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I am a first year teacher at Browning High School on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Northwestern Montana. I went into this job knowing it would be difficult and I am proud of what my students have accomplished thus far. Having said that, I lost a third of my students with the new semester (many were strong singers and seniors) and gained a few new ones. Our situation is similar to that of an inner city school and I'm afraid that with the way things are going, my choir will continue to get smaller and smaller. My mindset going into the job was not to sacrifice good, quality choral music for unison pop tunes and karaoke tracks. I try to include at least one popular song each concert. For example, we sang This is Halloween for our fall concert and they loved it. At the same time, my students just don't connect the the choral music I choose. They like one or two songs here and there, but for the most part it's like pulling teeth to get them to sing. Another problem at the moment is the lack of music in the middle school. I have no feeder program; students get music once a week for 30 minutes or so in elementary school and nothing in middle school. I'd like to propose to the school board that I do two classes at the middle school, which is what the band teacher is currently doing.

With that long winded explanation, I ask anyone for advice on how to recruit and keep my students. Do I stick with my choral music or should I branch out into the pop music? I'd like to perform Native pieces to get the students interested and tie in their heritage, but it's much easier said than done. Thank you!

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Welcome to Musical Practice and Performance! This is a broad question and a big subject but I think it's worthwhile. I wish you the best with this undertaking. –  Wheat Williams Mar 1 '13 at 0:11
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5 Answers

You mention "Unison pop tunes" -- have you considered writing/finding harmonised arrangements of pop songs? Lots of pop/rock songs have harmonised vocals. Almost every boy band / girl band is a "vocal harmony group". Pretty much any song can have vocal harmony retrofitted onto it.

You're not going to engage these kids if you're dismissive about the music they already love. Bear in mind that the complement to "popular" is "unpopular". You may be able to turn them on to classical choral music if you lead them in with gateway songs -- pop songs arranged using classical tropes.

One trap adults can fall into, is underestimating how short a time ago is "history" to young people. When I was at school in the late 1980s, our teachers would have us sing versions of Abba songs, no doubt thinking they were being hip. Of course, to a schoolchild in 1988, 1977 when "Thank You For The Music" was in the charts, might as well be the stone age. It would be the same now if you gave your students a song from the 1990s.

For the classical repertoire, I would say go shamelessly populist. If you wouldn't hear it on Classic FM's* Drive Time slot, it's out. And as dumbed-down as it may seem, go for English translations of everything.

In my youth, I did some DJing. I hated it because I wanted to evangelise the niche music I loved, but the crowd wanted familiar hits. You're in a similar situation.

Watch Glee for tips (joke!)

*Classic FM is a British radio station that's more about Mozart than Penderecki, if you know what I mean.

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I would strongly disagree with the notion of "pushing kids out the door if they don't have the bug". If choir is an elective class, the fact that they're in your door in the first place is enough! It shows that they have an interest, and if you're trying to build a program, that should be your only criteria!

The only caveat to this that I'll mention would be if you have students that are only in choir because it's an easy A grade, and a class period they can treat like recess. If that's the case, (hopefully it isn't!) you would need to increase your own standard of classroom management so that the students are focused and on task for the full period. Once that happens, the students that are only there for "recess" will either decide they like singing or drop out of their own accord.

Recruiting is ALWAYS a challenge, but here are some key points to remember:

  • If you have a strong and established program, students will recruit themselves.
  • If you have a new program that is exciting and engaging, your current members will recruit their friends.
  • Don't be afraid to give a little sales pitch at the end of a student assembly performance!
  • See if you can get an invitation letter sent home with the entire student body before it's time to pick classes for the next semester.
  • Some choirs find themselves "top-heavy", and have trouble recruiting male voices. Make sure you don't set yourself up for this problem by creating a stigma!

Repertoire is yet another challenge, and especially given that our current culture tends to glorify the fake and overproduced sounds of Glee. Lousy pop arrangements are a dime-a-dozen--DON'T program repertoire just for the title! If you do popular music at all, make sure the arrangement is sound and educationally beneficial. If you have students clamoring for the latest Glee hit, use the moment to teach them that Glee is not actually what the human voice sounds like, and the types of stage shows that they see on television are really only possible at the high school level with about three hours of rehearsal per day (see also Japanese public school extracurriculars).

