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"Everything matters!".

At the end of the spring semester, I asked fourth year students in a conducting course to write down two key concepts or "takeaways" from the year's study about conducting. It was a way of summarizing their experience in a concise form, and of giving them yet another opportunity to synthesize their learning. The responses indicated that the students had absorbed some essential ideas, many of which apply to all levels of choral teaching and music making. What follows is a number of those ideas and my elaborations on each:

1. Communicate ideas simply and effectively.

This applies not only to giving directions (be specific and focused) but also to clarifying strategies for teaching. One of the things the students recognized was the mistake of giving too much information at one time. Even at their advanced level of musicianship, they often found that while learning new music with their peers teaching, they themselves could absorb only one or two ideas at a time. They needed time to process and practice. One person noted that precision and brevity help keep people engaged. I can sometimes be guilty of talking too much in rehearsal, and have to remind myself that people are there to make music. "Less talk and more music" is a noble goal.

2. Learning to conduct (and teach) is a growing experience.

It takes time to become a teacher. One student mentioned how at the beginning of the year she was overwhelmed by how much there was to hear and found it hard to focus, but by the end when she did her final teaching assignment, she was able to respond to specific things she heard and to teach toward improvements. I told the group that even after decades of teaching, I still work to hear everything. Time and experience are great tools. During the year, we worked on specific elements at first as a means of focusing our listening. Sometimes we would hone in on rhythmic elements, then on pitch, and how those worked in combination. Then we would address tone and vowel formation, for example, and ultimately, aim to process them simultaneously. Information overload, however, sometimes made a lasting impression and sometimes students found themselves freezing in mid-experience. We celebrated small victories every time there was a breakthrough.

3. Being a good conductor is about having a lot of practice and strategies.

Rather than being something that we are either good at or not (i.e. a natural talent), conducting is something that can be learned. Certainly there are people for whom it seems to come naturally and who have a flair for conducting and teaching, but many of us develop that with a great deal of practice. (See #2 above.) During the year, as we worked to develop skills and teaching ideas, we recognized successes and challenges as we practice. It can be misleading to observe a veteran teacher who makes things look easy, and not to realize that person is relying on good planning, a body of experience, and a reservoir of teaching strategies. Students are sometimes surprised that their university professors still plan meticulously and often write down their ideas before rehearsal. I have taken to sharing portions of these by sending out weekly outlines with specific goals imbedded, and for the students in conducting courses, whether taught by myself, or a colleague, these can be eye opening.

4. Preparation is essential to success.

One student noted surprise at the amount of "mental preparation that goes into a rehearsal." There again, I wonder if that surprise comes from working with conductors who make it look easy. (See #3 above.) Between the advanced preparation, the energy required on the spot to react during rehearsal, and the follow-up evaluation, there is a great deal of mental energy required to be an effective conductor-teacher. Another person summed things up by saying that "careful organization and preparation (knowing the music through score analysis, score marking and practicing conducting) before rehearsal is important." Another said, "Don't just wing it!"

5. Be flexible.

No matter how much you plan, things may not turn out as you expect. In that case, it is necessary to be flexible, to "listen and adapt." Another writer spoke about the need to "be reactionary" which included "addressing things on the fly, adjusting ... to suit the situation, listening constantly." We discussed this as finding balance between being proactive and being reactive. One plans (see #4 above), but then one reacts to what actually happens. Every novice teacher has likely persisted in following through a plan that didn't work, until reality intervened and recognition dawned that things were not going well. At that point, without a large supply of resources upon which to draw (i.e., strategies learned through the experience of teaching), it can be hard to adjust. The plan is a scaffold or a guide, not the one-and-only path to success.

6. Never let things slide.

Always strive for excellence. Sometimes it takes repeated efforts over time to achieve the musical results or the understandings we seek, but giving up will never allow us to accomplish those. It can be tempting to give up, or to not insist enough, but it is possible and wise to work toward high standards, no matter what the experience level of the students. Taking things step by step, and providing strategies for improvement (see #3), will ultimately reap rewards. There are times when we recognize students have reached their limit for the moment and so we shift gears, move to another activity or a to different piece or music, or change the focus somehow, but we come back at another time if our quest for excellence is to resume. Sometimes it simply takes time for skills and ideas to take hold.

7. Do everything with purpose.

Rather than making warm-ups automatic and cursory, for example, connect them to the repertoire so they become a means of preparing singers for its challenges. One student described this approach as being "proactive." It is a means of pre-teaching concepts that will appear in the music, such as particular intervals, the tonality, harmonic patterns, and rhythmic elements, among others. This can make the link to reading the music smooth and efficient, provided the teaching strategies are designed to emphasize the links.

Another example of purposeful teaching is to give a reason for repeating something. Otherwise, students may miss the point. Are we repeating because the rhythm is sloppy, or the notes are wrong, or the text isn't clear? Giving a reason to repeat provides focus and a sense of purpose for the activity. When everyone knows what we are striving to accomplish, we can work together for a common goal.

8. Take the time to explain why you are doing a particular exercise or teaching a particular concept so students will appreciate the process better.

It's important to know why we are doing things, how they work, and how they will contribute to better musicianship. Although the words "take the time to explain" may lead to visions of too much talk, they do not have to mean that, but simply that, for example, we give a reason for repeating something. Similarly, helping students make connections between the warm-ups and the repertoire (see #7 above), or finding similar elements between sections of a composition, teaches them skills they can transfer to other contexts by situating their learning in familiar settings.

