Knowledge Should Serve People

This piece was written in response to a post on the ChoirThoughts blog, also on Word Press.  You may want to read that post in order to get some context for this one.
This post does not fit well on either of my two blogs, so I will probably post it on both of them.

Here is the post referenced:
Choral Elitism – It’s Real

I think “Elitism” is not the best term..  Humans tend to organize themselves in hierarchical systems.    Every level of the hierarchy is important.  People at the top naturally tend to think they are the essential ones….


It seems like many years ago that I had an exchange with Tom Carter as a result of an online discussion. Mr. Carter wrote a book called Choral Charisma that I recommend highly to choral directors. (I checked saved email – it was 2006.) As an instrumental music/orchestra teacher I found that not everything applied 100% to what I did. As is mentioned in the article, a singer’s instrument is their entire body.. Singers react much differently to certain kinds of criticism because of this. They still respond to correction, but it requires some consideration. Carter points out how emotionally dangerous the music rehearsal can be to students. This is especially true in choral rehearsals, but it is true any time we are performing. It is up to directors/conductors to mitigate the emotional danger rather than contribute to it. I found the book to be enlightening.

I also read another online comment that I took to heart. I can’t remember who made it. The writer said, “Music was meant to serve people and not the other way around.” The more I thought about it the more I thought about it. One sentence. Lots to consider.

Not everything in Choral Charisma would apply directly to my middle school orchestra classes. But I began to work and encouraging students to get better no matter what level they were on. Personal growth was more important. Top level achievement was encouraged. A lot. But so was any achievement. I stopped giving chair tests. We played tests until we passed them. Anyone who wanted to know who was doing the best could see who was passing the most. But there was no chair shaming. I paired students who had greater skills with students who were struggling on the same stand. Often (in middle school…) the violins worked on both first and second parts. But everyone had something appropriate for them to work on at any given time. I also began to become more empathetic to what students brought to class. I was more likely to work with students’ parents to figure out how a student could do better at school and at life.

Some interesting things began to happen. My program grew in numbers. I still had students that went on to high honors and to graduate school. But I had more students participating and learning and everyone seemed to become more excited about making music together. Teaching was still a lot of work and took a ton of preparation and energy. But I found that in addition to teaching physical technique and an understanding of the musical written language (etc) I was doing a much better job at teaching children to LOVE MUSIC.

When I see poorly attended concerts of great music I wonder if we should perhaps make this a national priority instead of a curricular list of skill sets. Teach children to make music and thereby love making music and love the music they make. The aesthetic appreciation follows all of this.

How does all of his relate to the blog post linked? I could have gotten more recognition and made higher ratings if I would have run off the weak players and focused on the gifted students. On retired director I know called this “teach the best and shoot the rest.” That would have enhanced my professional reputation. I stopped shooting anyone and did my best (such as it was) to teach everyone except for those who were toxic bullies. (There were a very few.)

The author of the article is right about so many things. Elementary teachers are highly undervalued too much of the time. Good ones do so much to impact students’ musical abilities as well as the quality of their lives. The same for middle school teachers. It takes a really special person to teach this age level when students often look more grown up though they are still in many ways children in transition. It is rare for a middle level or elementary teacher to gain high honors as much as high school. I can’t see this will change. Those who do a great job are going to have to be intrinsically motivated, as they have been for so long. It should change. But life is not always based on “should”.

To the author of ChoirThoughts I would say that you have to define your own success. It heartens me to know that directors are still dealing with this issue. You can decide how much of your success is determined by others and how much is determined by your own values. The contest system can provide valuable feedback when it works right. So can bringing in clinicians and recording your group.. Using the system when it works for you and avoiding it when it doesn’t may take courage. But it can result in a lot of personal growth and satisfaction. Choose your game.