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Guidance Appreciated

Hello, everyone!
I am reaching out because I am at the precipice of a crazy time, and I could use some experience-driven advice! I recently graduated from college and have accepted a job at a high school starting this fall. The program has a muddled history. Word has it they were good for awhile, but due to many reasons, the program has suffered and enrollment and success is at an all-time low. 

Despite the low enrollment (about 50 students in the whole program) and inexperienced singers, the feeder program has 250 students enrolled! In addition, I have a very supportive administrative staff at both the high school and middle school level. My classroom is an old band room, so I have plenty of space. Several practice rooms, a music library, an office, a storage closet/choir gown room and a computer lab. My resources are incredible!
Now, I just want to put my best foot forward! I am nervous because of my lack of experience in the classroom, and I could use some insight with respects to starting a program from scratch (essentially) and how to succeed during my first year of teaching. This could include anything from classroom management to rehearsal techniques to repertoire. Any and all advice is greatly appreciated and welcomed!

Thanks so much - I'm excited to start this new journey!
Sydney Sewell
Replies (14): Threaded | Chronological
on June 17, 2015 4:11am
I have had this experience as well. After 20 years of teaching, I landed a position where only 4 high schoolers were enrolled in the choir and only 21 in the middle school.
I had to keep the 4 I had and try and expand. I grew those numbers to 9 by instilling structure and vocal technique that was never taught to the students before, solfeggio being one of them. 
I created fun and rewarding vocal exercises and would include more contemporary ( not necessarily pop)  octavos within their repertoire.
German and folk song rounds, Add a riff ( easy intro to jazz tune)   and novely songs ( the coca cola song) was a hit for the first concert. I had a few students trying to "test" the waters, however, overall, my insistance on structure, solfeggio practice daily, world music infusion  and a positive attitude prevailed. i now have 24 in the hs choir and 50 in the ms choir.
Unfortunately for me, due to chnge in priorities of new administration, my position was eliminated and morphed into a part time choral/ strings position and now  my job was given to a senior instructor with no choral experience. Ah, gotta love the seniority card. So I expect the three years of success in my role will be determined by next year's enrollment.
Hope this helps you on yoour journey.
Kate Caton
Director of Choirs
Applauded by an audience of 1
on June 21, 2015 8:39pm
Thank you so much for sharing this, Kate! I appreciate you taking the time to shed some light.  What a shame that they eliminated the position! I hope all continues to go well for the choir. It's so nice to hear from other directors and to know I'm not alone. :)
on June 17, 2015 4:41am
Hi Sydney,
Send me an email. I have a presentation called "The Care and Feeding of Your High School Choral Program" that I've done at ACDA conferences. I'd be happy to share it with you. I also encourage you to explore the ACDA Mentoring Program. If you join this program, you can view mentor profiles and select an experienced teacher to partner with as you start your adventure. Details are at I'm having a great time working with a young teacher. It's informal - we FaceTime and just talk about things she's working on. I'm excited for you!
Kayla Werlin - kwerlin(a)
Applauded by an audience of 2
on June 21, 2015 8:40pm
Thank you so much, Kayla! I had no clue about the ACDA mentoring program, and I can't wait to look into it more. I will email you shortly! 
on June 18, 2015 6:36am
This may be impractical for your schedule with the other prep work you will be doing, but I'll suggest it just in case!  Since what you need most is classroom experience and a sense of what level your students are currently at musically, rather than biting your nails and plotting all summer while you wait for them to arrive, you could look around at summer kids' music programs in the area you are going to be teaching and find out if there is a way you can get involved, even just as a volunteer.  It will give you something to do to build your own confidence, give you a better sense of what the current state of music education is in the community where you will be teaching, perhaps introduce you early to a few of the kids who will actually be in your classroom, and give you some much needed classroom management experience.  And a chance to work directly with other music educators in the area where you will be teaching will give you a group of mentors to ask questions of later.  It's nice to be able to pick up the phone and ask a friendly fellow director to send you the program from their last few concerts so you can be sure you are programming music at the right difficulty level, but without repeating pieces your students sang with community choir or church choir.  There's nothing worse than waiting anxiously, so I'd suggest you go ahead and keep the ball rolling that started with your student teaching experience, even if it means being an assistant director or volunteer for the summer.  Go get to know those kids and your new music community!  
