Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Entertainment: Why is it not part of the school music curriculum?

I teach middle school choir in a Midwestern suburban school district in a very conservative area of the country.

If there is one thing my choirs do better than most, it's that they ENTERTAIN!  Why?  Because we ROCK!  And, we MOVE!

Parents, have you ever been to a school choir concert where you were not entertained?  Have you ever thought, "shouldn't this be fun and uplifting?  Shouldn't this be entertaining?"  If you've ever wondered why a school concert wasn't entertaining, I'll tell you why.

It's because there is absolutely no mention of the word Entertainment in any of the state music benchmarks or curricula.  If there are parts of the country that have entertainment as an included element, I am not aware of them.  I've been to choir concerts where the audience was forced to watch the director rearrange chairs on stage during the concert.  In the Entertainment Industry, this is called "Dead Air," and is one of the most embarrassing things for any entertainer.  In the TV or Radio industries, if you are the cause of Dead Air, it can cost you your job!

At the time of this writing (August of 2019) the Detroit Youth Chorus is in the semifinals of the TV show, America's Got Talent.  The DYC is a choir that is inspirational to the kids in my choir program becasue they perform similar music while utilizing similar choreography.  The music is mostly Pop, Rock and R&B (Contemporary Commercial Music).

I can pretty confidently state that the majority of school choir directors are, sadly, not fans of this awesomely energetic performing group.  Why, you ask?  Because they are not singing in the great Western European canon of choral music tradition.  They're signing modern music in the way it is supposed to be sung; with bright vowels.  Something that is generally discouraged in Classical Music and all traditional Choral Music. This choir, who is one vote away from the FINALS on a hugely successful American TV show, would likely not receive a First Division rating at an adjudicated Choral Festival event in Michigan (the state in which I also teach)!

Statistics show that within the next few years, the population of white students in the K-12 education system in the US will fall below 50% for the first time in the history of this country.  To think that it's still acceptable to only utilize the Western European choral tradition as the standard by which choral music is taught and evaluated is patently wrong and horribly outdated.  It's doing a cultural disservice to the (soon to be) majority of our students!

Additionally, studies now show that greater than 80% of all paying gigs (jobs) for singers are those singing CCM (pop/rock/R&B) styles. Yet, 90% (or more) of the Universities in the US only offer Classical/Opera or Jazz as options for voice majors.

It's time the US moved into the 21st Century in the area of Choral and Vocal Music Education!  The number of voice majors at the university level has dropped significantly in the last ten years.  We need to modernize our practices or our field risks going the way of the Dodo bird!

In an added attempt to not be misleading, I feel I need to state the following:  I am NOT a proponent of only having school music groups perform Pop/Rock or modern, contemporary sounding music.  If the above comments have anyone thinking that is my stance, it is not. 

Saturday, June 29, 2019

What Exactly Do You Do in the Summer?


Big sigh of relief because school year number Twenty-Three is in the books for me!

As my Spring Choir Concerts have become larger and larger events with bigger and better production values, the last month (or two) of the school year has become an immensely busy time for me!  I'm generally working until 11:00 pm pretty much every night.

I do take breaks though.  How else would I be able to post my ramblings on Facebook?!?!?  😜

This June I've been asked this question more times than in past years, it seems.  Which is odd because I assume people who know me would  already know these answers, but I guess not everyone does and I suppose it's silly for me to think they would.

What do you do in the summer???

Answer #1:  I SLEEP!

In May I average about 5-6 hours of sleep per night, which for me is not enough.  In June, I average at least nine hours per night!  It's needed for recovery.  The past two years our Holiday Break has been shorter than two weeks and I'll tell you... it makes a difference in the way I feel in January.  I'm looking forward to a full two week break this year as it's important to recharge.  Your children deserve to have teachers at their best!

Answer #2:  I CLEAN!

This time around it has mostly been (so far) focused on the garage due to Zachary's HS graduation open house.  Lots of cleaning and painting.  I found it relaxing actually and even said to my brother, "I think when I retire from teaching, I'm going to become a tinkerer and a cleaner."  Now, to tackle that master bathroom sometime soon!  Oh, and I also need to attempt to get on top of the mole situation we have going on.  ugh...


We try to schedule all my Doctor, Dentist and Eye Doctor appointments in the summer.  And when the kids were younger, theirs too.  That way nobody has to take time off work.  Trust me, it's much easier to NOT get a substitute teacher than it is to get a substitute teacher (even though lately I've been utilizing the same one and she's great - and she knows I appreciate her).

Answer #4:  I TEACH!

