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Student Centered Learning in a choir rehearsal??

Student Centered Learning (SCL) is touted as an effective way for students to take ownership of their learning experience, develop critical thinking, foster curiosity, and learn problem solving skills.  But student centered learning in a choir rehearsal?  I have always considered myself a benevolent dictator, completely in charge of my rehearsal from beginning to end.  How does a choir teacher add SCL to the daily rehearsal? For our district initiative, I have come up with and incorporated the following ideas.  Some of these ideas I have been doing for years.  Others, I am trying out on my little guinea pigs this year.
Have students decide what passages to work on. (What part of this song needs the most work?)
Spread the students out…space enhances tone and makes each student responsible for their own sound. (Weston Noble)
Extra credit for student led morning rehearsals
Have students monitor other students to check for understanding.
- Student led warm-ups 
Sing a chord or 3rd.  Have singers go up half a step & back down w/o accomp.
- Find this rhythm in the score
Have students lead sight-singing by using pointer w/ overhead projection
Have students correct their own mistakes.  “What went wrong?”  “How do we fix that?”
Questioning: (sometimes general, sometimes directed to a particular student)
“Why did I cut you off?”
“What would I tell you to watch out for in this exercise?”
“What are different ways to show expression (facial or musically) while singing!”
“What needs work?/What did you do right?”
“Why didn’t that work?”
PLEASE ADD YOUR IDEAS! I'd love to start brainstorming with other choir teachers. What has worked for you?  
Replies (17): Threaded | Chronological
on March 31, 2012 3:33pm
Cathy:  I've taken any number of workshops on teaching and learning theory, and have definitely come to the conclusion that most people--even those who have set up supposedly good experimental designs and data collection--are doing nothing more than publishing their opinions, and publishing because they have to publish to get tenure!  Student Centered Learning sounds very much like one of these situations, and it also sounds like a latter-day reworking of Maria Montessori's conclusions from about a century ago!  Yes, students concentrate more when they chose their own activities.  (So do adults!)  But no, not all student learning activities can fit into that paradigm, and that's especially true in fields that require coordinated physical action and collaboration and not just the acquisition of knowledge.  (Can you imagine a football or basketball team run that way? Well, we're in the same boat!!)
My wife did teach in Monterssori schools for a number of years, and found that the best implementation of Montessori principles in practice was not Montessori's but was straightforward Kodály.  The "prepared environment" fundamental to Montessori teaching became the "prepared musical environment," and it works very well.
I do like your questions very much (the Socratic approach) because they encourage observation and critical thinking.  But they still MUST be teacher-directed.  Some of the other activities on your list are not centered on student learning but on student TEACHING, which seems to have a lot less relevance although it can take some of the work off your shoulders!  But the main problem with it is that only a few students will be CAPABLE of doing it, so it isn't really a class acitivity at all, and will likely result in less or slower learning than if you did it yourself.
Just my immediate reaction.  I may change my mind!  (And interestingly our Community Band director does ask these kinds of questions, although getting an answer from one person will NEVER guarantee that anyone else is either listening or thinking!)
All the best,
on April 1, 2012 6:32am
I recently presented a session at the ACDA Eastern Division Conference called "The Thinking Rehearsal" that discussed just this issue.  Once you start teaching this way, you will not go back to an autocratic approach. The rehearsal becomes very collaborative  in nature and your singers become more invested because you are teaching them how to be musicians, not just rehearsing for a performance.  A comparison might be that when you are teaching for a performance, you are teaching to the test - the singers learn the notes as you have taught them to perform, but may or may not understand the reason why, and are not making musical decisions.The skills you taught them may or may not transfer to another piece. Whereas, if you teach them how to make musical decisions on their own, they can take care of so many of those details that the previously waited for you to catch, and you are free to lead them further into musical thinking. You are teaching them to think independently and not rely solely on you for the decisions.
How doe this  work? Your questions are a great start. You want them to understand the rationale and reasoning behind every correction, and to start to figure things out themselves. They won't do this unless you ask them to. So yes, as you noted, as the conductor, you pose everything as  a question, rather than direct them with the answer. The answers might be sung or verbalized.