And thoroughly practical advice from someone who is terrible at names:  would the school allow you to look over last year's yearbook so you can memorize some names and faces in advance?  It's really hard to have authority in the classroom when you have to say, "Hey you!" and you are going to have a lot of other learning to do on the spot.  If you can learn the names of at least some of the kids before they walk into your classroom you will exude authority and omniscent power and look confident from day one.  (:  
Applauded by an audience of 2
on June 21, 2015 8:42pm
Hi, Maggie!  Thanks so much for imparting your widsom! It is so appreciated. I found out about a couple of local music camps my area does through the Parks and Rec department after reading your post. I am currently looking into how I can get involved. I also *really* like the yearbook idea! I think I will email my principal about it tomorrow. :) No time like the present to start preparing for the fall! 
on June 18, 2015 11:32am
What a great opportunity!
I'm in the opposite situation.  I have a feeder program of about 250 students enrolled with basically no middle school or high school program to speak of.
What would I do in your shoes?
The first thing I'd do is sit down with the director(s) of the feeder program and see what their program looks like.  What have they done to attract students?  And then I would build on that!  Are they classically based?  or pops based?  Do they use choreography or have a show choir?   Do they go to festivals or competitions?
I've found that it's easy to build a great program if you do things that the students want to do.  Once you have the numbers, then it's much easier to direct the program into areas that interest you.
Robin O'Hare
Applauded by an audience of 2
on June 21, 2015 8:45pm
Thanks so much, Robin! It really is quite an anomaly! I got to see the middle school choir concert with the huge feeder program, and they seem to be largely pop-based; however, they did go to LGPE and performed well. I was given the opportunity to work with the 8th graders that will be feeding into my program, and their sightreading skills were quite developed! I was impressed! I guess the trouble now is convincing them to stay for high school chorus, but the middle school director seems optimistic.
I am certainly grateful to have both a supportive administration and a great network between the other music teachers and myself. Now I just have to take the plunge!
on June 19, 2015 11:45am
Fifteen years ago, I started as a K-6 general music teacher in NY, with no experience nor training.  I had just completed my MEd in elementary education, and was looking for a 2nd-5th grade classroom position, with no thought of teaching music.  However, there was a shortage of music teachers at that time, and I was offered several music jobs because my undergraduate degree in music, combined with my MEd, qualified me for certification.  I heard things like, "We've got 40 applicants for this 3rd grade position--many with experience--but we can't find a music teacher."  With very conflicted feelings, I accepted one of these offers, and resolved to make up for my lack of music education experience and training, by putting in more hours than any one else, both on the job and on my own time with professional development.  This included eating lunch during my prep period so I could hold extra rehearsals and lessons during lunch recess; having rehearsals before and after school; taking students out in the community to perform at least one Saturday or Sunday per month; transporting students whose parents could not provide transportation; and buying instruments with my own money (and retaining ownership) when needed.  I have yet to take a personal day off (but get paid for them at the end of each school year).  Fortunately, I was at a place in my life where I could do this.  Many will not agree with my approach, but I was determined to overcome my shortcomings, and nothing "puts your best foot forward" like hard work.   
Applauded by an audience of 1
on June 21, 2015 8:48pm
Bart! Wow, you are certainly a dedicated and hard worker! I hope to be just like you as I get started. Thankfully, I am in a position where my only responsibilities will include this job and my church gig. I am looking forward to being able to give this job 110%, and I will try to get in a similar mindset as yours. Thank you so much for sharing your story - it is amazing how shared experiences can put the mind at ease! I hope you're enjoying your summer break!
on July 21, 2015 10:26am
Sydney, congratulations. You seem to be in a great position with a lot of potential! Almost ideal, really, for building a program in your image, so to speak.
I was in a similar situation as you five years ago, but without as many resources to build on. You have a steep but rewarding learning curve ahead of you. The last couple issues of The Choral Journal has had some articles that are particularly relevant to first-year teachers that you might want to check out. It's impossible to comment on the range of information that will be helpful to you in your first year. But I can give you some bits of advice that will be especially helpful to you RIGHT NOW, before classes start:
• Try like heck to find a mentor teacher somewhere near you who can advise you. Are there any nearby schools with excellent programs that are starting earlier than yours? If so, try to sit in to observe the first couple of days of classes, it will give you a good sense of how you should start out. The first few days of any class are all-important.