I love the idea of programming music from the cultural heritage, but as you said, it may be a challenge to find suitable arrangements! You may even have to write your own arrangements, and possibly enlist the help of a local native music expert to actually find some of this material. It can be a daunting task, but not unheard of! Some band teachers struggling with instrumentation will even re-arrange everything they play, and this process is only made easier with accessible tools like Sibelius and Finale.

Outside of the pop/cultural heritage music veins that have more instantaneous appeal to your students, at the end of the day, as their director, YOU are the greatest advocate for the music you program! (I would in fact say that your job as a conductor is to be the advocate for the music you are performing.) Your attitude is everything, and you can make or break a piece for your ensemble based on how you approach it.

Classical music doesn't necessarily mean anything to your students if they don't have prior experience with it. They aren't going to understand the musical merits of Bach, Faure, Mozart, etc. until you teach them, and you can help to generate this appreciation by linking that material to non-musical things that they do understand. For example, storytelling about the origin of a piece of music, or what was happening historically that influenced its composition.

In this way, choir can be a kind Music Appreciation class with an emphasis on performance. Personally, I find many choir curricula to overemphasize rote learning when they should be learning General Music/music literacy skills and applying them directly to material for performance. You can further use this to your advantage by linking these new skills directly to the classical repertoire you program, thus enhancing both the skills and the enthusiasm for the material.

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I would like to preface my response by saying that no one here is going to be able to solve your problem, nor should they. Part of being a teacher is figuring these things out on your own - what works for your particular school or district. Golden advice from one teacher can be meaningless in a different culture or situation.

Some thoughts:

  • Get to know your students / the culture. Since you're a first year teacher, you are probably new to the area / culture. By getting to know and become involved with the community, you will be able to connect with them better.

  • Talk with teachers from other schools in the same area. Ask them what has / hasn't worked for them. Get to know your colleagues as they will be your support.

  • Talk with your mentors from your undergrad. You already have established connections with them and they can offer insight into your particular situation.

  • Experiment with ways of connecting with your students. It doesn't or shouldn't matter what the material is. If you present it in a certain way, you could even make Purcell work.

  • Stop freaking out. Kids drop ensembles whenever someone new takes the helm. It's immature, but it's the way it happens. I highly doubt your school will think you're a failure and fire you over it. As long as you have effective classroom management, you should be fine.

  • Building up a program takes time and connections. As a first year teacher, you don't have either of those things. They are added piece by piece the longer you stay and teach in the community.

  • Don't try and change too much all at once. Especially during your first year, you pretty much just have to prove that everything won't degrade into a flaming mass of chaos - that the kids won't eat you alive.

Good luck.

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I'm not a music educator but my wife of 13 years is an English as a second language (ESL) teacher, and also teaches Spanish and French. And this is what I've observed from her:

Go out of your way to understand the native culture of your students and show them that you respect their culture. Come up with teaching activities that let them explore their own native culture.

I know nothing about the Native American music and singing traditions of this tribe where you work, but please try to get some books and videos about the culture in general, and try to find musician elders in this tribe that will work with you and teach you some of their music, which you can share with your students. Your students probably don't know their own musical cultural heritage; they probably just listen to American Idol and the radio like everybody else. But if you work a bit of purely tribal cultural material (not necessarily tribal music) into the curriculum, with the advice of a musician elder, you might gain their respect and retain their interest.

Certainly continue to teach them the best of Western classical choral music; intersperse lessons and activities that show them that you respect their native culture as well. A couple of good bulletin boards and collages of their tribal culture in the choir rehearsal room can go a long way. And certainly engage the parents as well.

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The world is run by those who show up. Before you can learn, you gotta show up.

As with teaching anything...

1) Do whatever you gotta do to fill seats.

2) Get to know them deeply, and see if they've got "the bug".

3) push the kids without it out your door (hopefully in the direction of the bug that they DO have) and go find some more kids that might have YOUR bug.

4) kids with the bug will be actually pulling knowledge right out of your brain with hardly any work on your part. Just sit back and answer their questions and plant "the next thing on the path" in their noggin. They'll pull from each other too, so encourage that.

5) start with a small number of "highly bugged" kids. Increase the amount of em slowly and see if you can let the "bug level" decrease a little. If things start to go bad, bump the level back up.

Teaching is the most noble thing to do ever. Constantly remind yourself of that. Because the average taxpayer (wrongfully) disagrees.

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