I often discuss the musical writing with my singers. "Why would the composer write it this way?"  I find that the more they understand the compositional process and the musical choices the composer makes also deepens their understanding.
Singers can listen to each other and critique - either by section ("sopranos, listen to the altos, how did they do?") or individually, having a singer stand out front to hear what you are hearing and provide feedback.  
You can model correctly and incorrectly (a wide, spread vowel vs a round beautiful vowel, for example) and have them listen and decide which one sounds better. And yes, they always pick the beautiful one. 
I also invite singers to be proactive in making corrections or pointing out errors.  This is done in a very collaborative spirit, with the emphasis being on the music making, not on pointing out errors committed by any individual. That is, it's not about you,  it's about the  music.
Discussions  of phrasing and interpretation are also valuable. We had a really excellent discussion recently on which word(s) to stress in a small section of a piece we are working on, because depending on what and how you stressed specific words changed the meaning of the text. We discussed it, sang it multiple ways, and the group decided what it was they wanted to sing. It was a really great discussion, and I have not had to remind them about phrasing once since we did that. So yes, it takes a little investment of time at the beginning, but the payoff is huge.  Now they think about phrasing in a more musical and intelligent way.
Go back to Bloom's taxonomy.  If all you are doing is rehearsing and they are following your directions, you are only functioning at the very bottom of the taxonomy. But if you get them thinking analyzing, critiquing, you move way up on the taxonomy. Sandra Snow has written about this approach. She co-authored an article in Dimensions of Musical Learning and Teaching  with Hillary Apfelstadt, and another article in the most recent Teaching Music through Performance. book. There was also an article in MEJ about a year ago, although it was directed towards instrumental music. But the techniques are the same. If you have read anything about Critical Pedagogy, in some ways this is an extension of that. 
The great advantage that we have as choral directors is that our singers have the full score in front of them. So you can teach them so much by having them learn how to look at and think about the entire score.  Can you tell I am completely enthusiastic about this? 
Best of luck, and let me know if you need more ideas!
on May 10, 2012 4:39pm
Thank you, Joy, for your response. I will definitely be looking for these articles. Have you published any articles on this subject specific to music education and/or the choral setting? I am finding many sources on child-centered learning in my research, but nothing on the singer-centered choir. I am looking for information on developing not only the choir (sound, performance, community), but also the individual singer. Along the same lines as educating the "whole child"... but in a musical and choral sense. Are your conference notes available for reading?
on May 11, 2012 2:23pm
Hi Krista:
Look in:   Snow/Apfelstadt in Dimensions of Musical Learning and Teaching: A Different Kind of Classroom p. 202-3, ed. by Eunice Boardman.  Great article on this topic.  I have not published anything at this point, but hope to.  There are also articles in MEJ about this approach with instrumental music. I don't know where you live, but I teach a summer course at Villanova University outside Philadelphia (although not this year) on the child voice in which talk about this approach a lot.  We usually have a group of regular kids come in to do a demo lesson. It's a lot of fun. 
Hope this helps!
on April 1, 2012 7:41am
I'm working my way through Tom Carter's Choral Charisma in the cracks of my schedule, and it may have some ideas that bear on what you're asking...he doesn't speak specifically of SCL, but his whole premise is about teaching (or maybe more accurate would be "forming") an ensemble in which every last member is fully committed to and responsible for a deeper-than-the-page knowledge of the music and its outward performance...hard to explain, you can check out his website at
I'm not fully committed to everything he says--it would take a huge amount of rehearsal time to get some of this stuff going--but the core of it seems to be a good idea and might be helpful to you.
on April 1, 2012 7:52am
Again, not specifically SCL, but have you read Ramona Wis's book The Choral Conductor as Leader, published by GIA? A fascinating look at how our collective cultural idea of "leadership" is evolving from the traditional top-down models to something more collaborative, and the implications that has for conductors and choral ensembles...something else I'd recommend as you ponder this stuff!
good luck--
on April 1, 2012 1:18pm
Jennifer:  I haven't read Ramona's book, but it sounds very interesting.