9. Provide multiple strategies for solving musical problems.

One size does not fit all. A technique that we see in a workshop may not transfer to our own teaching situation. Repeating something the same way twice or more may do nothing more than solidify what is wrong in the first place. Students learn in a variety of ways: visual, auditory, kinesthetic or some kind of mix. Snapping on rests is a way of drawing attention to these rhythmic elements, and making cutoffs very concrete and physical for singers. Reinforcing concepts physically may be more helpful to some learners than simply reminding them to "keep the tempo steady" or "make the phrases smoother." Verbal instructions, coupled with concrete visual or kinesthetic strategies, may help students understand some element of the music that was not previously clear to them. Those "ah-ha" moments are revelatory.

Related to this point is the need to have something to say or do when the music stops. The novice teacher, in my observation, often jumps to something obvious like dynamics, when the basics are not secure yet. That is frequently a result of their inexperience at listening. If we listen for specific aspects of the music, we can reinforce those same things through repetition, with a variety of strategies.

"Say it; do it; affirm it." This was the wording I used in our class to remind students of a simple three-part teaching sequence to frame strategies. It involves (1) identifying and diagnosing the issue with a strategy for improvement (say it); (2) practicing it by using the strategy (do it); and (3) responding to the results--either it is better and we praise the result, or it isn't and needs constructive suggestions, the latter returning us to the three-part strategy again (affirm it).

10. Ask questions. (Teaching is not telling.)

Incorporating questions into one's teaching style can be a way of finding out what students are taking in, especially if you ask closed questions (ones with a finite answer); equally important, however, if not more so, are the kinds of open-ended questions that get people thinking about text meaning and compositional style, among other things. One concept we explored was that of asking follow-up questions to "right" answers. Rather than accepting these at face value, we learned to say, "How do you know?" or "What more can you tell us about that?" so that the responder could share thinking processes with us. As teachers, we can be so happy to hear the "right answer" that we do not think about how the student arrived at that response. A fact that might be clear to us is not necessarily so to the novice musician, who may lack the courage to ask about it or admit to not knowing. Furthermore, asking thought-provoking questions engages the learners and challenges them to function in a more collaborative environment. The latter opportunity is especially the case when the conductor-educator genuinely receives the questions and answers with a generous spirit and shares the stage, so to speak, with the other musicians as partners in the musical experience.

11. Teach from accuracy to artistry.

This continuum is something that I have long considered in my own teaching. From the first stages of preparing to teach a new piece of music to the point where it becomes second nature, there are many steps and stages between. As we worked on developing a listening hierarchy, we focused on the accuracy of rhythm and pitch first, then addressed tone, then text, phrasing and other expressive details such as articulation and dynamics. Needless to say, there are numerous overlaps among these. One notices tone quite quickly when people sing, but if the singers are struggling to get the rhythm and pitch, they cannot necessarily concentrate on making a good tone. Expression of the affective elements of any piece seems more comfortable when the basics are in place. I remember Robert Shaw saying this, at a summer choral institute in France, twenty years ago: "In the beginning, there was rhythm." It is very difficult to be expressive and musical when one is struggling with notes.

As a teacher, I try to incorporate elements of good tone as soon as possible so the accuracy stage is not devoid of expressivity, or does not last so long that robotic habits form. "Adding the expression later" can be a dangerous precedent in making music if it means that habits of in-expressivity have to be undone. At the same time, I know that choirs begin to sound better tonally as they grow in confidence with the notes. A challenge for us as conductor-teachers is pacing things so that the progression from accuracy to artistry is a smooth one that occurs almost seamlessly over time.

12. Everything matters!

Teaching and conducting are complex entities, involving skills and understandings, intellectual and motor skills, critical and creative thinking, and the ability to process a lot of information simultaneously. Sometimes it feels like juggling, or how I think juggling must feel! One student mentioned that in conducting alone, bodily control is a constant challenge, as one's position matters to so many elements of making music. If we are stiff and tense in our gesture, we can make the students feel the same way. If we miss an entrance or a cue, or change a tempo unexpectedly, we may risk losing the students at least momentarily. Our focus quotient must be very high indeed and consistently so. Yet as one person said, conducting becomes "more fun than scary" over time.

The combination of musical, physical, mental, and social skills required of the conductor-educator is enormous. Mindful teaching requires a full mind, active body, and engaged presence. "Everything matters!"


* The student who wrote this statement in response to my question, "What is something you have learned about conducting and teaching from this course?" is a 4th year instrumental major who chose to take choral conducting to improve his versatility. Throughout the year, he was faithful in attending choral rehearsals as an observer and writing a reflective journal; in spring semester, he was part of an instrumental ensemble that accompanied a massed choir performance of Bruckner's Mass in e minor for choir and winds, hence he had another opportunity to observe choral techniques while playing. I thought his statement, "Everything matters!" an excellent summation of his experience and inspired me to write this column.

Hilary Apfelstadt was recently appointed Director of Choral Activities at the University ofToronto where she received her undergraduate degree in vocal music education. She earned graduate degrees at the Universities of Illinois and Wisconsin-Madison, and enjoyed a long teaching career in the U.S., most recently at the Ohio State University. She has guest conducted many honour choirs throughout the U.S. and Europe, and has published numerous articles in professional journals. She is past national president of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) and a member of Choirs Ontario and the Association of Canadian Choral Communities (ACCC).
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Title Annotation:music makers: choral
Author:Apfelstadt, Hilary
Publication:Canadian Music Educator
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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