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Choir that won't rehearse

I've hit the wall. My high school Chamber Choir will not get their music learned. They don't rehearse outside of class and anything that does get done on the music happens with me in front of the group. I'm super frustrated.
Here's a little "back story".
The group is made up of juniors and seniors. They are all auditioned and have all been in my program in previous years. The group generally produces a Madrigal Feaste prior to Christmas. I postponed it because they just could/would not learn their music. After Christmas break I cancelled it because they STILL were not learning their music. I "benched" a couple of kids for a performance away from school. That seemed to have about 2 weeks worth of value. We've had some just ugly performances and some that were pretty good.
I've concentrated on theory and sight singing believing that new found independence would help them practice and thus, retain. I've "dumbed down" the literature a bit and that has not netted better results. I've made rehearsal recordings. I've slowed the pace and extended the tme frame to learn the music. We've set benchmark dates for learning small sections, memorizing small sections and bringing things to a place of performance readiness.
I went to a session with Andre Thomas on "Positive Rehearsals" and came back ready to try it. I've turned disapprovals into instruction. The result? Kids feel better about rehearsals and are getting even less done. BUT, by golly, I am sticking to the positive plan!
This is year 24 for me and I feel like I have no answers. Two years ago this ensemble was singing at the All-NW NAfME Conference. I'm not one to give up . . . ever . . . So, any thoughts would be magnificent!
Replies (11): Threaded | Chronological
on March 15, 2013 5:32am
Hi, Mike,
Perhaps you already do this, but I don't see anything in your explanation that suggests you hold them accountable for their learning.  When my choirs start to go down this path, usually in September, I start to move into accountablility mode in order to train them to be ready on time.  Here's what I do:
1.  My students are required to log in 45 minutes of practice a week.  I know a couple of people who make it 30 minutes a day, so I think that's at the discretion of the director.  Mine are active in multiple events/clubs, so I make it 45.  My policy is that if a student doesn't turn in a practice log, it's like they're screaming, "Mrs. Green PLEASE check me on my part!!"
2.  I teach a section of music (let's pretend it's measures 1-42 of Victoria's O Magnum Mysterium).  I tell them that they are responsible for knowing their parts by next Friday.  They have ample time to get ready before Friday
3.  I call a Round Up on Friday.  I put each section into a circle on the choir room floor (off the risers) and I run measures 1-42 with no piano help other than starting pitches.  In this case, I would run it four times, and each time I go stand in the middle of a section circle.  I listen to them singing their parts and am able to give feedback to students individually.  If a student makes more than 2 errors in the music, I go put a tally mark on the whiteboard.  After the Round Up, if there are three tally marks on the board, I automatically default to random quartet testing the following Monday (giving them one more chance to get it). 
4.  I almost always have to do that quartet testing the first time, so I plan for that.  If they have wrong notes, those kids lose their rehearesal points for the entire week.  Rehearsal assessments are worth 50% of the grade.  In this way, I am holding them accountable for both their outside practice and their mastery of concepts in class.  I have no mercy on the rehearsal points part of this, because eventually, that's how I get them in compliance.  Once it hits the grades, they start to shape up quickly.
5.  Occasionally, I skip the Round Ups and if we're close to a performance, I call a pop quiz, and randomly pick two quartets to check; I will be testing 2 quartets.  I have their names on colored index cards, one color for each section, also marked S1 or S2, etc. I pull one card from each section's pile, and those are the ones that have to sing in a quartet in front of the group.  They never know ahead of time if they are the ones that will be tested, and once they are finished, their card goes back in the pile.  I have had a couple of kids get nailed TWICE because their cards were pulled each time.  After this testing, I let the group know that I will run this section one more time on Monday, and if I still hear wrong notes, I will quartet test the rest of the group.
It only takes a couple of times of doing this, and all I have to do is say that next Friday we will have a Round Up, subject to quartet testing.  They will come in knowing their parts, because the Round Up is my gift to them (they get to show me their learning within the context of the group instead of individually).  By the way, the other benefit is that peer pressure kicks in.  The kids scared of singing in front of the class will pressure the others to know their parts.
It's fairly heavy duty, but by mid-October, I have my students trained.  I, too, teach theory and sight singing.  Don't give those up for any reason.
Good luck!
Applauded by an audience of 6
on March 15, 2013 9:15am
Thanks for all of these replies! There are some great thoughts.
I do have a practice log in place. Kids are rrequired to turn in 120 minutes per week. 10% of their grade is tied to the logs. About half of them never turn them in and are ok with getting a B in the class.
