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Student Choice

Hi, All.  Anyone else let the students have a choice in the music for the year?  I have been challenged by some of my more vocal students (haha...pun).  They claim that if we sang "more fun songs" or "songs that are pretty" then more people would want to sing.  I feel stuck between teaching them gorgious pieces, technically difficult pieces, etc. and singing "Omnia Sol" for the umpteenth time!  I suppose I am defensive, but I just can't help to feel that area schools and other directors I know and admire, who also happen to have hugely successful programs, don't purchase 10 songs just so the choir can choose 5 to sing.  Any thoughts would be helpful. 
 
Replies (18): Threaded | Chronological
on October 28, 2014 11:32am
Dear Ciara:
 I entertain "suggestions" from students, but that is exactly the way I couch it -- "suggestions". Students sometimes can make us "older folks" aware of music that may not fall within our sphere of awareness, either due to age, or religious upbringing, or other factors. It also gives us the chance to show that some solo music makes very mediocre choral music, and/or how some arrangements may or may not work out as well as anticipated.
 If "we" agree to move forward with rehearsing and possibly performing the piece, we will diligently follow the sheet music arrangement, and the students will follow the conductor's instructions. If we get into too many disagreements over how phrases/sections should be interpreted, and begin wasting too much rehearsal time , I reserve the opption to 'pull the plug'... (and have done so on a couple of ocasions...)
 Student suggestions must be published and available for purchase. I will not "bootleg" my own version from a recording (that is illegal...). Lyrics must be "G- or E-rated" (as in movie or videogame ratings...), and I hold final say on whether or not a piece will be included for performance. (Students usually concur, by the way...)
 
Ron Isaacson
Germantown MD
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 29, 2014 5:07am
If you can teach them to establish objective, structured criteria for dealing with their requests, you can wring a lot of education out of the experience.
The first thing they have to learn is describing what they actually want, with a quick demonstration that the terms "fun" and "pretty" are meaningless when describing anything because what one singer thinks is great fun is no fun at all for another. Introduce specific music vocabulary terms that YOU want them using when discussng/describing all kinds of music.
SO- funny lyrics? Contrasts of harmony and unison voices? Active unexpected rhythms? Solo passages? Specific musical concepts- ostinato, syncopation, crossed voices, etc.? Teach the gripers the criteria that YOU use for selecting music, then free them to use those legitimate criteria to choose one piece each for each concert, and exploit the fact in the program, and with a brief announcement when the piece is performed.
By the way, I could joyfully participate in a whole day of "Omnia Sol" and find things to do with it after singing it
37 times in the same day, so be grateful that you've given them a love of something wonderful, then push them to learn some NEW wonderful thing, whether it's your choice, or theirs!
Applauded by an audience of 5
on October 30, 2014 4:27am
The only time I've let students DIRECTLY pick music for a concert was for a final concert when I let the high school seniors in my group pick a SINGLE song.
 
A relative side bar: When I had taken over directing an adult community choir, their tradition to pick new music for the up-coming season was to appoint a committee of volunteers who would travel an hour and a hlf to a music store that had perusal copies available for all to view and an electric keyboard in a corner for individuals to play through those perusal scores. Mind you, NONE of these committee members or the accompanist (who made most of the choices based on her commentary) had music degrees. Once I stepped in I insisted on being the only one responsible for picking the music.
 
My point in sharing this story is that while we may want to appease our singers with letting them have a say in repetoire selection, ultimately it is us, the directors/conductors, who are responsible for what is delivered in concert and prepared in rehearsal. 
 
Craig
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on October 30, 2014 7:27am
Couldn't agree more with both of these fine answers.  "Fun" and "pretty" are subjective; sorry, this is supposed to be a meaningful experience.  Of course all know this at our level, but at theirs they haven't learned this truth yet:  Bach's music, some of the greatest known today, was considered passé less than a generation after his death.  And yet, we are still performing his music over 250 years after he died.  Music considered "fun" and "pretty" today are tomorrow's "What?" music. It is a sad truth that nothing is so full of itself as an empty mind.  So, to make this a worthy educational exercise, I would take Ron Isaacson's and Ann Reid's comments and apply them to the full - no compromises, no adjustments.  This is what intellectual rigor (not rigidity) is about - besides, they'll encounter worse when they get to college or university.  And let's not even get into the discussion about their "right" to pick-and-choose; sorry, that's what a teacher is for - to teach the worthy values that extend long into the future.  The "logic" that gets used at this age tends to be "whatever feels good" - yeah, well, whipped cream feels good, but too much of it can choke you to death!
 
Ron
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 31, 2014 7:33am
So call me nuts, but I've been collaborating with my students on repertoire selections every concert for the last 2.5 years.  And in so many ways it has been AMAZING. Let that sink in for a moment...
 
