Advertise on ChoralNet 
ChoralNet logo
The mission of the ACDA is to inspire excellence in choral music through education, performance, composition, and advocacy.

Singer motivation: Motivation in a compulsory ensemble

Dear All,

My sincere thanks to everyone who gave their time to reply to my e-mail!
I have compiled and edited the responses underneath my original e-mail.
I hope they are of use to you all.

Robert Rountree
Final year Music undergraduate, UK

Original e-mail:

For a university project, I've decided to look at the issue of
developing motivation in choirs (of mixed ability) where participation
is compulsory. My brief is to design a one-hour workshop.

Clearly, when students are forced into taking part in an activity for
reasons relating to assessment, there are initial negative effects. The
parameters for the choir are as follows:

65 singers (approx 20 S, 20 A, 10 T, 15 B).
Age 18-23.
Around 3-4 experienced choral singers per part.

Rehearsals are blighted with unenthusiastic singing, and in many cases,
no singing at all. I feel that if some time was devoted to activities
other than note-bashing the concert repertoire, there may be an
improvement in the attitude of the ensemble. Can anyone suggest some
activities, or write of any personal experience which may be relevant?


First, let me point out that in years past, many young men have been
drafted into the service and many of them do not wish to be there. The
army does not seem to apologize for it's strict, military approach and
it largely seems to work. We have a job to do - let's get to it.

Some of my tricks (and I have done this with young adults

1. If you're REALLY brave - begin with some mood music and stretches,
followed by some rhythmic body energizers. I even do this with senior
adults. It teaches steady beat without even trying and warms you up.

2. Begin the first day SINGING - NOT vocalizing. Something in Latin -
where only the purest vowels come through. Something familiar like
"Jubilate Deo" or "Dona Nobis Pacem".

3. Ask students to name differences between a mediocre choir and a great
choir, a soloist and a choral group, a good rehearsal and a boring
- write these all down on a board or dry-erase board and leave it up a
few weeks. Without realizing it, they are setting their own goals.
Point out things they are doing that fall into one of the categories.

4. At the beginning of the second rehearsal and for all the rest, put up
the agenda for the rehearsal. Brag on the group if they complete it and
reward them (without making a big deal about it) with an early break,
game, class prize drawing (all ages love this - everyone likes winning a

5. Random behavior: I am very unpredictable. I have been known to drop
to the floor in agony or ecstasy, blow fart whistles to a section doing
poorly (teenagers LOVE this), shoot waterguns at people not paying
attention (probably better for kids). A lot of things I plan way ahead
to do, but make them seem last minute. It makes me look "cool" and
"spontaneous". I have brought glow sticks and had them direct in the
dark (very amazing). I have played "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire -
group style" using theory questions,
lyrics, singing skills - and come dressed like Regis (a nice touch).
will wear or don something really cool or flash a $1 bill and offer it
as a prize if anyone can answer a question or sing a part that I deem
"impossible" to answer. When they win - I act very sorry I did it and
reluctant to give up the prize. I have even set myself up and let
entire choir decorate me in toilet paper by telling them they could wrap
anything in the room if they quit singing like "babies". I bring in an
independent judge for the rehearsal. You just have to be creative and
see what's turning them on.

6. Individual solos, instrumentalists: I don't make a big deal of this,
but invite anyone to sign up to sing, play on a given week (only one a
week) but make a prerequisite that the music should be beautiful, not
silly or raunchy. The others seem to appreciate this.

7. BE PREPARED, have MORE plans than you need, BE STRICT - do not allow
disruptions. I ask people not participating to leave - and I mean it.
I NEVER tell them they sound good when they don't. I tell them if they
have improved and what level they are at. I TELL THEM WHEN THEY STINK!
I say "If you didn't come in here to sing, PRETEND you did!". Make them
earn their chairs - take all chairs out of the room and allow students
to "win" them back.

Good luck!

Bari -


They need to understand a sense of purpose - performing beautiful music
to the best of their ability. With students who aren't too interested
in being there, they need to feel as if they're an important part of the
purpose. There ought to be a good sense of camaraderie among the choir
- time must be spent in developing this. The more friends they have in
the choir, the more they have invested in it, the better they feel about
being there, and the more they will participate.

They need music at their level or else a good inspiring teacher who can
get them excited about music a step or three beyond their level. Andre
Thomas promotes the "bridge" idea - once you get to where they are and
they understand that - you can take them anywhere. So, do some silly
pop song or simple (but rousing) spiritual, and then work your way
toward the Bach motet.

Education - the more they know about something, the more they will
appreciate it. Now, this isn't to say that a lecture on Bach's Leipzig
period will help, because it more than likely won't. It needs to be
something they help discover and learn, and in short segments. Ideally
we'd love to just give a lecture and they'd have it, but today's
students aren't in any way like yesterday's students. The task of
capturing their interest has fallen to the teacher, so make the
education fun and varied (video, audio, speaking, tiny student reports
which the students read to the others, trivia, humor, etc.).

Be excited - the choir gets its energy from the director, so if the
director is not excited, the choir will not be excited. Coupled with
this must be a dedication to excellence. Don't let them get bored, keep
them singing, working. Work on the opening phrase to get absolutely
everything right- diction, intonation, unity of vowels, etc. The closer
and closer they get to perfection, the more excited the director should
be. i.e. "Yes!! We're almost there! Basses need to round that 'ah' in
the second measure and Sopranos need to keep on top of the pitch on the
G. Let's try again!" Once they get it, then give very excited praise
(and don't fake it!) and move on. Don't bog down too much with getting
a phrase perfect or it will get too frustrating for them.