There are, in fact, a number of professional ensembles that perform without conductor.  Chanticleer is one, although they do REHEARSE with conductor.  The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is another, and the Moscow Chamber Orchestra another (or at least it used to be).
But the first requirement for larger ensembles to function as chamber ensembles is for every ensemble member to be a fine, well-trained, and very experienced musician, any one of whom could step forward and lead a rehearsal if it were required, and every one of whom knows the music backwards and forwards and NOT just their own part.  So the upper limit for a professional, non-directed ensemble would seem to be somewhere between 12 and 24 performers with amazingly compatible personalities AND musical understanding.  And interestingly enough the two college show ensembles I've directed had 18 and 22 singers in them, and they were prepared so as NOT to require direction.
So for an educational ensemble that can't really be a realistic goal, although we should, of course, be always working to raise the level of musicianship in all of our ensemble members, AND their buy-in to giving a great performance every time.
And to Joy:  Thanks for your post, and your wonderful ideas.  Your obvious first-hand experience is very convincing.  But I can't agree that preparing for performance is not a worthy goal.  It's what musicians DO, and so do dancers, actors, and athletes.  And of course at the professional level it's what you get paid for doing, and aren't we supposed to be preparing our students for that level?!! 
So yes, if you want to take a negative viewpoint, we DO "teach to the test," because our performances ARE our tests, just as an athlete's games are their tests.  And it's precisely the focus that a performance provides that makes the time spent rehearsing worthwhile. 
What we can and should be doing is simultaneously working on our singers' musicianship, and it is NOT an either/or situation.  In fact my goal is that my ensemble members should be able to perform just as well without me as with me, and all it takes is sufficient rehearsal time.  It's done all the time in musical theater, theater, and opera, where the stage director AND the musical director have finished their work once the piece goes on stage and the conductor becomes a glorified traffic cop, and on the other side of the musical world in every single instance of entertainment and the entertainment arts.
Thanks to both of you for your thoughts.  They may change my thinking.
All the best,
on April 1, 2012 6:26pm
Well, I certainly did not mean to imply that preparing for performance is not a worthy goal. It of course is. It's what we do. However,it's the journey getting there that is equally important, particularly if you are working with young people. What I am proposing is a much more long-term strategy in which you are the proverbial "guide on the side" vs. the "sage on the stage."  This leads to a higher level of "corporate knowledge" of the choir as a whole, so that you are less consumed with the details and more focused on truly making music. And as the corporate knowledge increases, so does the overall level of musicianship and ability of the choir. I am not advocating that we focus only on musicianship, or that we even seek to develop a choir that can function without us.  It is  about raising the level of musicianship and awareness of your singers so that you can work collaboratively as musicians with your ensemble and accompanist. 
In response to Austen, I would humbly argue that we are not a sports team. We are creating an artistic product, a far different thing than the goal of winning the next game. Of course as the director, we have the perspective of having x number of rehearsals to prep for the next concert. But I would argue that if that is our primary modus operandi, we really need to take a close look at what we are doing and why. Who is the performance for and who is it benefitting? I again refer to Critical Pedagogy. If we are not providing our students the means to become independent musicians, we are only perpetrating the historical approach to music education up to this point. And what has been the result?  a society that does not value music in education because after they left school and the guidance of their teacher, they were not able to continue as life long music makers because they were dependent upon their teacher. 
I would also argue that the question "why did I cut you off" is counterproductive. I frequently use this in rehearsal and 90% of the time the response I get from the choir is accurate. It is not about disapproval or a guessing game, but about identifying and correcting an error and getting them to think about what they are doing in rehearsal. Again, it is about the music, not the individuals. What this teaches the choir is that they must always be listening critically to what is going on around them and what they are  themselves doing.  I also use the "raising hands when you make a mistake" technique. It is a great way to assess if individuals are paying attention to what they are doing.
