Start Your Season with Greater Awareness!

SBO Staff • August/September 2018ChoralThe Practical Conductor • September 5, 2018

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By Brody McDonald

Welcome back! A new year begins, so I thought for this opening issue I would highlight some concepts that can help both you and your singers come into the start of the season with greater awareness. The longer I teach, the more I believe that raising the awareness of everyone in the room is key to overall success.

Each of these concepts came from my new blog, Choir Bites, which started last year. I wanted to find a short form outlet for ideas that struck me as I was teaching. You can find Choir Bites on Instagram @choirbites and on Facebook by searching Choir Bites.

Start with the Corners

This is a guest contribution by John Pickering and is so relevant at the start of the year when we embark on new projects:

Have your students ever been discouraged by a challenge?  Maybe it was the first time they were attempting a large work or a difficult piece of music (Ward Swingle’s Bach Organ Fugue comes to mind). 

I recently took over the middle school drama club. Aladdin Jr. is our show.  We learned the music before winter break, but just started staging the show when we returned to school.  The students were SO excited before break, and even more so at our first staging rehearsal.  However, as the rehearsal went on, there were many details that weren’t yet clear to students. They were able to learn the basics, but many fine points were not yet defined clearly.  Finally, one student spoke up.

“Mr. P!  I don’t even know what I am supposed to do at this part.  I am just standing here. I don’t know where I should go, what I should do, or who I should be interacting with!”

The frustration was palpable and soon I could tell there were similar conversations going on among friends as we continued to rehearse.  It finally dawned on me.  They have never had to do something like this before and it was… well, to be kind, messy.

I explained to them that this project is like a 1500-piece jigsaw puzzle and while the end of the project would be something magnificent, it takes work to get there.  I shared that currently, they have just taken the box of 1500 pieces and dumped it on to the dining room table.

Then I asked, “What is the first step?”  My frustrated student shouted out, “FIND THE CORNERS!”  I said, “Yes! What’s next?”  Another student yelled “The border!”

I then went further with the puzzle analogy and talked about how this was going to be messy, but if we focus on the corners, then the borders, we would have a framework in which to work. Eventually, the middle would come together more and more.

This analogy can be applied to any work in progress, from one song to an entire musical, or even to a director taking over a choir program. In any project, there are corners that must come first and a border that holds it all together. Get those in place, then fill in the middle as you go.

Miss it? Mark it!

I’m sure we all ask our singers to keep a pencil handy and to mark their scores, but this saying reinforces the idea of student ownership of score marking beyond explicit instruction.

I find that singers rarely mark their music except when I say, “Get out your pencil and mark this…” What a shame! I can’t blame the students completely. After all – education is so often about “the test” or “the score” that teachers present a “I’ll let you know what’s important” vibe.

Of course, there are times we specifically guide score marking:

  • Put the “T” on beat 3
  • Put a breath mark after *this word*
  • Mark that as an OH vowel

However, there are a lot of times students could mark their scores that only THEY know – when they miss something! Hence the phrase – MISS IT? MARK IT! If you’ve indicated a cutoff on beat 3 and the singer misses it, they should mark it. If they miss it again, they should mark it again. How many times? All the times. I want the music to look like it was found near an exploded graphite mine.

The marking of the score isn’t about having more marks on the page. Honestly, that just gives the singer more things to read. It’s about the fact that the student is engraving thoughts into their long-term memory, just as they might write out a poem to help memorize it.

The brand Field Notes (they make pocket notebooks) has a slogan: “I’m not writing it down to remember it later; I’m writing it down to remember it now.” That’s how I see marking one’s score. It is a constant process in order to keep the singer engaged, and to capture improvements in their memory.

Marking the score also makes rehearsal more interesting. I find myself more engaged in the Sunday sermon when I take notes. It gives singers options when they aren’t singing during rehearsal – review markings, proactively scan upcoming areas, etc. Ultimately, singers are more successful when they are self-motivated to enhance their singing through written involvement.

