Top Ten Things I Learned in Teaching Choral Music I - Winter 2016 at Northwestern University

10) There's a ton of lousy choral literature out there for middle school.

I'm not saying that all of Attea's literature was lousy--or that any of it was genuinely lousy. But apparently, motivating kids with "fun" pop music is a pretty popular thing to do. As such, it seems like a lot of arrangers undeserving of the moniker "arranger" are churning out crap that's on the surface, digestible, but ultimately just empty calories. Wade through the bad, because if you know where to look...

9) There's also a lot of great choral literature out there for middle school.

As evidenced by the huge list(s) of awesome rep on this page. If I got a middle school job TOMORROW, I would have enough pieces for the next 3-4 years of concerts immediately at my disposal. And with another whole Choral Methods class to find more repertoire in on the horizon, where I am now is truly not a bad position to be in.

8) Get away from the piano!

I wrote about this a bit in my Top Five Things I Learned In Voice Class, but it totally applies here as well--maybe even more so. When I just step away from the piano, or eve just simplify my playing and actually listen the sound and energy of the room turns around in the most positive of ways. The recurring wisdom of the class is "it's not about you, it's about THEM." So when I actually allow myself enough real estate in my brain to focus on THEM, that seems like a much better use of my energy than adding ornamental flourishes to the piano parts I'm using to accompany a simple, but important vocal warm-up. 

7) Prepare, even when you don't think you need to.

If a piece of music is "easy," practice conducting it anyway. If you think you can pick out things to work on and fix on the fly, don't. Pick a thing you know they're going to struggle with, and know exactly how you're going to attack it. If you figure your video presentation will load all the clips correctly from the different sources online and play the audio correctly through the classroom speakers, edit it into one file just to be safe. Because being prepared isn't just about knowing what do to. It's about knowing what to do so well that your consciousness can start thinking deeper. The "sequence" should be ingrained and inherent. The "teaching" comes from what you have the energy to put on top of that. Maybe that's in the form of the way you smile, or gesture, or comment. Maybe it's something less subtle. But over-preparing only helps you, so why not strive for it?

6) Make a game plan, and stick to it. Except when it fails.

This is really mostly about the Choral Methods class, as opposed to middle school choral direction, but it's a lesson that can apply to almost any life situation. Having a set schedule/agenda/set of goals in place from the beginning of anything is always a great place to start from. Because if it's effective, it can be a locomotive that drives itself. But sometimes, that locomotive simply has no fuel. And you have to start from scratch. There was a set practicum protocol that, if we had followed it to a T, would have been a miserable experience for all involved. So we altered it. And it worked out much better. Being understanding of people's learning styles and academic values can really shape a class for the better. And the more classes you have, the more efficiently you can design the train. So each time, it gets further down the tracks before making those adjustments. But don't be afraid to make those adjustments. No design is sacred.

5) The "cult of personality" is not always a bad thing.

I'm a bit of a film snob. And one thing I get VERY snobby about is my dislike of the film Dead Poet's Society. As a teacher, I'm apparently supposed to love this movie. But I can't stand teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) because more than actually educating and inspiring his students, he simply creates a cult of personality surrounding himself. Which really isn't that hard to do when you're an adult male in a community of impressionable teenage boys. They didn't love him because he was a great teacher. They loved him because he was a "cool dude." Though after seeing Mona Roy's group, I may have to sway my thoughts on Dead Poet's Society just a tad. Because those kids clearly loved her as a person--and more than just their director. And they sang, to borrow the word from Prof. Marks, "exceptionally." There's clearly a social environment to that choir that contributes to their musical achievement, and I think Mona is a part of that dynamic. And it's clear she has more self-awareness about it than John Keating. So if those girls got on their desks and saluted "O Captain, their Captain," it would hold even more emotional weight.

4) It's about presentation, not PRESENTATION.

This is mostly a knock on the edTPA system of lesson planning and evaluation, and the fact that as soon as I feel beholden to their particular paradigms and processes, I suddenly feel creatively stifled, and unable to really plan the lessons I want to plan. Teaching is an art, more than a science, and good teaching is about more than checking particular boxes or scoring highly on particular sections of a particular rubric. I would be best to try to adapt the edTPA format to my own educational aspirations, rather than trying to shove those aspirations into an edTPA-shaped box. And like I said earlier on this page, planning is important. But it's what you do on top of the planning that really generates joy and personal value in teaching. So aim for that. 

3) But for now, it should also be about PRESENTATION.

Because there's no way around the edTPA. So just buck up and do your best on it until you don't have to anymore. I'll be glad I did, later. I hope. 

2) Kids are smarter than you think...until they're not.

In short, know your kids. There'll be some stuff you choose to do with them that's way too easy and might bore them. And then stuff that's way over your head. The best way to figure out what your seventh-graders can do is to spend a lot of time working with seventh graders. Because before that, when they surprise you, it's jarring and disruptive. But once you get to know them, the chances of them surprising you are lower. And the chances of those surprises being positive and delightful get higher. So for all the planning we do, and as much as we think we've been round the block, don't we all do this sort of thing in the hopes of finding a nice surprise? It's certainly part of it for me. 

1) I have "the voice of an oboe player."

This may the least academic thing on the list, but Prof. marks once told me I had the singing "voice of an oboe player." I still don't know how to interpret this, and the comment will forever haunt me. If it's good haunting or bad haunting, I'm still not sure.