I had a coaching call this past week with a middle school/high school choir director who is in the first year of their position. This teacher was facing several challenges, with the biggest one being that the members of their concert choir were not “buying in” to this new director’s way of doing things. This in turn was affecting not only the choir’s performance–as the director was struggling to get the choir to sing out–but also the general atmosphere and attitude of the choir.
I’ve been in this EXACT position in my teaching career, and we talked at great length about some of the issues this director was facing, and what they might try to combat these issues. In today’s post, I will share with you some of my tips and suggestions for getting your choir to “buy in”. These are especially important for those of you who are in the first couple years of a new teaching position, but they truly are important no matter where you are in your teaching career.
Keep Changes to a Minimum
I compare starting a new teaching job to when I got married. I was talking about the whole wedding planning process with a married friend of mine, and his advice was this:
“Technically, you have veto power. But be EXTREMELY careful in exercising that power.”
Basically he was saying, “Let your wife-to-be have what she wants, unless you ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY hate something.” LOL!
And this would be my advice to choir directors in a new position–do NOT make ANY major changes, unless there is just something you ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY hate. Because if you do, your students are going to see that as a slight to the previous choir director, and their work with that person.
And no matter what type of situation you are walking into, positive or negative, there are bound to be at least a few singers that enjoyed their experience with the previous director. These singers are still loyal to that person, they are ticked off that you are now leading the choir, and they are just looking for a reason to be negative and make your life difficult. Because of this, avoiding any major changes in the first year is in your best interest.
The old saying is true: “They won’t care what you know until they know that you care.”
You may have grand designs walking into your new position about the fantastic music you are going to create. But none of that is going to happen if you don’t first build relationships with your singers.
In order for singers to participate and have a positive impact on the ensemble, they need to feel like they are in a safe, encouraging, supportive environment. They need to trust you as the director, and they need to trust the other singers in the ensemble. And trust is not born overnight.
What will help is finding ways to show your singers that you are interested in more than just their singing ability. Attending school events, or even just striking up conversations as students enter the room before rehearsal, help you start to build deeper relationships with your singers. When they see that you care, they will start to trust. When they do that, they will begin to open up and be vulnerable. And that is when true music-making can start to happen. But if you dive into music head-first, without really placing an emphasis on building relationships, that can make the creative process much more challenging.
Communicate the WHY
Communicating to your students “why” you do certain things can be exhausting. But when you are new, you have to remember that they are not familiar with you or your teaching style. Not only are they going to be curious as to why you do things a certain way, they are going to be resentful that you aren’t teaching the same way as the previous director did.
You shouldn’t have to change your personality or your teaching style to fit what the previous person did (this is one change that you shouldn’t compromise on). But, you should expect that there is going to be curiosity, some confusion, and yes, some resentment as to why it is you do things the way you do.
Finding Ways to Empower Your Singers
If you can find ways to empower your singers by giving them more responsibility in the artistic process, they will be more likely to become engaged and invested in the rehearsal process. There are lots of ways you can get singers more involved in rehearsal, like:
-Ask open-ended questions
-Have students serve as vocal models/”guinea pigs” in rehearsal
-Have students lead warm-ups or sectionals
-Use rehearsal techniques that give more of the musical decision-making to the singers
If you are looking for some fresh rehearsal techniques that will get your singers more involved in the rehearsal process, I have a new free video training that you should check out: “Choir Rehearsal Techniques that Will Empower and Engage Your Singers!” These techniques are designed so that you can incorporate them quickly and have an immediate impact on your rehearsals. Click HERE to register!
Grow Their “Choral Vocabulary”
Singers being able to evaluate choral performances, both of their own choir and other choirs, is a very important skill. The ability to accurately and fairly self-evaluate is crucial in identifying strengths as well as weaknesses. Without this part of the process, improvement can be hard to come by.
But often with young singers I find that they lack the “choral vocabulary” to accurately evaluate choral performances. They really don’t know what good choirs are supposed to sound like, because they don’t have enough experience listening to choirs. If you teach in a situation where lots of singers listen to choral music regularly, consider yourself lucky!
We live in an age where finding quality choral recordings is pretty easy. Having your students regularly listen to choral performances, and discuss what they are hearing, can help you as you try to communicate what aspects of a choral performance are needing to be improved.
