Monday, February 18, 2013

Choral Festival with Defense

As a follow up to my post pertaining to concentration and focus, I would like to share a story from early in my teaching career.

It was about the year 2000, if memory serves (yeah, right).  I was in my 3rd or 4th year of teaching and Choral Festival was to be held at the West Ottawa HS Performing Arts Center, a short 8 mile bus ride from our school.  I was particularly proud of how my 8th grade choir was sounding that year and really looked forward to our experience and was somewhat confident that we would receive a First Division (I) rating, if we had a good performance.

Choral Festival is an adjudicated event and in Michigan, choirs perform two contrasting pieces from a required list, and also sight read a selection of music.  The judges scores are combined into an overall rating of I, II, III or IV (representing Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, respectively).  Although some folks may view events like this as a form of "competition," there isn't a "defense."  In other words, there isn't supposed to be another choir trying to "block" you from scoring your best.

I will never forget what happened shortly after our performance began, and continued throughout.  As, I looked to certain sections of the choir to give cues, I immediately noticed many of the kids were not watching me, but rather, their eyes were going past me, into the audience.  EVEN GOOD KIDS!!  I couldn't believe this was happening, as we had worked so hard for the past nine weeks and we had talked about focus, concentration and eyes on the director!  A LOT!

Between our two numbers, I walked closer to the group than a director normally would and emphatically expressed to them that they needed to keep their eyes on me.  "But Mr. Costello, one of them mustered up the courage to say, they are staring at us and talking about us!"

Many directors require their students to sit in the auditorium and observe a few performances by other groups at events such as this.

At this point, I turned around to see a choir of about 50 kids, sitting in the first four or five rows of the auditorium.  Because the judges sit in the house and need to see to write, the house lights are rarely brought down at these events.  Therefore, the performers can easily see the audience, especially the faces of those in the first few rows of seats.  Well... what do most middle school kids do while watching other middle school kids from different schools?  Why, they point at them and whisper to each other, of course!!  They size them up.  They comment on their uniforms, their hair, their makeup, etc. etc. etc.  Some of them may even comment on their sound, but I doubt that's very many.

The actions of the kids in the first few rows had a profound impact on the concentration and focus of the choir performing on stage.  Because middle school aged kids are, by nature, incredibly self-conscious, they all automatically assumed the other kids were "talking trash."  One can hardly blame the kids for being distracted, but this is one of the many things we talk about in class when discussing FOCUS.

Needless to say, we ended up with an overall Second Division (II) rating that day and we chalked it up as a learning experience.  I mentioned the issue to a few other directors, including the ones running the event, but I'm not sure there was ever a rule instituted stating that choir members shouldn't sit in the first few rows, as that turns it into...

Choral Festival with Defense!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Concentration and Focus

OK, would you like to really know what I teach?

I teach concentration.  And, Focus.

That's really about it.  It doesn't take a ton of God given talent to sing your part accurately in a choir (although, it certainly helps to have a few kids who are blessed).  What it does take is concentration.  Concentration is not something that comes easy to a great majority of adolescents.  For those who don't know, I teach middle school choir in a small, Midwestern town in Michigan.  Once the music is learned, I feel the most important ingredient to a successful performance is concentration.  Concentration by every individual in the group.

A typical piece of choir music is less than three minutes in length.  Countless times I ask my students, "can you concentrate 100% of the time for the next 2:30?  If we can ALL do that, we will sound great!"  As adults, you'd be amazed how difficult a task this is for MANY middle school aged kids.  Their brains are VERY active.  Often TOO active.  They are constantly bombarded by media.  It is our job, as adults in their lives, too channel that activity.  Sometimes, to even reduce that activity to a point where they can concentrate on only a few key things.

Recently, I typed out a few thoughts and put it up on the big screen in my classroom and showed it to all my choirs.  I told them that if I had a blog (and that I probably should), this is the type thing I would put on it.  It was titled, Without Distraction.  It came to me in D.E.A.R. class.  At both middle schools in town, we have a 20 minute Drop Everything And Read period in our day (reading scores have improved, too!).  I was reading a book about the science of functional singing training called Voice:  Psyche and Soma by Cornelius L. Reid and I was completely drawn in, at the moment, to what the author was discussing (I know.  Very "voice geek" of me).  Then, it happened.  I was distracted by a student who wasn't doing what he/she was supposed to be doing.  I felt as though I'd been robbed.  "The moment" was suddenly ended, and not by my choice.  I didn't do much more than send a firm, nonverbal gesture to the student, but immediately after that, began typing Without Distraction.  I don't have a copy of it in front of me, but this was the gist...

Without Distraction

When you're in the middle of reading a GREAT book and you are completely drawn into the story.  You are suddenly transported to another time and place and it's awesome!  Then, someone sneezes and instantly you are brought back to reality.

When you're in the middle of a trance-like daydream.  Complete euphoria.  Then, someone taps you on the shoulder and instantly the feeling is gone.

You're watching a movie in a theater and, like the book reading experience, you are completely drawn into the story and are transported to another time and place.  You forget where you are for awhile.  Then the person behind you bumps your seat and you are immediately brought back to the present.

Concentration isn't easy.  Especially, the 100% kind.  Focus!

I have a BLOG!!!

OK, so I have a blog.

Welcome to anyone interested in reading.

It seems the older I get, the more opinions I seem to have.  So, I figured I should start a blog.  I've actually thought about it for quite some time, but now it's a reality.

This blog's content will run the gamut from topics of education to politics to issues in music and singing.  Of those four topics, three of them I feel that I can safely claim to be an expert on.  However, I'm actually quite new to having an opinion on politics, so you all are encouraged to help me grow in that area.

Speaking of politics, as of starting this blog, I will make it a goal to have my Facebook presence contain LESS political information and stances.  However, that becomes challenging for me, at times, due to the current Education bashing that permeates our society and our elected officials.

This blog will also free me up, so to speak, to address a wider variety issues than I would feel comfortable addressing in a public forum such as Facebook, due to my career in public education.  This blog, being an "audience by choice" environment, will undoubtedly "loosen me up" a bit.  Therefore, the opinions just may be a bit stronger and more "colorful" than they would be on Facebook.  It is not my intention to lace my posts with profanity, as I also place a high priority on not offending people (folks close to me have always known that).  But, forgive me if I feel the need to use the occasional accent.

I will also occasionally blog on my own personal issues, mainly those regarding the struggles I've had with my singing voice, over the past 6 years.  As many, but not all, know, I have struggled with a condition known as Muscle Tension Dysphonia.  I could type for a year on what it is, what it does, how it feels and how it sucks.  For now, I'll describe it with a simple analogy:  It's like stepping on the gas and the brake at the same time.
Stay tuned.