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Teaching in an Urban Choral Classroom: A Discussion with Dr. G. Preston Wilson

Libby Gopal • ChoralCornerMay 2023 • May 11, 2023

Male And Female Students Singing In Choir With Teacher At Performing Arts School

Dr. G. Preston Wilson is the assistant professor of music education at Rider University. He received a BME from Fisk University, where he was a member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, earned an MME from Bowling Green State University and a PhD from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Wilson taught in the Toledo Public School system, overseeing five ensembles and the school dance team at Start High School. He was also the vocal coach and co-director for the Toledo Youth Choir, a community youth ensemble, and taught voice and piano for The Mustard Seed Academy of the Arts. 

Libby Gopal: Describe your experience teaching in an urban setting.

G. Preston Wilson: I am a product of urban public schooling. From sixth through twelfth grade, I attended Durham School of the Arts, which is an urban art school. When attending undergrad at Fisk University, both of my student teaching experiences were in urban public schools. During my masters, I worked with the Music Plus program. Once a week, selected students were bussed from Toledo Public Schools for two hours: one for private lessons, one for piano and composition. My first job out of graduate school was at an urban charter school, L. Hollingworth School for the Talented and Gifted. After that, I started working for Toledo Public Schools and spent two years in elementary schools and three years in high schools.

LG: What are some recurring issues a new choral director might face when teaching in an urban setting?

PW: I have found many music educators made the decision to become music educators because of the experiences they had in school music. When new teachers get their own classrooms, they attempt to recreate those experiences. However, they are sometimes frustrated because they attempt to recreate those experiences they had, but the context is different: this is called praxis shock. Also, because of the transient nature of urban populations, assumed musical skills may not always be possessed by the students. A choral director coming into this environment needs to be ready to teach those desired skills. This is not true in all urban contexts, but many times urban schools do not always have resources that make success easy. Therefore, a teacher should be prepared for creative fundraising and innovative lessons. In addition, urban settings may present some behaviors not often discussed in traditional teacher education programs.

LG: Did you ever feel compelled to modify some pedagogical tools and/or resources to make them conducive for the setting in which you were teaching?

PW: To have a successful program, I understood I had to have students in my class; I had to make my class worthy to be an elective. One strategy was relinquishing some of my repertoire selections. In my high school choir, I had a working agreement: if they worked hard at the music I selected, I would work hard on the music they selected. If I selected a song in another language, the students worked hard on the IPA and technical things. So, when my students selected a song, I made sure they had lights and staging, edited backing tracks, and choreography. I also consider the student who knows the least (musically) in all my lessons. If that student will not be able to grasp the content without assistance, I change the presentation of the content. I ensure the images in my classroom and video selections for my lessons always include people who look like my students. I freshen routine things up: add click tracks or ostinatos to the warmups or play random music at the beginning of class. In some classes I just talk to the students as people. And when they talk, I allow them to be honest and authentic. Students come to class carrying so much, both good and bad, and they deserve the opportunity to express it.

LG: What are some ideas you would like to share that could be helpful for getting students interested and familiar with choral singing?

PW: Make singing accessible and engaging. I am not saying the tried-and-true classics of choral music should be abandoned. I am saying they should be approached in a new way. Connect the music to the students and who they are. For example, many operas are rife with drama…like many of the reality TV shows. Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti is like watching an episode of Cheaters. Listen to your students’ music—you’ll be surprised. And you might not hate it (although the content and language can be a bit much). But then ask the students to tell you why they like the song or artist, and they must use vocabulary you’ve taught them in class. They must articulate why they like it.

Recruit in unconventional ways. I would go to the cafeteria or listen to students sing in the hallway, then march them to the counselor’s office to get a schedule change. I had students who were wonderful rappers and lyricists but not the best singers: guess who’s getting a solo? I would see some students singing in their church choirs and ensembles, and I would of course ask them to join one of my choirs. I had amazing dancers who were not singers: guess who’ll be choreographing? Crowdsource your enrollment by telling your students to bring their friends. Be just as unconventional in fundraising and promotion. Use social media, make flyers, use coupons, beg. Most importantly, always keep your “why” of teaching music at the forefront of your intentions. In all aspects of preparation for class, why do you do it? I feel reasonably assured in saying none of us went through the trudges of college and certification programs just to teach a half note gets 2 beats in 4/4. We don’t want to teach notes on a page, we want to make music; we want to create independent musicians. Yes, we want students to identify a ritardando in a piece of music, but most importantly, can the student perform it in the appropriate way of their own volition?

LG: What do you see as possible solutions for the choral director navigating potential issues common in urban school districts?

PW: Relationship building is critical: with students, their families, your administration, the school community, and the surrounding community. It takes all these cogs to make the machine that is music education run smoothly. Be your honest and authentic self as the teacher. You cannot be everything to everybody. Being the best you is the best thing.

And if there is something you do not know, bring in somebody who does. Change the rhetoric of urban music programs. When people hear the word urban, it is often attached to negative stereotypes and deficit perspectives. But urban music classrooms are very special places that are quite unique. Students possess so much talent. They merely need a safe space to cultivate it. I can look back on my time with Toledo public schools and say I never had a dull moment…ever. I would create opportunities to showcase my students’ versatility, talent, tenacity, resilience, and humor.

Reprinted with permission from ACDA – ACDA.org

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