Beginning conductors: What should I do my First week with a new choir?
I finally sat down and copied and pasted all of these emails down in a
compilation to my First Week Or So question. Many people wanted to have
these posted so here they are. I don't list who wrote these responses. I
want to thank everyone who did respond to my question and welcome more. If
you have any questions feel free to email me at m_meindl(a)hotmail.com
Your friend, mentee, and colleague,
Michael J. Meindl
Audition them to make sure they are placed in the right voice part then work
on National anthem and Alma Mater for future sports events and assemblies.
Work on Fall music then Christmas. Mondays or Fridays should be theory/music
histroy/college speakers introducing the music degree depart. at that
particular university/ear training. Lastly, fund-raising for the music
account. Sell candy the first month. That is 1st semester.
Mike - Basically, act like you know what you're doing, whether you do or
Introduce yourself, take attendance, get them seated in some kind of order,
do whatever it takes to make them understand that they are in a performing
group - introduce them to your plans for the year - concert dates, field
trips, festivals, district and all state choruses, contests, exchange
concerts, whatever you have in mind for them in the coming months.
the chorus policies - what they are responsible for - discuss their music,
how it will be handled, how they must always bring it to class just like
textbooks (you have A LOT to do in each class), discuss the upcoming choral
officer nominations and elections (you need these for choral management and
student leadership - do this after the kids get to know each other more).
Establish your program for the year in their mind-make sure they realize
there will be many activities and responsibilities - let them know that
attitude and PARTICIPATION in class is the basis for their grade - discuss
these things and others - good grief, Mike, you have a million things to do
and they haven't sung a note yet. Do some physical warm-ups (surely you
done these in chorus rehearsals?), get them into making some kind of vocal
noises and work their way into making musical sounds any way you can. Don't
worry about what's right and what's wrong. You do WHATEVER IT TAKES to get
the needed responses and results, and that is the rule for your entire
as a choral director. You do know what you should expect from your singers,
don't you? This is what your choral methods classes are for. Don't have a
choral methods class where you go to school? Uh-oh! Better get to know
school choral director very well.You are interested in getting the most kids
you possibly can pack in to the
choral room in each class period. Take everyone you can get (literally WOO
your guidance department) - don't announce auditions unless they have
been established at your school by a prior director. Set up your classes by
grade level, but be flexible - you want as many kids in each class as
possible, whether frosh girls, frosh boys in separate classes, soph./Jr.
mixed in another intermediate group, Jr./Sr. in an advanced group. Plan for
the big picture - You may have to mix ability levels your first year, if
haven't been already established by that previous director. Then promote
kids according to their progress during the year. Initally, seat everyone
sex and then start warming them up that way - sort the higher voices in each
gender group and set them up roughly SATB (for the mixed groups) or whatever
- SAB, SSAA, whatever you come up with. You should learn all this in
Individual auditons (if you have them): Check their range, high/low, ask
them to sing a familiar song - I used to use My Country 'Tis of Thee
(America). I don't know how many kids know that now, but it used to be the
one song EVERYONE knew. whatever you use, make sure they already know it,
have them sing the melody without piano and listen to their intonation and
diction. For the brighter kids, have them sing one of the harmony parts,
while you play the (piano reduction) accompaniment. Play a series of notes
(no more than 5) on the piano and have them sing it back to you on a neutral
vowel. Grade them with your own code and place them accordingly. Don't
expect too much, but don't be surprised at the differences in ability.
be critical, just give them a little praise and thank them on the way out.
Then rank them somehow, so you'll know where to place them. The idea is not
to scare them off!
First, coming into a new position you will not need to audition because your
choirs will already be set and you will be stuck with what has already been
set up. Once you get to know kids, you may want to create a select group
from a given choir but that should be done once you have some idea of the
talent available and the kids get to know you better.
Get to know the music in the library (even ask to look at the music library
if given the opportunity at the interview), this is a pretty good indicator
of what's been done. If possible, look at the last year's programs - what
was done for the first program?, the last program?
Selecting music blind can be tricky but what you want to do is select some
choices at several different levels.