I do testing in octets and record their tests into a DAW - Studio One - which we assess together. Each student gets a clean score and we go through and mark their issues. Again, 10% of their grade is tied to the singing tests. I test small sections with music in their hands, the whole song with music in their hands and then the song memorized.
I LOVE the idea of random testing using the colored index cards. I will put this in place next week.
Again, thanks for the ideas. I'm definitely not done!
on March 17, 2013 3:52pm
Maybe change it to 30% of the mark for practicing, and 30% for music knowledge/performance. Those fine with a B will likely not be fine with a F. 
on March 15, 2013 6:17am
Hooray, you are not giving up!  Hang in there. 
I know the year is almost over, but you could add a practice log to their grade.  If it's something that's linked to the A they think they're guaranteed in Choir, it might help. 
There have been years I just said "chuck it" in my head, about those "top dogs" and focused on the group that I would still have the next year.  You could focus on your juniors and see if they can muster up some enthusiasm. 
I told my students this story, once:
"Imagine that you have to write a 5-page paper for your English class.  You sit down at the computer and type the first three paragraphs, and then go on to other homework.  When you come back to the computer, nothing is there!  You wrote the first paragraphs, you're sure you did, but for some reason, the computer didn't save your work.  So, you type it again, and this time make SURE that you save it.  Two days later you come back, and it's gone again!"  etc., etc.  "How would you feel?" Then I linked it to teaching them the music, and how frustrating it was to be forever relearning the same pages over and over and never feeling like we could move on to the next thing. 
Some years are like this, and I know you know that. It sounds like you're on a good track.  Can you still get parents involved, or have they moved beyond that (I teach middle school, so that phone call to parents sometimes still helps). 
You can do it!
Applauded by an audience of 2
on March 15, 2013 6:32am
Mike -
I can appreciate your situation. Sounds like you've tried nearly everything. Tell us - do you offer academic credit for this ensemble, or is it considered extra-curricular? Do you have ability to contact parents? Some parents will listen to your pleas (especially if their child is receiving academic credit and required to meet certain expectations).
In my experience with a similar situation (though it was an ensemble for no credit), I simply kicked them out. I kicked out the offending members, and held a new round of auditions - sometimes taking a sophomore or freshman. Sure, they were less developed vocally - but at least they WANTED to be there, work hard, and get their music learned. Changing up the roster by removing some members worked wonders for me. I'd rather deal with less mature voices that WANT to be there, than mature voices who don't want to be there - hands down. At least you'll get to meet your needs and work and teach and inspire and create and accomplish! Perhaps this is an opportunity for rebirth in your ensemble. Clean the slate. Take in some new blood. Refocus your mission and truly show the students what this historically high-performing ensemble is about!
You might try it - post what portions of music you want to hear them execute - and if they fall short, they simply lose membership. I would treat it like a professional group. Show them that they have a job to do, and are required to do it. They are expendable. Remember - they need you, you don't need them. The contrary is the mindset of many younger folks these days - 'they're entitled to everything', 'they don't have to work hard', 'talent alone will get me by', 'everybody needs them' ("choir needs ME"). False, false, false.
If they fail to contribute to the ensemble, do their part/learn their music etc., then they have missed what I believe should be the most important tenet of every choir's ethos (the group's goals are paramount, not the individual's) - and they probably don't deserve to be in the ensemble. Bottomline: if you've got folks who don't want to work, then lose 'em - and get the ones who do. Amen?
Hope it all works out for you! Sounds like the kids just don't appreciate what they have in you as an experienced, accomplished, positive, "out-for-their-success" choral director. Let us know how it goes!
on March 16, 2013 8:32am
I don't teach at the high school level so I can only imagine the daily challenges of motivating your students on top of classroom management. Regardless of the level, I believe (music) teachers’ goals are similar- Teaching the material while instilling an appreciation for the subject with the hopes that they might want to learn more after they leave your class.
I was lucky that in high school and college I had some great teachers and conductors who showed me why music was great, the challenges and joys of learning music, why we need to do music, as well as how it contributes to my personal growth and adds beauty to the world.  I worked with many more teachers and conductors who thought I should do a good job simply because they said to.
In an ensemble aren’t the individual gifts of each person to be valued and cultivated, especially on the high school level? Each person in the group is important and his or her absence would have an effect on the sound and quality of that group. The goals of the group are very important but it is individuals who make it up. And at the high school level many of the students don’t even know what they have inside them yet. Isn’t it the job of the teacher to search and pull that out of each student for the benefit of the entire ensemble and only not rely on recruiting students who already have already know they have "it"? Furthermore, why would someone (a student with a million obligations) want to spend his or her time and effort on a group activity if the person in charge has the attitude that everyone is replaceable? This idea “they need you, you don’t need them” seems like the opposite side of the same coin.