I can't say that I am not guilty of sometimes plowing through things because a performance date is looming. However, this is not my primary mode of operation. Thank you to all for this very interesting exchange!!
on April 1, 2012 9:01am
Cathy-- both yours and the solutions below are great windows into the rehearsal process. I'd subset that you also consider another perspective: the rehearsal itself is the application of a very particular set of skills and knowledge. If we're talking about SCL, though, and thinking as ourselves as teachers of music, not just conductors, we have to ask about a student's musicianship.
-- what musical skills or abilities do you need to develop or improve?
-- what is your connection to this piece of music?
-- what are musical pieces/artists/events that relate to this piece and why?

This can all be within the frame of the larger rehearsal without eating away at the music making. They could blog, for example, and make a journal of their practice and rehearsal history around questions that you ask. Just remember that for learning to be student-centered, the questions should be about the students, using the lens of the music. Asking questions about the content or having students lead activities and tasks is a great instructional strategy, but it's still standards-centered or content-centered, not student-centered.

on April 1, 2012 9:30am
I agree with much of what John said!  I can't imagine a sports team running the way you described.  Getting greater student engagement is a great goal.  I think about it constantly.  However, as the director I am aware that I have x rehearsals left before the concert and we have to get a, b, c done today in z amount of time.  Students do not have this perspective.    
I would caution about some things in your questions.
If we only limit ourselves to asking questions, only some students will answer and others may tune out.  As Tom Carter mentions in "Choral Charisma", some students don't feel comfortable answering a question in front of a group.  Instead of asking students what went wrong (a valid question), it might be valuable to have students raise their hands when they make a mistake.  Both the American Boychoir and the St. Olaf Choir use this technique.  You could also ask students: how many phrases do you think are on this page?  Hold up how many fingers of the number of phrases you think there are.  Thanks Joy for this tip during your session in Providence!  I have used this with my children's choir at church at it has worked and every child is engaged, rather than one single student answering the question.  However, there are times to ask the whole choir a question.
The question "Why did I cut you off?" is counterproductive and plays the "guess what the conductor is thinking game".  This is assuming that when I cut the choir off, it is to "correct a mistake".  Sometimes choirs can perceive stopping a section as non-verbal disapproval of what they just did.  Instead, I may stop a section and say "That was fantastic!  Let's sing it again to hear how great it was."  That way, the choir doesn't equate stopping a section with what did I do wrong this time?  Other questions also appear to be a part of "guess what the conductor is thinking game".
on April 2, 2012 4:55am
Hello, Cathy and all:
I recently wrote an article on the tensions that exist between choral music for education and/or for performance.  It may be an interesting read in light of this discussion.  I hope it is helpful and provocative:
Freer, P. K. (2011).  The Performance-Pedagogy Paradox in Choral Music Teaching. Philosophy of Music Education Review, 19(2), 164-178.
An excerpt:  
   "Just as the infamous Emperor viewed his new clothing, we convince ourselves that a high level of choral performance quality alone somehow imparts the knowledge and skills necessary for a lifetime of making music. While that does occur in the classrooms of some choral teachers grounded in principles of sequential and developmentally appropriate pedagogy, it most certainly does not in the vast majority of classrooms where so-called 'teaching' is mere variation on rote or imitative rehearsal techniques. 
   I encountered an example of this paradox while developing the concepts for this article.  As I wrote, I found it difficult to articulate the separate goals of music education, the choral ensemble performance, and the individual teacher.  Then, I recalled a finding from my own research that choral teachers alter their pedagogical techniques and instructional language to reflect changes in performance expectations. The same teacher might, in practice, hold different goals for different ensembles in a balance that changes over time.  We need to consider how choral music’s artistic/educative paradox is omnipresent in the experiences of choral music teachers and their students."