I have 2 middle school and 2 high school choirs and we are in a 1:1 environment.  In the past, besides explaining that we would not be studying music that WE ALREADY KNOW from pop culture in class, I used to explain to students that music needs to be published and legal, available from the publisher (not on backorder), in the right voicing, at the right difficulty level and so on.  I used to tell them to go visit various music distributor websites and find what they thought they wanted and then tell me if it actually existed, not just that they wanted to do it.  They never did of course, but I took that idea and created an assignment for each concert cycle that gives a series of stepwise instructions for searching www.jwpepper.com.  I realize it's not the only distributor, but I had to start somewhere.  There are certain categories for each concert cycle they are allowed to search, such as Fall: anything in the "Concert Music" category; Winter:  anything in the "Christmas and Holiday" category; Contest:  anything of the ISSMA Festival lists for contest in their division; Spring:  anything from a keyword search based on the theme for that year.  (The final concert does bring in some more pop culture songs, but 1 per choir is my limit.)  I encourage students to read the description, listen to the clips or search youtube for that particular arrangment, and look at the preview pages.
 
I follow a 2 song per concert format, except for my advanced choir at the HS which studies several more.  So basically for each choir, I come to the table with a preselected song that they are finding selections to contrast with in each concert cycle.  Out of the student submissions, I ALWAYS find at least 5-10 selections that were either already on my list of choices or are better than my list of choices.  I ask students to argue their selections (explain how the song contrasts, explain what skills the song works on and what skills we need to work on, etc).  Of course, some students' selections only include tunes they know and pop selections, but as long as it is within the assignment guidelines, I will accept the suggestion for credit.   It doesn't make it into the pool of actual possibilities though.  In the end, I pick one of their selections from the pool of actual possibilites.  The best part of the assignment is when someone finds a great piece and shares it with their friends and they all turn in the same song almost as a "vote."  I'm glad to know more than just one student likes the song, but that doesn't really factor in.  
 
And over time, their musical experience broadens and their selections change.  Even in 2.5 years, I've noticed that with almost every student.  I even caught myself gearing up for the annual fight about pop music and didn't even need my speech this year!!  Time will tell, but I almost think the assignment is showing them what their options are and that their is choir music they will like, so pop music isn't the only thing in their minds.  Sometimes they just don't know what the alternatives are and how plentiful they are!!  I have kids that randomly surf JWPepper for songs now throughout the year and send me a link to something they find.  On some level, while I spend hours upon hours looking myself I rather enjoy sharing the reins and feeling fairly confident that the song will be well received by the class.  Regardless, the reality is that any song has teachable moments/concepts, so as long as I do my job to double check for difficulties that my students aren't trained to find yet, then their suggestions is worth no less than my suggestions.  Ironically, I have students now that find music and tell me about it, but mention that we can't do it because:  the bass part goes too low or we don't have enough girls to do a 5 part split this year or whatever.  They start thinking like me and those conversations are actually really intellectually stimulating for me and them.
 
Here are the songs that my students have suggested in the last 2.5 years that I actually programmed.
All the Pretty Little Horses [1992]………..……Arr. Grier/Everson
Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair [2011]…….Arr. Roth/Moran
Son de Camaguey [1998]……………….……...Arr. Stephen Hatfield
Every Night When the Sun Goes In [2012].....Arr. D. Waggoner
Windy Nights [2004]……........................…..……Cynthia Gray
Riversong [2011]………………............…………………Roger Emerson
Vox Populi [2010]……………….…..............…...Giedrius Svilainis (ONE OF MY HS BASSES FOUND THIS THIS FALL.  NEVER HEARD OF IT.....GORGEOUS!)
All for a Baby [2009]………………………………...Ruth Elaine Schram
In Winter [2013]………………..…………….……………Victor C. Johnson
A Very Merry Fa La La [2013]…………………..……Sally K. Albrecht
Glory, Hallelujah to the Newborn King [2013] ……..Ruth Morris Gray
Soon I Will Be Done [2012]…………………………………..……….Arr. Linda Spevacek
Je Le Vous Dirai! [2001]………………………………….………..Arr. Sherri Porterfield (Yes...middle school kids picked this and still LOVE it 2 years later as HS kids)
Who Shall Sing? [1996]…………………………………….…………………Andrea S. Klouse
My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord [1999]…………………….Arr. Moses Hogan
Ubi Caritas [2007]…………………………………………….……………………………Ola Gjeilo
Cantate Hodie [2004]…………………………......………..……….Mary Lynn Lightfoot
Fire [1988]…………………………………………….……....................…..Mary Goetze
All too Soon [2003]…………………………………………….……….Arr. Stephen Hatfield
Lux Aurumque [2001]………………………………….....................…Eric Whitacre
De Colores [2007]………………………….…..……..…Arr. Mark Weston
Yellow Submarine [1999]…………….………….……Arr. Mark Brymer
The Colors of My Life [2007]…………..…………….Arr. John Leavitt
What a Wonderful World [2008]………….……..Arr. Rene Clausen
Sunrise [2014]…………………………..................…Jay Althouse
Light of a Clear Blue Morning [2010]......Arr. Craig Hella Johnson
One Fine Day [1995]……..…………...................Arr. Mac Huff
Firefly [2007]………………….......................……….Andy Beck
Night Shall Be Filled With Music [2007]...........Laura Farnell
Sure on this Shining Night [1961]………….....…….Samuel Barber
Applauded by an audience of 5
on November 1, 2014 3:10am
Jennifer I am also in a 1:1 building and I love this idea! Do you have any lesson plans or rubrics you wouldn't mind sharing? Brandi.Hallford(a)gmail.com
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 28, 2015 3:49pm
I think this is great!! I remember doing this in middle school band...we'd go on the music office computer at lunch and search JWPepper for marching arrangements for the spring... :)
Out of curiosity, what's a 1:1 building?
on September 30, 2015 5:40am
I'd love to see your rubric/assignment as well. Wonderful process (and results!). Jtibben (a) washoeschools.net. 
on October 6, 2015 2:09pm
I have had students help choose pieces in the past successfully, and have expressed to my current band students that I'm always open to suggestions (one or two email me long lists every year - and I almost always find something interesting on there that I had overlooked in my searching!). But the rubric idea is fantastic! I love it! I am sure that the respect you show your students as people gains you respect in turn.
on October 31, 2014 9:20am
Clara one of the things I have done int the past is pick three or four songs that I already think would be great for the program.  I then let them hear and see those pieces and choose from that list.  Therefroe I am not going in cold turkey, but with things that I already feel would be a good ecudation and programming fit.  I only do this one in a while.  Usually my students are happy with what I pick or can be convinded to like it.
 
