Training a high school chapel choir

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I have spent my whole life involved in the solitary practice, the group rehearsal and the public performance of choral music. I was therefore relieved upon arriving at SPS five years ago that I could apply a great deal of this experience to my most cherished duty at the school: the training and conducting of the Chapel Choir. As a young boy, I remember learning the nuts and bolts of singing by standing in the midst of several like-minded children who soaked in the sounds that the building generated around them. My love of organ music was born at the same time, and through this shared experience of creating sound with our youthful voices, and blending it with the natural acoustic and powerful organ sound surrounding us, my understanding of how to translate various marks on a page into beautiful music underwent something of a miraculous development. I caught the bug, and have spent the rest of my life attempting to share this with others.

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Part coach, part informer, part responder, I wear my heart on my sleeve, and frequently have it broken.

My approach to the training of the choir is deeply influenced by this formative experience. In truth, if I am doing my job well, the young singers will learn from each other, by osmosis. I endeavor to say the things that will motivate and inspire them. I try to approach each rehearsal with a level of consistency. I try to read the room, and respond to the energy. I hope to lead by example. The more prepared I can be, the better the rehearsal will go. However, the slightest deviation from my plan – a sick soprano, an absent alto, a tardy tenor, a bolshy bass – can necessitate an on-the-spot rethinking of the rehearsal. I love what I do, so I can easily communicate my ideas to these fifty students with a level of integrity. Part coach, part informer, part responder, I wear my heart on my sleeve, and frequently have it broken. Equally, however, my heart is filled with the kind of joy that only music can bring, and the kind of satisfaction that comes from leading a group of young singers from point A to point B, and seeing and hearing the progression and joy this brings. I find that our students are serious about their commitment to the choir, they look to each other for support, and they learn to love music that may never have entered their sphere of knowledge somewhere else. They communicate this attitude and these values to newer members of the choir, and they listen to the sound that they produce with critical ears. Most importantly, however, they hold their heads high and sing with total abandon, revealing uninhibitedly the fruits of the process into which they have entered.

Many cold, damp, solitary post-rehearsal walks back to Foster House from the chapel are liberally seasoned with the salt of self-doubt.

So, does it always go as idealistically as the previous paragraph would suggest? Maybe not? Many cold, damp, solitary post-rehearsal walks back to Foster House from the chapel are liberally seasoned with the salt of self-doubt. As Parker Palmer says in The Courage To Teach, “Small wonder, then, that teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart—and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be.”  Some rehearsals and some performances are better than others. However, by putting the responsibility into the students’ hands for the rehearsal process to go well – and, yes, that does often take twice as much preparation and energy on my part – there is a healthy balance of communication, hard work and fun. Am I ever indispensable as a choir director? I hope not. That would break my heart! However, my goal is to prepare the ensemble in such a way as to ensure their success in performance, regardless of my presence on the podium. After all, autopilot was invented for a reason…!

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