as I could when our music educators association conferences happened. I had the distinct advantage of working with beginning students because the school was new. I could be just ahead of my students and not worry about it impacting their overall learning and performance outcomes. I might go so far as to say that an additional advantage was that I was experiencing beginning strings just as they were. I was keenly aware of the things that were uncomfortable physically or challenging to accomplish when trying to coordinate my fingers and my bow. I had to practice as hard as they were! And over time, I gained confidence and competence. I established myself as an excellent music educator in band and strings. I will be forever indebted to the community of colleagues who invested in me so that I could meet the needs of the students in my classroom.

Fast forward to today. After several years in the non-profit sector, I now find my early career repeating itself. In September 2021, I became the national executive director of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA). That’s right. This band teacher turned strings teacher is now the executive director of the largest association of choral professionals in the world. And, once again, I am a beginner. The transition between band and strings was challenging but there are many commonalities in the instrumental world. In no version of my professional future had I ever imagined a choral path. And yet, here I am, and I could not be happier.

This new transition has challenged me beyond anything I could imagine. The choral profession is vastly different from the instrumental profession. One neither better or worse but certainly different. And I wonder how many of my instrumental colleagues find themselves thrust into this choral world without a resource or life-preserver? At least in an instrumental degree, almost everyone experiences some level of methods courses in other instruments. However, my degree program did not contain any work in the choral arts. I suspect many of you did not either. One graduates and searches for that first job and when the offer comes it is thrilling until you find out that you must teach high school band and high school choir. Or you take a job in a community you love, only to realize you have two sections of strings and must teach 6th grade choir as well. My story is not unusual. Every year around the country, music educators are filling multiple roles within their schools to ensure all students have access to high-quality, sequential music education. This is daunting work but is almost impossible without a community of support. For those of you who are instrumentalists and find yourselves with the opportunity to teach choir as well, I have an invitation for you. Join us in the ACDA and let us be your network and community.

ACDA is uniquely positioned to help you grow as a choral educator. Here are a few ways we can support you:

Networks at Every Level
ACDA is organized in three layers: states, regions, and National. Every state has an ACDA chapter. This makes accessing colleagues and resources easy and often requires little travel or expense. State work is specifically tailored to address the unique needs of choral educators within the state. Need to know how to interpret the state festival rules? Ask your ACDA colleagues! Want a first honor choir experience for your students? Participate with your state ACDA chapter! Regions are organized by unifying states in specific geographic areas. We have six regions. Region organization provides a way for states to share successes and challenges and to network together. Finally, everyone is unified under the national structure. Within ACDA, you can access resources in your backyard, in your area, or even across the country!

Additionally, ACDA is organized into repertoire specific and age/grade level specific areas. From those who serve young children, to K-12, to collegiate ensembles, to music in worship and community choirs, ACDA supports the needs of choral professionals in all these areas. There are specific resource leaders who are at the state, region, and national levels to grow resources, answer questions, and serve as support systems across the country. Regardless of your teaching situation, ACDA is equipped to support you.

Conference & Professional Development
Many states hold in-person conferences in the fall and summer. These gatherings are focused on repertoire, pedagogy, conducting, performances, and experiences for students. Regions hold conferences in even numbered years, providing an opportunity to showcase performances from across the region and professional development sessions that meet the needs within the area. The national conference takes place in odd numbered years and serves as a pinnacle opportunity to experience the very best of the choral profession from across the country and even around the world.

ACDA actively publishes three professional journals, each designed to meet the specific needs of the choral community. ChorTeach is ACDA’s online journal focused specifically on the practical needs of music educators in today’s classrooms. ChorTeach is published quarterly with the goal of the information to be immediately applicable in rehearsals the next day. ChorTeach is the perfect companion for the non-choral educator. The Choral Journal has been the international journal of ACDA since 1954 and provides members with practical and scholarly information about the choral field. It is published nine times per year and is mailed to every member. The International Journal for Research in Choral Singing focuses on studies that apply rigorous, systematically-grounded methodologies, either quantitative or qualitative, to investigate phenomena of potential interest to all who sing in, work with, or are otherwise interested in choral ensembles.

Repertoire and Resources
One of ACDA’s primary focuses is providing information and recommendations for choral directors at all levels on repertoire and pedagogical resources. ACDA has appointed repertoire-specific volunteers who cultivate and curate repertoire recommendations for youth & children’s choirs, junior high/middle school choirs, high school choirs, music in worship, community choirs, ssaa, satb, ttbb, world music, vocal jazz, show choir, and contemporary a cappella.  If you can sing it, we support it! Members have access to these resources every day of the year, with specific “release” dates on new recommendations and resources. 

SBO+ readers can read ChorTeach by visiting our website.

I never would have chosen to teach strings if I had not been thrust into that situation early in my career. I also would not have had the chance to work in my incredible school environment if I had turned down this opportunity to grow my skill set. The thing that made all the difference to my success was a support system of knowledgeable professionals who held my hand until I could stand on my own. The American Choral Directors Association invites you to join our network. Music changes lives. We see it every day. We look forward to supporting you as you do this important work across the country.

A native Oklahoman, Robyn Hilger is a classically trained clarinetist. She graduated with high honors in 1999 from Oklahoma City University with a bachelor’s degree in instrumental music education. In 2010, she completed her master’s degree in school administration from the University of Central Oklahoma. She is currently pursuing her Doctor of Education in administration and leadership at Southern Nazarene University. She is a national board-certified teacher in early adolescence/young adult music with specialization in band.

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