And, it’s also a way to use assessment to cover different learning objectives!
Here’s a form that I use as an example of a listening activity. It’s in Google view-only format; simply “Make a Copy” to your Google Drive, and tweak it how you see fit!
Be Clear and Consistent with Expectations
Chances are, your idea of rehearsal management, as well as your expectations for performances, are going to differ at least slightly from your predecessor. This means it’s going to be even more important to be clear and consistent with whatever expectations you set.
This is an area for your students where, yes, there are going to be changes from what they are used to. It will help the transition if you as the director can focus on teaching and interacting with your singers from a perspective of empathy and understanding, while at the same time being very clear and consistent with your expectations. Nobody wants to be the bad guy/gal. But students really do want to have high and clear expectations (even if they won’t admit it). And when they see you’re continually being consistent, they will start to follow your lead. Just be patient!
Praise in Public, Correct in Private
This is probably another phrase that you are familiar with, and they are words to live by if you wish to deal with conflict in a positive manner. When singers see other singers being praised, that can motivate them to step up as well. But correcting students in public can often backfire, causing animosity and dis-trust. By correcting in private, you have a better opportunity to get your point across, but you can do it without causing embarrassment to the student. This can not only fix the problem, but can improve things moving forward, as the student will often appreciate not being scolded in front of their peers.
If, however, the correction is not met positively by the student, then that is a situation where I would follow up with the parent, and in more serious situations, with school administration.
Invest in Your Beginners
No matter what age groups you are working with, one of the best things you can do is make sure that you are truly investing in in your youngest singers. And by investing I mean teaching them what’s truly important to you, and teaching them how things should be done.
Your oldest singers typically will be the most difficult to get on board, as they are most likely to still feel loyalty to the previous director. The hope is that your youngest singers won’t be quite so stuck in the ways of your predecessor, and be more willing to buy in to a new way (your way!) of doing things.
One of my teaching positions was teaching grades 6-12 vocal music. The program consisted of one high school choir, a 7th-8th grade choir, and a 6th grade choir. It was a pretty small school, with around 28 in the high school choir when I started. I faced some pushback from some older students, for some of the reasons I’ve already discussed.
But I made it a point to really give as much attention as I could to the two middle school ensembles. By the end of my third year, the students that had been difficult were long gone, and I had over 45 singers in the high school choir, and would have had over 50 in the choir at the start of my 4th year (I ended up switching positions that summer). Growing the younger ensembles had paid off, and the growth started to show in the high school choir, both in numbers of singers and in their trust of me as a director.
Bring in the Calvary
Those of you with kids–have you ever had it happen that you say something to your own kid, and they just ignore you, but when one of their teachers say the same thing, they treat it as the gospel truth? Funny how that works, right? 😉
The same thing can happen with your choir. It may seem, especially early on, that your singers test and question you on every little thing. They just don’t seem to trust that you know what you’re doing (frustrating!), especially if you are teaching in ways that they are not used to.
One of the ways to combat that is to bring in a clinician to work with your group. It could be from a local college, or even a director from a local elementary/middle/high school. You can have a conversation with your guest director about some of the difficulties that you have been dealing with, things that they can then try to address in the flow of the rehearsal. When your singers hear some of the same things from a guest director that you have been telling them, that gives you credibility and increases the chances that they will start to follow your lead with less objections.
Hopefully these tips will help you increase the “buy in” that you are getting from your singers. Just remember that “patience is a virtue”! You probably won’t see change happen overnight, but if you stay consistent and are persistent, you WILL see the culture in your choir room start to turn around. Keep fighting the good fight!
Would you be interested in jumping on a Zoom call to talk through a current challenge in your teaching? I’ve got some open blocks of time, and would be happy to visit with you. I would love to help and find out how I can serve you better! Simply send me an email at:
or drop me a message on the Choir Director Corner Facebook page!
Have a great weekend!
P.S. If you’d like to dive deeper on different topics related to directing a choir, our membership group, the Choir Director Corner TRIBE, is exactly what you are looking for! The TRIBE includes online masterclasses, the most recent being “How to Assess Your Choir Members Individually, Authentically and Efficiently”. This masterclass includes 13 different rubrics/handouts that you can use to incorporate assessment into your rehearsals. No need to reinvent the wheel! To find out more about the TRIBE, just click HERE.