In addition to my teaching job at school, I also teach private lessons.  I typically have about 6-8 students that come in either after school or on the weekends during the school year for 30 minute lessons.  In the summer, I teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays and my client load usually goes up to around 12-16.  Currently I have mostly voice students but also two guitar students and two young ladies working on songwriting in addition to voice.  I enjoy every minute of that type of teaching because I never have to monitor, manage or correct bad behavior which cannot be said about what it takes to teach a choir class of 65 thirteen year olds.  I also teach and present at the LoVetri Institute for Somatic Voicework™ at Baldwin Wallace University in the Cleveland area every July.  It's a nine day conference/workshop for Voice Teachers, Choir Directors, Singers and Speech Language Pathologists.  This July marks my eleventh year attending and my sixth year as being part of the faculty.  I'm also the sound engineer for the entire conference, which is a joy and an honor for me.

Answer #5:  I WRITE!

Although not nearly enough.  I need to write more blog entries (I have sticky notes with about three more solid ideas, currently).  I also need to write more music/songs!  As our children are now older, my summer duties no longer include things like changing diapers and preparing breakfast and lunch every day.  I need to replace that time with more writing time! 



Sunday, October 7, 2018

Life is Difficult in Middle School Choir Class

It's been far too long since I have posted a blog entry.  Life can get so busy, as we all know. 

This evening, in my October Newsletter to the parents of my TWO HUNDRED and SEVENTY middle school choir students, I decided to up the level of transparency.  I decided I needed to really let them know.  To honestly let them know how difficult my job is when it comes to managing student behavior.  Here's what I sent...

Middle School Choir Class Environment...
I referenced this in the September Newsletter, and it's also the reason for the paragraph above this one.  
This is really important:  I need you to know that I have the single most difficult classroom management assignment in the district.  In an attempt to up my level of teaching transparency, let me explain...
All parents need to realize how CHALLENGING the middle school choir classroom environment is.  There are so many factors that make it more challenging than a standard classroom environment and the number ONE factor is simply, numbers.  My smallest class is FORTY students and my largest class is SEVENTY students.  A class with twice the students of a typical (25-32) sized class is not twice as hard to manage (behaviorally), it's EXPONENTIALLY harder.  Behavior management (also called classroom management) is the single most difficult aspect of being a MS choir director and is also the one thing I devote the most time to in class (come visit, you'll see) (it's also constantly discussed in the Choir Director Facebook groups).  Even good kids tend to misbehave occasionally when they are in groups this large (again, come visit, you'll see).  Another factor impacting behavior is that choir directors typically DO more than other teachers.  We play the piano constantly.  We read music constantly.  These things force us to have our eyes somewhere other than on the students in front of us.  This makes things very challenging when it comes to behavior management because we actually do NOT have eyes in the back (or, top) of our heads.  Another factor potentially impacting behavior is that in my room kids are approximately six inches from the kid sitting next to them (not three feet across an aisle like it is in their other classes).  This can make it much more tempting to talk, touch, poke, etc. a neighbor.  Another factor is the distraction that the iPad presents.  We read our choir music on the iPad (Green choir room!).  I tell the kids this is practice for when they are driving one day and they hear a notification on their phone.  They can choose to wait until an appropriate time, or they can look at their phone while driving.  We all know that distracted driving is a SERIOUS issue.  Please help me teach them to stay focused and not be distracted by games/images/websites when we are supposed to be looking at music on the iPads. 
In a perfect world, due to the size of my classes, we'd have three or four adults in the choir room at all times, including a full time accompanist.  Unfortunately, financially this is simply not an option.  
If your child receives an SRC referral from me, please don't be upset.  This is an opportunity to learn from a mistake in a challenging environment. Please do not try to get them out of the consequence as that is an important part of the learning process.  We actually WANT them to make mistakes so they can learn from them during these formative years so that they, hopefully, DON'T make mistakes when they are older.  If the adults in their lives attempt to swoop in and bail them out, not only will they not learn from their mistakes, but it will undermine my authority as Head Coach of the Creekside Choir program!  As mentioned above, behaviorally speaking, this is the most challenging hour of their day (and it's my ALL DAY).  Please discuss this with them.  We've been experiencing some pushing of the limits lately.  Ms. Merrill and I are working on helping them learn that chatting with a neighbor is actually disrespectful if it happens while the teacher is attempting to teach, or while we are working on music.  And let's remember a couple important facts as we help our adolescents learn how to function in large groups and in society in general...
1.  Just because you're the only one that got caught doesn't mean you're not guilty
2.  Attempting to use the phrase, "everyone was doing it" as an excuse is actually an admission of guilt

