Creating a Student Centered Choir Classroom

It happens at every concert.  I mentally recite all of the cues and gestures that I need to remember.  The stress surmounts moments before my choir takes the stage with thoughts of “what if they don’t follow my crescendo here” or “I hope they listen for that key change.”  And then in the performance, the choir is locked on my hands, wringing them free of all of the cues and clues they possess.  After a job well done, sometimes not as well as we hoped, I am usually left wondering “how can these singers get to a place where the don’t need me?”

Flipping the Role of “Conductor”

The role of a conductor is defined as “the art of directing the simultaneous performance of several players or singers by the use of gesture.”

Conductors are trained to listen critically and pick apart every detail of sound that they are hearing.  We strive to mold our performing ensemble’s collective “sound” into what we, as conductors, find most pleasing, most “right.”  It is a pretty subjective field. Every conductor is looking for something different be it rounded beautiful vowels, crisp british consonants, and so much more.

In student centered learning, the role of a teacher is to become the facilitator of learning, using resources to inspire their students to discover in their own way.  In my classroom, student centered learning means giving up some of that control, if not at some point all of it, and allow my students to choose what sound they want to hear and how to get themselves there.  What better way to assess learning than to allow the students to be their own moderators?

The Research

In an article entitled The Learner-Centered Model of Classroom Music-Making Dave Barg of Boston University states:

“​More widespread use of LCE (Learner Centered Education)  could well lead to addressing such priority issues in music education as: improving the quality of both student music making, increasing music teachers’ personal and professional satisfaction; addressing student and teacher retention, and; raising music’s visibility in both the larger and local academic communities.”

During my research of this topic I found that there is surprisingly little information on Student Centered Learning in the ensemble classroom.  SCL is not a focus in music teacher training, especially for ensemble rehearsal techniques. Two studies conducted on SCL in the rehearsal classroom had some interesting results. You can read about them here.

There are two videos…TWO… on YouTube that address this issue.

Here is the firstAnd the second

And yes, that second video has a total of four views.  Baffling.

With not much research on the subject and scant resources for implementation, I needed to get creative.  I decided to use the upcoming choral festival season as a means to get students involved in a more student centered way.  The culminating project not only being the performances at the two festivals they would be participating in, but more importantly a student created Festival Concert in their own high school for their own student body.  No pressure.

The Process

I began the transfer of control slowly. First with student-led warm-ups, allowing student voice and choice in almost every class. Next, I began uploading tools for students to learn their music outside of class via Google Classroom.

Students came to class prepared because they were able to practice at home in their own time.  I would dedicate class time to student led sectionals where the choir would divide into their parts (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) and practice what they had learned at home together. This allowed for student leadership as well as peer assessment, students were able to help each other learn and fix mistakes.

Video: Student led rehearsal

Once we had learned and assessed and the students arrived to a place where they were running the songs, they then began to critique, fix and shape their own sound. At first it was challenging for me to not put my two cents in, but I quickly realized that they were doing a pretty good job on their own.

They created a program that they were proud of and decided to display it for their student body.  Each choir member invited students that they either thought would appreciate the music, or students that they knew were interested in joining a vocal ensemble next school year.  The culminating product was a beautifully performed Festival Concert in the high school library. The students in attendance were an amazing audience and gave rave reviews and the choir was incredibly proud of their work.  It was a beautiful way to include the school community in the hard work that these students do every single day.

Video: Students performing at the Festival Concert

The Takeaway

There is the constant question in public school performing ensembles of how to reach more students and create a more equitable program. I think that by implementing these different strategies, and by expanding to more in the future, I will be able to create a program that invites more students through its doors.  I have learned a great deal through this project, one lesson being that when we give control to our students, their learning truly does grow immensely. By giving the students a voice to choose music, critique the group and lead each other, students are better able to draw on their own strengths and recognize their weaknesses.

I have a new inspiration, a call to action, to become an advocate for Student Centered Learning in the ensemble classroom, something that is seemingly non existent.  I will make it a goal in the future to have my voice heard and create change in the music education world.

Amy Gringas is the director of choirs and music teacher at North Providence High School.

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