1. Something easy, even unison to find out basic reading ability, tone
production, etc. If it is something fun or "accepted" to sing, it can even
be used as a piece that students sing as you rove the room listening to
individual voices or as a daily warm-up. Even some warm-ups could be used
for this as well like those from the Kenneth Jennings "Sing Legato"
2. 2 - 4 part, relatively easy but with a "hook" - as a new teacher you must
connect with your students right away - a spiritual, up tempo contemporary,
or piece with a good, meaningful text that students will enjoy singing and
will sound good doing right away.
3. Something more challenging, more traditional but cool - so students know
that choir will not be all fun and games. Madrigals, classical works
- Ave Verum Corpus), perhaps a good 20th century piece (Barber, Copland) -
this is to let your top students know that there will be some meat to your
program and to set the tone so that students know they will be doing a
variety of literature.
Remember you can always get more difficult in your music selections but if
you handout something and the students fail, it will be difficult to get
to try at that level again and you certainly will have "turned them off" of
that piece in particular.
Re: Auditions - obvious stuff - they must be private, students must know
they will be asked to do and what you are looking for, make them as
non-threatening as possible (i.e. depending on your situation, nothing need
be prepared, 5 minutes in length or less, open door policy after auditions
students can ask you for what they can do to improve, etc.). I check range
(using same pattern used in class warm-up), do 3 pitch memory exercises,
beginning with 3 easy pitches (minor triad) and ending with 6 more difficult
(but still all the notes within a fifth), then have them sightread a short
diatonic example. I grade on pitch, tone quality, strength, and
sightreading. For my very top group I add a required piece in the style of
whatever kind of group it is (jazz, pop, art song).
I graduated from UW-Madison and have been teaching for over 20 years. I
started new at a school 5 times in my first 6 years (several one positions)
so I learned how to get off to a good start but happily I have been in my
current position for 16 years.
You definitely have not asked easy questions! :-) I thought I would try
answering some of them not just because I'm an experienced teacher, but also
because I have started over at new schools more times than I would like.
Just from having started over so many times, I've developed some expertise
in the area of starting at a new school.
At a new school, the first day I pass out my choir handbook and go over some
of the highlights. My handbook includes information such as my grading
policy, lettering policy (for high school), dates for concerts, etc. (I'd
be happy to email you a copy of my handbook if you can read Word docs.) I
also have each student write out a notecard with their contact info,
parents' names, and some basic info like prior singing/instrumental
experience and experience with foreign languages. I also ask them if
there's anything else they'd like to tell me to include that as well. Many
students don't write anything, but I've received some very educational
answers, such as health concerns ("I'm a diabetic"), comfort preferences ("I
love to sing but will *not* sing a solo!"), personal concerns ("Just to let
you know, I'm married."), and the bizarre ("I kinda like cheese.")
The second day I do some icebreaker exercises so my students and I can get
to know each other a little better. This could be an egg toss, bingo (with
facts about people in the squares, and we have to figure out who fits each
square), or Starbursts. (Every student gets a Starburst candy, and
depending on the color selected has to tell a certain fact about
themselves.) I also try to include a pre-test during that first week, so I
can figure out how much about music reading the students know/remember.
As for auditioning groups, most schools complete their auditions at the end
of the previous year, so my advanced choirs are usually already set up for
me. My first year of teaching I actually listened to every student
individually (not as an audition, but just to get acquainted with their
voices and abilities), but I found that took way too much time. With my
non-auditioned choirs I do listen to students in groups to put them in
sections. I usually use "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" just because most
students know it and it doesn't violate any cultural/religious concerns
(like "America" would), plus it gives me a chance to hear how students
handle their upper ranges. I call students to the piano in groups of 3 or 4
and listen as best I can to determine sections.