People who know me know that I absolutely LOVE my job and I absolutely ADORE my students.  It literally breaks my heart to have to occasionally use the SRC system to administer discipline, but sometimes it's absolutely necessary.  Again, please try to understand and be as helpful as you can as I attempt to help our youngsters learn how to navigate life in a challenging work (we WORK on our curriculum just like Math class, or a job) environment.  And again, please come visit.  It will shed tremendous light on everything I said in this lengthy paragraph. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

An Open Letter to My Young Voice Students

Dear teenage voice student,

Here is a blog you can refer to whenever you are unsure about what someone is doing, or what you are doing with your own voice on a particular song, and whether or not that's something that you should be, or should not be doing.  This is LONG, but important.  And this blog certainly is not intended to include ALL the answers when it comes to vocal technique, but is merely a step one listening guide.

First, please understand this...
Recent research in voice science is showing that it is risky for young singers (under 18-21) to belt regularly.  The definition of belt is, taking pure chest register up higher than the FIRST fence/passagio (E, just above middle C).  So, when I work with younger students (females, in particular) we work to lighten the middle/mix a bit.  Not permanently (you won't lose the ability to belt), but to give you more artistic, aesthetic, healthy choices for middle and high notes.  

For this critical, analytical listening, please use your best quality sound system, headphones or ear buds.  If you don't have a high quality set of headphones, you should ask for one for your birthday or Christmas, if your family celebrates those occasions with gifts.  It's important to have high quality listening equipment because of the level of clarity required to hear the subtle differences I'm talking about here.

Example One, Whitney Houston's debut album:  https://youtu.be/OtssG0CYv48?list=PL9Nuk30zTsfv3bJIq0tKXm-7nVi3KC0Zv

Some belty stuff in the first track, but not much.  The second song is very light and mixy and not shouty/belty at all.  Always ask yourself, "how loudly does it sound like she is singing?"  Adele = LOUD.  Tori Kelly = not as loud.  Tori and Ariana Grande sing in the same range and are both higher than Adele by quite a bit.  Adele is pretty heavy/chesty most or all of the time, except when she flips to head register.  Notice how Arianna's and Tori's voices are thinner and lighter up high, but still sound chesty.  That smaller sound is easier to take up high than the heavy belt that Adele uses.  

Example Two, Adele, Rolling in the Deep:  https://youtu.be/rYEDA3JcQqw
I know you've heard it a hundred times (or more) but really listen to her voice.  Remember the second biggest influence on which register we sing in is volume, and the third biggest is the vowel.  Notice almost every ee and ooh she sings flips to head register.  Especially on "rolling in the deeeeeeeep."  If her mix was lighter, she would be able to stay out of head register there.  Whitney became THIS in the end of her career.  See below...

Example Three, Whitney, I Will Always Love You:  https://youtu.be/3JWTaaS7LdU
Still a fantastic performance, but by this point in her career her mix became heavier (reasons why will be discussed later) and as a result, she became a "flipper."  She flips to head a LOT in this song.  But, it is often on the ooh vowel, which loves head register.  

You would hear the same types of things in Christina Aguilerra's and Mariah Carey's voices if you compared their debut albums (age 19) to their later albums.  

Example Four, Tori Kelly, Paper Hearts:  https://youtu.be/NO8zDm437Ls
Lots of light, mixy stuff here and no belting.  Her head register is a bit breathy but that may be an artistic choice.  She also utilizes a few of the "squeaky" sounds that voice teachers cringe when they hear, but like most extreme techniques (like distortion/rasp) if used sparingly, the voice should be able to handle it.

Example Five, Ariana Grande, Emotions (Mariah Carey cover):  https://youtu.be/UjzENV7rhhI
Much light mixy singing here.  In fact, her mix is a bit headier than most, and the lack of clarity in her words is the result of that.  Chest register is bright, head register is not.  She doesn't have nearly as bright a tone as Tori Kelly, so we can conclude that her mix is headier.  Also some breathiness, but I believe that is a choice.

So, lightening things in the middle is KEY to being able to sing powerfully for many years!  Please don't spend more then a few minutes per day in your super high, loud belty voice.  Your future voice is depending on you to make good decisions NOW!

Other factors...
All of these ladies had super heavy touring schedules.  Along with that comes meet and greets before and after the show, speaking to fans in loud environments (the worst!), morning radio and TV interviews, etc.  In short, they are constantly booked to do (speak or sing) something with their voices and that can become very stressful.  Add to that, the much publicized lifestyle choices that these three ladies made in their 20s and 30s (drugs and alcohol) and it's a recipe for vocal trouble.  

