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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Creating a Positive Culture in your Choir II

Once again, the idea behind this series is how to build a positive culture in your choir.
 
John Wooden, the most successful college basketball coach in history, was famous for the structure that he built into his practices (rehearsals) and the clear expectations for each player on the floor. He was amazingly detail oriented and believed that "little things make big things happen" (the title of one chapter in his book, Wooden on Leadership). For example, he talks at one point about how at the beginning of the year he personally taught his players how to put on their socks and tie their shoes--because if their socks were not put on properly, the player could get a blister and affect his performance--and shoes not tied properly could come undone in a game and cost points.
 
A few thoughts about "little things" to build into your choir's culture:
  • be on time (how does your choir expect to begin the rehearsal? In seats? quiet and ready to work?)
  • be prepared: have your music and pencil
  • use your pencil (which means teaching choir members how to mark their scores)
  • how to sit ("tall," feet on the floor)
  • how to hold your music (up so you can see music and conductor)
  • how to focus during rehearsal (is talk/chatter tolerated?)
One could go on -- I'm curious about what things you think are essential "little things." Let me know!
 
But once you've decided what your choir will "look/act like" in terms of those little things, fundamentals (or whatever you wish to call them), how do you build them into the choir's culture?
 
Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion is a really wonderful book. Lemov is managing director of Uncommon Schools and concerned with how to take lessons learned from master teachers and teach young teachers to do this same. If you're interested, check out the website for the book, which has video examples and excerpts. The book itself comes with a DVD that contains real-life examples illustrating the principles in the book (the subtitle is "49 techniques that put students on the path to college").
 
One of the techniques is simply called, "100%" (technique #36, by the way!). The key idea is, "There's one acceptable percentage of students following a direction: 100 percent. Less, and your authority is subject to interpretation, situation, and motivation." Here's a bit more of what he says:
 
The assertion that the standard, not the goal, is 100 percent compliance may sound terrifying and draconian: a power-hungry plan for a battle of wills or the blueprint for an obedience-obsessed classroom where little but grinding discipline is acheived. The classrooms of champion teachers belie this expectation, however. They finess their way to the standard with a warm and positive tone. They are crisp and orderly; students do as they're asked without ever seeming to think about it. Yet the culture of compliance is both positive, and, most important, invisible. Not only can these two characteristics be part of a classorom with maximum order, but in the end, they must. Discipline that is most often positive and invisible (that is, a matter of habit) is, arguablly, the only sustainable variety.
 
Note the statements, "Yet the culture of compliance is both positive, and, most important, invisible. Not only can these two characteristics be part of a classorom with maximum order, but in the end, they must. Discipline that is most often positive and invisible (that is, a matter of habit) is, arguablly, the only sustainable variety." Those are my italics, of course--it is building a positive culture (habitual ways of doing things) that reinforce themselves . . . ultimately leading to a much more positive (and effective) experiene for everyone in the choir.
 
This is getting long, so I won't outline Lemov's ways of achieving 100% here (next time!), but you may say, "This just seems like the old lessons in classroom management." Well, that's true, in part. But unless these "little things" and the concept that everyone in your choir will do things a certain way takes hold, it's very hard to achieve what you want musically.
 
But just to show that the "cultural" things I'm discussing are not just "classroom management," but can musical habits as well, an example from several years ago when I guest conducted the wonderful Exsultate Chamber Singers in Toronto. At that time conducted by John Tuttle, the choir's musical culture was decidedly Anglican/British choral tradition. One thing I noticed right away was that they took a "lift" after every single instance of punctuation (comma, semi-colon, period, etc.). It was their culture to do this. Any new member coming into the choir would have figured it out quickly and done the same. This meant I didn't have to tell them every time I wanted them to breathe or take a lift in a phrase. In fact, I needed to tell them if I didn't want a lift, but to carry through. However, it meant that this musical element was automatic with the choir.
 
Let me know what you think!

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