Even though I don't complete auditions at the start of teaching at a new
school, I'll go ahead and share my audition process. Students do audition
individually and in front of me only. They have to sight read, complete
some aural recall exercises, sing two major scales in different keys a
cappella, sing a short song (around 16-20 bars) which I've given them, and
sing a short song of their choice. I give a numerical score for each of
these areas, plus a score for intonation, tone quality, and demonstrated
attendance/attitude. I then total up the scores to determine a call-back
audition list for my jazz/show choir. Those students complete a different
audition, in which they have to sing their part of an SATB piece with three
members of the current group. In other words, if I'm auditioning as a
soprano, I sing the soprano part of the piece with an A, T, and B of the
current choir. (I usually pick out a couple of pages out of a piece that
choir is currently working on.) For this audition I utilize a panel of
judges (in a perfect world, myself, the band teacher, orchestra teacher, and
an administrator), and each individually scores based on intonation, tone
quality, projection, how well they performed their part, stage presence,
etc., and I combine those scores with their first audition scores.
Now, as to picking repertoire for a new school - that is indeed a tricky
process! The best advice I can give is to try to get a hold of recordings
and/or concert programs from the previous year. That should give you at
least a general idea of the difficulty level and type of repertoire they've
done most recently, and then you can select pieces based on that. When I
started my current job two years ago, I found my predecessor had not kept
*any* concert programs or recordings, save a few tapes from contest. What
helped me was she had gone ahead and ordered some music for the coming year,
so I used that as a guide. Unfortunately, she was fairly inexperienced and
made some rather odd choices (very difficult music for non-auditioned
choirs, very easy music with lots of male divisi for an advanced choir with
few men, etc.), so I was a little misled, but it's really only for one
concert. After that, you'll have a much better idea of what you have and
what your groups are capable of doing. For example, during my first year at
my school, I ended up programming music for one of the choirs that ended up
being a bit too easy for them (in fact, a parent complained that I was going
to end up losing members if I continued to do such easy repertoire). By the
end of the year, however, that choir was doing some rather advanced and
complicated music, just because they had proven themselves to me that they
could do it.
) Find out as much about the choir as you possibly can before they get there
in terms of number of kids, number of parts they are used to singing in,
type of music they're used to singing.
2) Have more music ready to go than you will actually use... have a good
supply of more "popular music" (hopefully good arrangments) as well as
standard choral literature and lots of in between and be ready to be
flexible. There is always the option of coming in like a house of fire and
saying "We will sing only standard classical choral literature," but that
does leave open the possibility of having many people leave. Be very open
minded and willing to change course quickly to fit what the kids can do and
on some level what they want to do and can get excited about.
3) While appeasing the kids is important, be sure to do at least ONE thing
to establish yourself as you as opposed to your predecessor. Perhaps...
"OK, we will still sing a mixture of popular and classical music as you have
before, but from now on we're going to sing from memory... or from now on
we're going to start rehearsals on time... or from now on we're going to
really learn how to sightread... or now we're going to sing mixed (something
else I'm a firm believer in)."
4) In terms of auditions, (assuming auditions don't take place the previous
spring), definitely check their range, definitely let them sing SOMETHING
that they know well (even Happy Birthday or America the Beautiful or a
showtune), and I personally would throw in at least an easy sightsinging
exercise (NOT a pitch recognition, because it is my belief that even by
simply being forced to try to sightsing regularly, kids can at least learn
to do it on some level).
I just finished my first year, and I'm also currently involved with a new
program. I think I might have some good ideas. Some of
those questions are coming up in my mind at the moment. If you know nothing
abot the group you're in front of, attempt to find an
old program (1 or 2 years old)and begin your rehearsals with one of those
pieces. This will give you an overall idea of sound,
phrasing ideas, etc, and it will give this essentially new group confidence
singing together (even thogh we knwo you will probably
change a lot of things). After that, you can throw some new pieces at them
while continuing to sing the old piece.
As for setting up auditions, I would HIGHLY suggest you find out what had
been done previously and continue with that for at least a
year. That will you give and the students common ground, and it gives you
an extra year to figure out exactly what you want. If
you walk into a new position with all of these great ideas, expecting to
change everything in the first semester, you might want to
rethink. If you do that (unless it has been a bad situation)kids will quit.
I've seen it and experienced it. Just a thought.
Part of this is going to depend on the program at the school where you
start. If it's an established program you're going to do things a tad
different than if you're in one that is struggling to get off the ground. I
am in a well established program in which I have been teaching 28 years so
my response is probably going to be different from some others.