As I stated in the introduction, this blog is only meant to be a conversation starter and by no means contains all the answers to what teenage girls should or should not sing.  I am available for consultations at parisblue3@gmail.com Feel free to contact me if you are interested in either Skype or in person voice lessons.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Know Thy Self, Kids!

It's that time of the year again...

The time of the school year when students decide whether or not to audition for spots in advanced performing arts classes in Band, Choir, Dance and Orchestra.  It's also the time of year when students decide whether to continue with classes in the performing (or, visual) arts, or to opt out for something else.

I've lived this many times over.  I've seen many great singers leave vocal music programs.
Why is this?

Why would a choir student who has been awarded solos in choir performances decide to walk away from an activity in which they excelled to the highest level?  I compare this to the quarterback of the football team just walking away from the sport.  Do we ever see that happen?  Have these talented singers just grown tired of singing?  In an unscientific estimation, I would say that if a student earned a solo on a concert, that student is at least in the top 20% of singers in their choir.  Why would anyone in the top 20% of anything walk away from it?  Would an all conference Shortstop walk away from baseball?

This is the tough question.  The one even parents don't want to answer or tackle.  I get it.  It's a difficult thing.  My school district has experienced some amazing success in sports during the last decade.  We have also seen a strong push for academic rigor and many students are taking more and more AP courses.  When you have both of those things, enrollment in the Arts will suffer.  The athletes become our local heroes.  Everyone wants to be a part of that.  I get it.  I was a part of that as I was Shortstop on the baseball team and Quarterback of the football team when I was in High School.  This takes me back to the title of this blog entry.

Know Thyself...
As parents, we need to be more honest with our children.  And frankly, also with ourselves.  If your child is second string on the sports team and has also earned a solo on a concert in their music class, you need to consider the fact that there is a very real possibility that your child is more talented in music than sports!  If that is the case, or if there is even a remote possibility that might be the case, it's time to step up and make the RIGHT decision for your child and keep them in their Performing Arts class! As mentioned earlier, I was a starter in sports, but I eventually realized I was better at music.  When I was 12, I wanted to play Shortstop for the Detroit Tigers!  When I was 17, I wanted to play drums or sing in the band, Journey! Despite this change of attitude, I led the team in home runs my senior year! Sports + music = great!

We're too busy...
Middle School Performing Arts classes only require students to commit to about four evenings per year.  That is NOT a big commitment.  When you consider the brain development and the creativity involved in participating in a Performing Arts class, it should be a logical decision that it might be OK for your child to miss a few innings of a baseball/softball game in order to participate in a concert they've been working on for seven weeks.  After all, we are all here to make our children better people, and it's scientifically proven that music classes can help accomplish that.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Future of Music?

I am concerned.

Greatly concerned...

I'm concerned for the future of music in this country.

I'm not talking about the fact that Classical music and Opera have been seeing reduced numbers in recent years.  I'm talking about mainstream, Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM).

When I look at advertisements for concerts and live music at bars, the performers are basically all my age, or older!  They are all in their 40s or older!  What does this say for the future of music (particularly, LIVE music) in America?

It seems to me that the younger generation is only interested in Hip Hop, or harder edged Rock.  In other words, there isn't the "in between" music that my generation grew up with.  There isn't a group of twenty-somethings on the radio playing music that sounds like Journey, Boston, Kansas or Styx.  And, that is very sad.

My hope is that there ARE indeed bands out there composing and recording this type of material, but they just aren't receiving the national attention that they should be receiving.  Perhaps enough of them will become YouTube savvy enough to get their material out there so that we can all enjoy it.

It's no great surprise that the CCM music of the 70s and 80s still lives on today and is recognized by ALL generations.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Elective Choices In Middle and High School

Kids today are forced to make very important choices at younger and younger ages in our society.

In my school district, 6th and 7th graders have two exploratory (as they are called in the Middle School concept) classes each day.  One of those two periods, is a rotation of Art, Computers, Physical Education and Spanish, each for one nine week marking period (which already sounds limiting).  Their other exploratory period gives them a choice of Band, Choir, Orchestra or a non music offering that is usually another PE, Computers or Art class, depending upon who is available to teach it.  Approximately 90% of 6th and 7th graders in my school district elect to take a music class.