Best wishes, 
on April 3, 2012 9:46am
Hi Pat and all:
Balance over time - yes. Over the course of preparing for a performance, the beginning rehearsals are more technical, with more attention paid to the specifics of the piece, learning small sections at a time, perhaps, and accuracy.  Musicality is of course part of this, but the more control the ensemble has over the technicalities, the more musically and expressively  they can perform.  Over time, the emphasis gradually shifts to more emphasis to expressiveness and musicality, with the technical aspects still being tended to as needed. Throughout, the educational process can still focus on student centered learning - in essence, we are teaching our students how to go about learning to be musicians, what it requires to produce an expressive performance. 
What is interesting, is that this process can happen at any level, from the youngest to the most experience. What is different is that where one particular ensemble might be on the continuum, and where they might be able to travel to.  
on April 3, 2012 11:08am
Pat, Joy, and all:  Again, thanks so much for the stimulating discussion.  Someone (I forget who) objected to my comparing what we do with athletics.  But consider the following:
We both take students as individuals with a wide variety of raw talent, instruction, experience AND DESIRE (a factor often forgotten but very important).  We both have the goal of molding those individuals into a coherent, cooperative, collaborative and coordinated GROUP with a single goal.  And in the process we impart very important life lessons about cooperation, team buidling, submission of individual egos to common efforts, and all the rest of that good stuff.  And in the end our success or failure is judged (by those who do the judging, whoever they may be) by the success of our choir in concert, or the success of our team in competition.
Of COURSE we have to work with individuals and guide their development as individuals.  We must teach, we must model, and we must impart goals and high standards.  And of COURSE we have to create collaboratieve team effort, with (to quote a political philosopher) each contributing according to his ability, and the individual improvement does contribute to achieving the collaborative goals.  We use these arguments all the time to justify our ensembles as educational, deserving of class time and credit during the school day and capable of being objectively evaluated and graded.
There's only really one difference:  in athletics there is always a loser.  In music there never has to be!
So the question should never be whether we're teaching or preparing performances.  The answer HAS to be both, and anything else introduces a false dichotomy!  I suppose that means that we teach THROUGH our preparation, which seems like the way it should be, although that's one reason I have always questioned the value of competitions when they start to overwhelm rehearsal time and skew the balance away from education.  But I have always considered the performances I prepare as demonstrations of teaching and learning "in process," and never as finished products, because that's always exactly what they are.
All the best,
on April 2, 2012 6:02pm
I am LOVING all of these responses!  Joy, your presentation sounded wonderful...wish I could have been there.  Thanks for taking the time to write.  
(a) Austin: I would never think of limiting myself to only asking questions.  My students would go crazy!  When asking "Why did I cut you off?" I don't arbitrarily ask them to read my mind.  I use that question when they have incorrectly sung a passage on which we've worked extensively . Like Joy, 90% of my student can and do respond with the correct answer, such as "We forgot the crescendo!" "Then let's remember it," I say as we immediately repeat the passage.  Have you ever noticed what your students do when you cut them off?  We'd LIKE them to listen to us, but that just doesn't happen.  The less talking from the director in a rehearsal, the better.
But John makes a good point in this still being teacher-directed.  Nevertheless, it is a small step in getting the students to take ownership of their music making.  I do think that students know what needs the most work in their scores, and we should relinquish control some of the time to let them decide in what direction the rehearsal should go.  
on April 2, 2012 7:09pm
Cathy:  Funny that you should write, "I do think that students know what needs the most work in their scores, and we should relinquish control some of the time to let them decide in what direction the rehearsal should go," because that's exactly what happened in my rehearsal this afternoon!!!  They know I'll listen to their opinions and suggestions, and I do.  I just didn't know I was using SCL!
on May 10, 2012 4:34pm
Thank you all for this wonderful discussion!  I have a high level of interest in developing community and creativity in the traditional choir setting, and over the  years, have adopted a more "singer-centered" approach to my ensembles. Your suggestions of resources are appreciated - I am preparing to write my final masters paper and have been having a hard time finding sources on this topic. This will be a big help! Thanks again!
on May 23, 2012 7:32pm
One of my favorite SCL exercises is simply the sectional rehearsal. If you have four separate areas for the kids to work, and you can circulate between them to keep the kids on task, let them learn the music on their own. My students like showing me what they have accomplished in sectionals.
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