There are generational differences in learning styles and work ethic. Lamenting and disapproving of them doesn’t seem like it can effect much change in altering students’ attitudes nor will it open up your students to seeing the value of what you have to offer.  Similarly, negative reinforcement (fear of getting kicked out or a lower grade) gets students through your class but after the the grade is handed what motivation is left for the student to continue? If the students want to sing in a choir there definitely is work that needs to be done, but if the tools (and motivation is a big one) you’re giving them aren’t allowing them to learn the music at home on their own perhaps a different approach is needed.  What’s wrong with teaching your kids notes in class?  If they don’t already know how to learn music they’ll clearly see your process.  It may take a few weeks or even a semester but you’ll have the opportunity to show them the challenges, struggles and joys of the music learning process.  
Best of luck with your situation.  Please keep us posted! 
Daniel Molkentin
on March 15, 2013 9:23am
This is a great question! I, too, have high schoolers and struggle with the same issues. I have an added question for you and Suzanne and everyone else: Logistically, how do you do voice tests? It takes me days upon days to get them done. I hear them sing short phrases of the repertoire in quartets, and then I hear them sight sing individually a 4 bar phrase. What does the rest of the class do while they are doing voice tests? I would love to have them do practice cards, but what's to keep them from just lying about it? And how do they practice at home if they don't have sufficient music-reading skills to do that, or piano-playing skills?
Emily McDuffee
Director of Choirs, Southport High School, Indianapolis, IN
on March 16, 2013 2:40pm
One of the reasons I do the Round Up is so that I can reduce the number of times I have to quartet test.  Standing in the middle of the circle is plenty of pressure for most kids; it freaks them out a little that I can hear them individually that close up.  I think that's why it's so successful for me.  Believe me, my reputation carries from year to year.  Last year was the first year I did the Round Ups subject to quartet testing.  I only had to do two quartet testings and then the Round Ups were sufficient the rest of the year.  This year, when I announced the first Round Up, the returning kids were quick to pipe up to tell the others that they REALLY want to be ready for the Round Up because quartet testing is so much harder.  I am merciless on the the grading of quartet testing.  As a result, I do fewer quartet tests because I can learn everything I need to know from a Round Up--which only takes about 10-15 minutes every couple of weeks or so.
As for individualized testing, I have been issued a laptop from my district.  I loaded Audacity onto it (free recording software, find a link to it at and be sure to download the LAME document as well as the regular download because you will want to be able to make MP3 files--and remember where you downloaded the LAME document to!).  I can send a choir parent or a trustworthy junior or senior who has been trained on how to make the recordings (super easy), and each kid goes back to the practice room to record their MP3 of their sightsinging exam.  No editing allowed; they are on a timer.  I rehearse the rest of the group while this is going on.  A colleague of mine was telling me how he sets up his sound board, gets 16 different channels recording, and he checks their learning in the actual rehearsal.  I made a connection that if I really want to check a kid's proficiency individually during the rehearsal, I could simply place the laptop with Audacity running right in front of an individual kid with a microphone and record his/her singing during the rehearsal.  I haven't tried that yet because the Round Ups are working so well, but I keep it in the back of my mind.
I do find the practice log requirement to be helpful, and I'm not so worried about the kids lying.  I get that figured out during Round Ups.  If they turned in a log and clearly don't know their part, it is an individual conversation with that kid and possibly the parent.  Believe me, though, regular Round Ups ensure that they are practicing.  They don't want to be embarrassed in front of their peers.  I have made MP3 files at times that students can request.  At other times, I have set aside time after school for sectional rehearsals, I've let them come in at lunch to work in small groups, and I've rehearsed large groups or sections during study support time.  Kids are encouraged to network and find other kids that may have skills they don't have, but if they really need help, they see me.  When I taught at a school with fewer resources, I made many more MP3 files than I have to make now.