The very first thing I want my kids to do when they walk in the first day is
to SING! I just get 'em on the risers in sections (for the moment I let them
decide which section they should be in). Then I ask a kid to hum a note.
Then I ask the whole choir to sing that note. We'll sing a scale and then
build some chords just to hear "where we are." The whole point is that I
want them to sing asap.
After that we talk about the year - concert schedule, etc. General info -
uniforms, folders - all the routine stuff. Usually the second or third day
we elect officers. I don't necessarily audition each and every singer. Of
course, any new student is auditioned but is there any reason for me to
audition my senior all state bass? What I do is to post a list of kids I
need to hear - usually that's mostly guys just to see how the voice change
is going. Beyond that I tell the kids that if they have any reason I need to
hear them or if they just WANT me to hear them to let me know.
But you have to remember that I am already pretty familiar with my kids.
We also sight read in EVERY rehearsal - mostly through the 1st semester but
for SURE the first nine weeks. I use these little books (sorry I can't
remember the name or publisher). Since my kids come from a pretty solid jr.
high program many of them read very well (we PUSH sight reading hard at all
levels) they sail through the book pretty quick. So to make it interesting
we sometimes read the exercises backwards - from right to left.
Sorry to go on an on. The point is this. That first week I want the kids to
come to the choir room thinking - we're gonna sing and we're gonna have fun!
I teach high school. The following "audition process" takes place in my
choir and women's choir, where I must accept everyone who signs up. For my
select groups, I have a more formal, different audition process.
I have all the choir students sing for me, in small groups (2-4). I call
up to the piano (while the other students in the Choir can work on homework
do something quietly). (This is especially important for the new
students/freshman that I have never heard sing before.) I have them sing
warm-ups ascending, to as high as they can go, and down (girls usually no
than a middle G or F (below middle C). With boys, I am listening to see if
they are going through a voice change, and for whether or not they can match
Then, I take 3 students and assign each one a note in a triad (major or
minor). I have them sing it together, and see if they can hold their own
note. (The inexperienced ones move to someone else's note that they hear.)
Finally, I play a chord cluster over and over (the same one), and see if
can hear, then sing, any of the notes that I've played. I do this one
at a time.
Based on what I hear in this informal "audition," I place the students into
voice sections. (students that have sung with me before -- usually I let
stay in the section where they have sung the previous year, unless there is
good reason for me to move them (voice has changed, esp. boys, or a
problem). I like to hear the boys, esp. the younger boys (freshmen and new
students) several times during the year, to check for voices
to match pitch.
If you know what choir you're going to be working with in advance, you might
be able to go to one of their performances the previous year, to hear for
yourself what they sound like, which kind of pieces they seem to enjoy, what
their strengths and weaknesses as a group are, etc. This might give you some
preliminary repertoire ideas. You may also be able to talk to their previous
Another thing you can do, at your very first rehearsal with them, is ask
them to nominate some pieces they'd like to sing for you from their
repertoire. You can then work with them on these already familiar pieces -
in the process you'll learn something more about what they can do, the
voices, etc. After that, if you've brought along a varied selection of new
pieces for them, you can choose which ones seem appropriate to teach them,
based on how the session with the familiar pieces went.
Regarding auditioning: I always prefer to get to know the choir as a group
first, before auditioning individuals. That way, when I DO do the auditions,
I'm hearing them sing in the context of my knowledge of them as a group - if
that makes sense.
On thing you can do to help with picking music is to ask to see some copies
of programs from the previous year, to give you an idea of the general level
of difficulty. You don't have to copy the preferences by any means, but it's
a good idea to know what has happened in the program before you get there.
In your first week, start with some fairly simple music which you can use to
get the groups singing while you also run short hearings (perhaps).
"May Your Dreams Soar On Eagle's Wings"
"And To Thine Own Self Be True"
"No Day But Today"
"Music expresses that which can not be said and on which it is impossible to
be silent." Victor Hugo
"Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts." Percy Shelley
"Life is like music; it must be composed by ear, feeling, and instinct, not
by rule." Samuel Butler
Michael J. Meindl
1619 S. 21st St.
Milwaukee, WI 53204
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