The sheet music shown in this picture belonged to one of my best high school students (who is now a choir director), Anna King. As you can see, she marked ALL THE THINGS. Well done, Anna!

Floating or Swimming?

This concept applies mostly to singers, but to us directors as well. Explaining this to your choir can give you a shorthand phrase to help them understand when you notice rehearsal is stalling out.

I was recently working with my top choir about developing habits aimed at increasing technique and literacy, rather than “learning their songs.” You know, the “you can do better” speech.

A student came to me after class and said, “You know, Mr. McDonald, it just hit me. I thought I was working hard, but I realize now… I’ve been learning how to float instead of learning how to swim.”

I had not heard that metaphor before, so I asked him to elaborate. “I didn’t start choir until sophomore year, so I was so focused on learning how to survive that I failed to really focus on my technique. I’ve just been worried about not being wrong, so I’ve been working to blend in. Sure, I’m not sticking out negatively, but I feel like I’m not growing, either.”

We all have students who are learning to float rather than learning to swim. They are trying to “survive” by doing just enough to avoid negative attention. There is a big difference between not doing anything wrong and doing something right. The absence of a negative is not a positive but starting point for positive behavior to begin.

We’ve all heard the phrase “sink or swim,” but that is a false binary. There’s something between the two that is neither failure or progress, and that is FLOATING.

With any choir activity or singing technique, imagine grading the performance by placing it into one of three columns: SINK, FLOAT, or SWIM.

SINK: poor, negligent, or disruptive behaviors

FLOAT: doing “OK” or getting by – nothing wrong, but not working towards developing skill or technique

SWIM: actively engaged, working towards development of consistent skill/technique (mistakes here are A-OK!)

Because the saying is “sink or swim,” is it possible that some students mistake floating for swimming? When they can understand SINK, FLOAT, or SWIM, they can be made aware of more levels of engagement, and thus understand that just because you are asking MORE of them, doesn’t mean they were “doing it wrong.” They could do it more actively and BETTER. And remember: swimming can tire a person out. Everyone needs to float occasionally to catch their breath.

The Five Ways

A business practice taken from Toyota can help you dig deeper as to the root causes of problems that manifest in rehearsal.

I read a lot of material regarding success, from music to sports to business. Success has a lot of commonalities across disciplines. And so, it was that I discovered the “Five Whys,” which is a practice that began at Toyota, and was widely adopted by other businesses.

The process is simple. Identify what went wrong and ask why. Then ask why again and again – 5 total times. The goal is to get the ROOT CAUSE of the issue, then apply a fix to that root cause. Here are some examples for singing.

Example A:

1. Why is the tone thin?

The singers aren’t singing openly

2. Why are the singers not singing openly?

They didn’t breathe through an open vowel formation

3. Why aren’t the singers breathing through an open vowel formation?

They waited until too close to the entrance to breathe

4. Why are the singers breathing so close to entrance?

They aren’t counting rests to anticipate the entrance

5. Why aren’t the singers counting rests?

They believe their responsibility to the music only occurs when actively singing: they are literally “resting” rather than tracking the music silently

Example B:

1. Why is the cutoff ragged?

The singers are placing the “t” at different times

2. Why are the singers placing the “t” at different times?

They are unsure of where the “t” goes

3. Why are the singers unsure of where the “t” goes?

They are not counting through the sustained note

4. Why are the singers not counting through the sustained note?

They are watching for a cutoff rather than tracking beats

5. Why are the singers watching for a cutoff rather than tracking beats?

The director always fixes the problem by saying “watch for my cutoff” rather than guiding the singers through the process of counting for the cutoff

The “Five Whys” addresses problems in a way that helps choirs identify how to prevent “mistakes” before they happen. The “Five Whys” helps determine if there is a gap in knowledge or in execution and allows directors to make corrections accordingly.


I hope these awareness builders will help you set a great tone for your upcoming year. Come follow along at Choir Bites for more ideas throughout the year and keep coming back to Choral Director for more long-form content.

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