I do need to motivate my kids, but I find that students will say they want to do well, but they don't necessarily have the skills set to know how to get there.  I have to teach that.  Once I teach them what productive rehearsal and hard work look like, and we really talk alot about singing the music, not the notes, I find that the desire to do well comes more and more from them, and less from me.  I spend considerable time with the text, helping them make personal connections to it.  That's my personal experience, of course.  I believe that excellence is something we apply to everything we do, not just the things we THINK are important, but even to the smallest tasks.  I teach from that perspective.  Since choir is a "team sport," I emphasize their responsibility to the group and will do whatever it takes to hold them personally responsible for doing their part.  After awhile, they get it.  While I am also not opposed to losing the "dead weight" in the choir, my current school doesn't allow me to make schedule changes after a certain point, so I have to work with the kids I've got, so I try to change the "dead weight" attitudes instead.  I try to hold them accountable for their learning, one of the tenets of High Schools That Work, aka, rigor in the classroom.  There's a lot of rigor in my classroom.  On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays--sightsinging with solfege and Curwen Hand Signs.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they work on 1-2 pages of their theory books (individualized to each kid; they work at their own pace and do not move to the next packet until they have mastered the concepts);  I work them at a fast pace during rehearsals.  When we are sightsinging a new piece, I make them read it three times before I will even think about helping them with any individual part of it (thanks, Rodney Eichenberger!), and even then, I often give them 1 minute to tell their section leaders what they need, and then section leaders will tell me 4 measures that they want to hear.  The point?  They are self-analyzing their work, identifying the places that need to be isolated, and then I will help with that part before going to the next section.
My state, Washington, requires all teachers to provide evidence of learning, and my results at contest, while superior in score, don't demonstrate individual learning, just the collective learning of the group (yes, we all know that it means the individuals stepped up, but I have to PROVE it for my job).  While I would love to just rehearse, rehearse, rehearse without testing them individually, that is not what is happening in my state right now.  I have to take what we all know is a curriculum with mostly qualitative data, and I have to produce quantitative data instead.  Hence, the Round Ups, the quartet testing, the indivudalized student testing on sightsinging and theory, etc.  However, having said all that, I think that I am getting much better results from my choirs by holding them individually accountable for their learning, and I am able to do a higher level difficulty of music because of it.  The more challenging the music, the more excited they are when they pull it off.  Mike may need to back off on the level of difficulty of music so his students can find success faster and he can polish the music to a higher level of artistry.  That higher level of artistry is what inspires them to do well on the next piece, and can motivate them, rather than having them perform difficult music but not highly polished or artistic.  Since I'm not in the classroom with him, I can't tell if that's the solution or not.  We don't know all the dynamics present in his rehearsals.
One last thought--although my current school is really lovely (great kids, great admin), I have taught in some really tough, urban schools and I achieved excellent results there, too.  Kids are kids, no matter where they are.  Set the bar high, and they will work to achieve it.  I will say that I have a really strong rapport with my students, and that definitely works in my favor.  In fairness, it may be the reason why I can work them so hard and get them to come up to my standards.  They do like me and want to do well for me.  I set such strict boundaries with them that I'm often surprised that I'm so popular.  I never get attitude, and I rarely have to call kids aside individually to deal with behavior issues.  That was true even in my last job, and that was a tough school.
In short, you can check their learning individually, and it will teach them how to work collectively within a group.  Just check to see what your resources are and get creative with them.  Good luck!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 15, 2013 11:42am
For whatever it's worth to you, Mike, I suspect there may be some more fundamental aspects of your relationships with the singers you lead, that may be influencing their behavior in rehearsals and performances. Here are two strongly suggested resources that have helped hundreds and even thousands of choral conductors and music educators to recalibrate their relationships and communications with the singers they lead:
1. Attend the summer course, "Bodymind and Voice," presented each summer by The VoiceCare Network at Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota (about 80 miles northwest of Minneapolis, Miinnesota). The website address is:
2. Read Choral Charisma by Tom Carter, Santa Barbara Publishers--best book by far on these matters, but...directly experiencing the hands-on impact of "human compatible learning and teaching" at VoiceCare (or in a convention/workshop session with Tom or VoiceCare faculty) would be best by far.
Wish you well.
The Leon Thurman Voice Center
The Human Compatible Learning, Teaching, & Leadership Institute
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Applauded by an audience of 3
on March 19, 2013 12:05pm
Here's a quick update . . . .
I took the "round up" idea and ran with it. I taught the kids how it worked during classes on Monday and Tuesday and today we will have our first go at it. I had them circle up and rehearse as if we were in a round up but they had their music in their hands and had time to talk through issues. We've done this lots of times before as a rehearsal technique but now they have something to apply. Three kids have dropped out of the class because they know they were not rehearsing and thus would be failing. The other kids are rehearsing their butts off in anticipation of the first round up and possible quartet testing. I'm excited to see what will happen. I think it has added a new dimension of personal accountability.
Applauded by an audience of 5
on March 20, 2013 6:31am
Sounds like you've got a good working strategy.  When my kids were in a similar mode, the thing that got them to be more independent was to see a competing local high school with a great program.  These other kids were at our school for a festival and my kids saw them leading their own rehearsal prior to adjudication.  It woke them up.
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