Dan
on October 31, 2014 9:35am
I chose a number of pieces for our winter concert and grouped them into style/subject.  Some were Jingle Bell related, some were more serious, some were lighthearted, some were multicultural, etc.  Then I let the kids listen and vote for one in each category.  That way, I knew the songs were appropriate for my groups, but they got a choice.  In the Spring, I will choose a good bit of the repertoire, but allow the kids to choose one pop piece from a group of my selections.  I try to pay attention to songs that they like and check for them on Pepper, and if they seem like they'd work, include them in the list as well as some pop numbers of my own choosing that they may not know.  So far, it's worked.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on November 1, 2014 3:07am
I allow suggestions as well. I tend to program pop or lighter selection songs for my combined Middle School and High School Concert at the end of the school year. I too use the suggestions as an opportunity to teach. When my girls were begging me to sing a Beyonce song, I told them to find one that sounded awesome as a choral arrangement. No offense to her, they've yet to find it, and when I've played arrangements of pop songs that are awful, they beg me to turn it off.

I've also found after a year and a half in a program that did not sing a lot of challenging and historically rich literature that with baby steps my students are now gravitating toward the "good" stuff we want to teach them. They still like to sing the occasional popular song, but they always talk about the songs that moved them and that is usually quality music.

A mentor and orchestra director friend of mine once told me that "Quality music is quality music regardless of genre, year of creation, or style. Teach your students to discern quality from fluff and they will appreciate the influence that has on their life."

I also think back to my years in school choirs. We all wanted to sing the "fun" pop songs, but what has stuck with me are the quality music that my director chose and how I learned to be a musician through those selections.

My students know that I have the final word, but they also know that I'm open to learning about new music I may have never heard of.

Best of luck to you!

on September 29, 2015 7:59pm
Ask them how many math teachers ask them what math to teach?  With that said, we have a pops concert in May and I will often let them suggest titles.  I then have a student research and see what is available for choir.
on September 30, 2015 5:51am
Seems like just a few months ago we had a discussion about a piece the students had chosen, and then ended up disliking it very much. Anyone know how to search for that?
on September 30, 2015 12:20pm
As a long-term education, how is giving students choice in selecting repertoire preparation for singing in choir beyond high school, other than one song selected by seniors for a final concert? In all of the collegiate choirs and community choirs I have sung in, the director has never asked the choir for suggestions because he/she has a distinct vision for the choir and knows the strengths/weaknesses of the choir. 
on October 6, 2015 9:24am
I think it depends on where these students are headed as musicians.  I would have loved some element of choice when I was younger as I am now a music director and it's a challenging thing to learn on the fly.
 
It also, in theory, should increase the investment level of those doing the choosing.
on October 6, 2015 2:04pm
Actually - my community chorus has a music selection committee. As music director, I'm a member of the committee, bring many of the suggestions to the table, and also have veto power, but other members often suggest pieces I wouldn't have thought of or wasn't aware of. They bring in pieces they sang and enjoyed in other choruses, pieces that they find online or hear at other concerts, etc. I make musical decisions about what creates a varied concert and what we can and can't handle, but I value their suggestions and it gives them a sense of ownership. 
on September 30, 2015 3:26pm
I always allow students to select one or two pieces per year. It gives them ownership. And so what if the piece is a disaster or poor arrangement? THEY PICKED IT! 99% of the time I don't like the pieces selected for reading sessions at conferences anyway. Who is our program for if we don't allow them some liberty? 
 
 
 
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