• Recruit, recruit, recruit. Hit the ground running on recruitment. Are there any orientation, yearbook portraits, or walk-through events at your school in the days leading up to the first day of school? If so, definitely get a table with a big sign, and get a handout ready to give to students that talks about the benefits of being in choir (I can share you mine if you would like). Bring a clipboard and take down names of students who might have an interest in joining choir. Get some of your choir students to help you. If you will be doing any touring, make sure to highlight that because choir tours are a big recruiting tool. Find out how your school handles schedule changes, and bring a stack of schedule change forms wherever you go. You will probably have a short window of opportunity for schedule changes in the fall, so really hit it hard.  On the first or second day of classes, hold a brainstorming session with your students and ask them to give you names of students that might join choir (keep this list handy for the spring recruitment season). Here's a million dollar idea: separate the students randomly into Harry Potter houses: Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, Slytherin, and Hufflepuff. Hold a pizza party for the team that brings in the most new choir members in the first month of class.
• Find out who the motivated choir students/families are from last year, and reach out to them over the summer. Ask for their help in rebuilding the program. Is there a booster group already formed? Schedule an all-parent meeting the second or third week of classes if there isn't one already in your calendar.
• Make sure that you have a compelling series of concerts and experiences on the calendar, and that they don't conflict with other school events. Did your predecessor schedule the year of events out for you, and take care of all the necessary permitting? Make sure to schedule in an evening in the late spring for an awards banquet.
• Figure out if there are any enduring choir traditions at the school that you will want to be careful to uphold. If not, you have the privilege of instituting them!
• Get familiar with the school's octavo library, and find out what kinds of pieces have been performed in recent years. Consider re-programming popular pieces from previous years. Figure out if you have good sight-singing/musicianship materials to work with.
• Introduce yourself to the feeder program directors. Get any names of good singers that were recently in their programs and that might have slipped through the cracks, and try to contact those families before school starts.
• Find out the protocol for forming school clubs, and look around for some good and easy contemporary (pop) a cappella pieces that your most advanced and motivated students can sing for rallies, sporting events, etc. Even if you only have 7-8 students singing contemporary a cappella around your campus, it will be a great advertisement for the choir program.
• Long term, it will be important to consider the vertical alignment of the ensembles you will offer - the different levels, which ensembles require an audition, etc. But for now, with 50 students in your program - and hopefully another 10 or 20 additional members that you can recruit in the fall - you should have enough for an auditioned group of some sort, and a training choir. Make sure the right kinds of students are in the right ensembles, it might be frustrating for the advanced students to be in a choir with beginners.
Good luck!
Bruce Rockwell
Applauded by an audience of 2
on July 31, 2015 7:38pm
Thank you so much, Bruce! You have given me some fabulous ideas, and I so appreciate your taking the time to share with me! I will be sure to incorporate all of this wisdom into my planning this year and in the years to come!
on July 22, 2015 3:41am
I taught high school choral music for 34 years.  I had middle school students and high school students during that time.  Your question is a loaded one so I decided to send you a few bullet points to help you along the way.
Good luck to you.  I hope you find joy and success in the most rewarding teaching field one could possibly choose.
Build an exciting program and they will come. 
Get your men singing by starting a men's group that can sing outside of the school - even if they only sing one or two parts to start with.  Guys love to perform and they will be your best recruiters.
Don't overprogram.  The biggest mistake that first year choir directors make is trying to do music their choirs are not ready for.  Keep your repertoire within the reach of your singers and allow them to feel good about what they are doing. 
Build a sense of pride through constant positive reinforcement.  Always encourage your singers to do better.  Teach them good choral techniques and applaud them when they do something really well.  Challenge them when they are not focused.
Give each of your choirs/ensembles a unique identity.  Don't use titles that would indicate one is better than the other.  Students will figure that out on their own.
Keep the pace of your rehearsals moving.  By keeping your singers engaged,  you will have fewer classroom management issues. 
Set guidelines,  not rules, for your choirs.  Rules are meant to be broken while guidelines can more easily change.
Get to know your students.  Learn their names right away.  Go to their games, plays, etc. and make yourself visible.
Communicate well with parents, students, and administration. 
Be organized in all you do.  Plan your rehearsals.  Plan presentations to parents.  Basically,  plan your work and work your plan.
Be passionate about choral music.  When students see your passion and enthusiasm,  they will get on board.
Don't try to do it all in one year.  Give yourself 3-5 years to build the program you want.  Building is a process that takes time.  Remember,  if you build it,  they will come.
Good luck to you.
Bruce Phelps
Applauded by an audience of 3
on July 31, 2015 7:39pm
Thank you so much, Bruce! These are some excellent ideas, and I'm going to do what I can to get a men's group started! I think that will be the key to recruiting male singers for sure! I appreciate your willingness to share your wisdom with me, and I hope to incorporate these ideas in my planning this year! :)
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