About halfway through the school year, I begin the discussion with my 7th grade students on what the choices are that they will face as they select their two elective classes for 8th grade, as the options are MANY!  Predominantly due to increased High School graduation requirements, my district (and basically all neighboring districts) offers High School credit for Spanish I as a full year 8th grade elective and also High School PE/Health as a one semester 8th grade elective.  Band, Choir and Orchestra are all full year options, as is Dance, which is very popular in our district, especially with our girls.  Other options are to take another nine week rotation of courses including the ones from 6th and 7th grade like Art, Computers and PE.  But also a course called Choices which was originally part of the Home Economics curriculum (something that was completely cut from my school, due to budget restraints).  It's amazing how many 8th graders willingly quit a music program that they've spent two years building skills in to take the 9 week Choices class because... wait for it... they get to job shadow for ONE DAY.

But, the Choices class is far from the biggest issue at hand.  The biggest part of this conundrum is the fact that classes are being offered for High School credit at the Middle School level.  That's what's killing the arts.  I have had SEVERAL parents (and kids) tell me, "we are so sorry.  She LOVES your class and we LOVE the concerts, but she just cannot fit choir into her schedule for next year."  For many of these 13 year olds (YES, THIRTEEN), taking a HS class in 8th grade is the carrot.  It's a symbol of prestige and honor.  Especially for the high achieving academic kids.  The ones who also do VERY WELL in Music and the Arts.  And, the sad reality is that 90% of the time, once a kid opts out of an Arts program, rarely do they return.  Also at issue is the two year Foreign Language requirement for HS graduation in Michigan (although there is an easy way to opt out of the second year).  So, for the kids who take Spanish I in 8th grade, guess what the counselors will INSIST they take as one of their electives in 9th grade?  Why, Spanish II of course!  No student would want to wait a year, or two, between foreign language classes.  They'd forget half of it!  But wait... don't most colleges also require a foreign language credit or two?  If so, wouldn't it be most prudent to take your two years of foreign language in the Junior and Senior years, right before needing to take it at the college level?  And... this is assuming that ALL kids will go to college, which is silly!  There should be a one year foreign language track for non-college bound students. And, don't the Junior and Senior years have more elective choices and less required classes??  Why are kids cramming more classes with homework (and stress, and anxiety) into 8th and 9th grades (when they are less mature and ill-equipped to handle additional stress and anxiety) when they can take them in 11th and 12th grade when they only have three required courses!

When I have that discussion with 7th graders that I mentioned earlier, I do my best to explain to them that what they elect to take in 8th grade can, and often does, have a significant impact on what they can, or cannot, take as electives in 9th grade.  Invariably, a hand will go up into the air and the question always asked is, "But Mr. C. you're talking about 9th grade and we're picking classes for 8th grade.  I don't get it."  That's because they're 13 years old.  It's complex.  I typically have the same discussion in class, with many questions and answers, about four or five times during the second semester with both my 7th and my 8th graders.  Some get it.  Many do not, unfortunately.  Last school year I had NINETY students in 7th Grade Choir.  This school year I have FIFTY-TWO students in 8th Grade Choir (see the italicized comment above).  Understand my concern?  We have NINETY kids taking Spanish for HS credit in 8th grade at my school.  That's the equivalent of having another HUGE 8th Grade Band, or Choir.  Or, BOTH!!

What's most important is that kids get SOMETHING from their experience in school, other than a report cart.  Kids need to be a part of SOMETHING!  Sports accomplishes that for MANY kids and those that know me know that I played multiple sports all through school.  I was always a part of a team.  But, especially if your child doesn't participate in sports, encourage them to stay in music and the arts.  Encourage them to participate in after school Drama and Musical activities where they can be a part of SOMETHING, rather than just being a kid, floating down the stream of Middle School and then High School.  In the late 1980s (granted, graduation requirements were not as demanding) at my High School, there were 200 kids in Band and 150 kids in Choir with a total student population of 850.  Today we have over 1500 students in High School and we have about 215 in HS Band and about 100 in HS Choir (but that number is up by 30 for next year!!).

Friends and parents of current MS and HS students, please make the right decision for your children. Please STRONGLY consider, and reconsider any decision that replaces an Arts class with an academic class in a schedule where they already have at least four academic classes. Arts classes are about RELEASE!  Kids need a little of that during their school day.  It promotes good mental health.


Disclaimer:  I am clearly biased toward Music Education (especially if it's FREE and offered in a Public School!).  I am NOT an opponent of ANY other elective choices.  I feel they are all great and should be given MORE time in every student's daily schedule!  As an Art teacher just posted on my FB page about this, "More Arts, less Math!"  heh heh