Be human. Take the time to step back once in a while and tell them,
"You know, I first sang this piece in high school. I hated it so much,
but once we got it down, I really began to enjoy it. Now I simply love
it and want to share it with you."

Be the leader. Some kids just aren't going to participate no matter
what. Give them a warning, give them a second warning, then kick them
out. Period. Yes, it's a hard thing to do and could result in a
student being held back a year. Parents will get mad at you, and other
students and teachers may not like it either, but think of the benefits
to the student. Such a student gets by doing the least possible, and
when someone finally puts their foot down and says, "work or die," it
gives them a wake-up call that could really change their life. I was
such a student who had such a teacher. He got in my face and yelled at
me in front of the rest of the class. However, I realized my mistake,
later apologized to the teacher, and became a model student in that
class. The rule of "No pain no gain" also applies to one's mental

Josh - joshandnancy(a)


In general, I've found in many different kinds of situations that
students appreciate and buy into the process when the music is great and
your enthusiasm, love, and understanding of it is obvious. In other
words, motivation depends on the perception that they are getting
something valuable out of the situation, and when that value is tied to
the music itself you are most directly pursuing the goals that I assume
you have.

Don't downplay the importance of assigning solos, either. For better or
for worse, that is a powerful motivator because it amounts to personal
recognition, and because of this it can give you a chance to make points
and stress the importance of constantly working to improve. The LEAST
motivating situation is one in which the same people always get the
solos. The MOST is one in which everyone is considered and improvement
is recognized and rewarded.

John Howell - john.howell(a)


A fascinating and important topic you've raised. I'd like to suggest a
book from the business world that has made a significant difference in
the way I teach and arrange my classes: *Bringing Out The Best In
People* by Aubrey C. Daniels; 1994 McGraw-Hill. The subtitle is "How to
Apply the Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement." It's well worth
a look.

R. Paul Drummond - rpdrummond(a)


My situation: all music majors are required to sing in the chorus for
four years, and as we are a small department this means about 40 singers
in any given year, often half of them first-year students with little or
no choral experience or skills.

Motivation hasn't been a big problem for me; most students would
describe their feelings more as fear of singing. I've changed my
approach a little each year, but always aim to get them singing right
away, without reference to the score at all: rounds and canons, or even
just silly sounds. Put them in a circle so that they can see each other
and feel that they are part of a big group, not just focussed on the
instructor. Most, I find, need to get past the barrier of not knowing
how to use their voice, so start with some basic instruction and
exercises in posture, breathing, and support. Once they find they can
make a decent sound, a lot of reticence begins to disappear (nothing
succeeds like success). Move to folk songs in unison, tuning of chords,
ear-training exercises, etc. Challenge their ears and their minds; show
them that this is not wimpy stuff, but takes a bit of brainwork (Murray
Schafer has some great exercises along these lines). Make sure they're
having fun and feeling some success, and send them out at the end of
each rehearsal with something they enjoy.

Susan Marrier - smarrier(a)


As part of my doctoral assistantship, I was given a mixed, non-audition
university choir. While some of the students were in the group because
they wanted to be, many of them were in the group because they needed an
ensemble credit and it was the only ensemble in which they could
participate. While I'm sure some of them were less enthusiastic than
others about singing, I never felt that the rehearsals were "blighted
with unenthusiastic singing." I run my rehearsals with a lot of
enthusiasm and energy, and I believe very strongly that a conductor gets
back whatever it is they give. My singers always seemed to enjoy being
there, and in addition to learning the music, we had a lot of laughter
and fun.

Dr. Chris Lamb - chrisglamb(a)


I've been teaching a choir made up of all compulsory students. I deal
with a junior high - high school choir as well as a compulsory
collegiate choir. I've found that when I'm not motivating, the kids
aren't motivated. When I'm stimulated, and when I show them my passion,
my weakness, they come up as well. They feel obligated to give
themselves completely when I do.

Emerson W. Eads - eeads(a)


on December 12, 2002 10:00pm
What a brilliant topic idea. I think this might have pin-pointed my problem. Thank you so much!
on October 24, 2003 10:00pm
Great idea i'm a member of a highschool chorus that sounds horrible and my director won't kick the people that don't sing out he just lowers their grade .. I don't think it would help much because we still sound horrible.. help what should I do go to the adminastrators or who should I talk to?
on July 21, 2004 10:00pm
We should think about why people have become so unenthusiastic about choral music. My two children were very musical and both of them became totally turned off to choral music while they were in compulsory chorus in middle school. The director had them doing sappy, stupid songs, with hand and arm motions to boot! She rewarded wispy little sopranos giving all the girls the idea that higher is better and wispy is better than bold. The boys were repelled by the repertoire. Also, from elementary school on up, teachers feel free to designate certain students as "non-singers." For twenty years I taught a course called "Songs for Non-Singers" and it was always packed with adults who had been told as kids that they couldn't sing. Many young people are afraid of being lousy and that has translated into "indifference" or hostility. I suggest going for a bolder sound, simpler but bolder repertoire, getting some great sounds out of them, instead of herding them through music which has to be sung very, very well before it provides gratification.
on August 28, 2007 10:00pm
I am a second year teacher for both high school band and chorus, and I am so thankful to have found this incredible site!