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Advice for administrator about young voices

I am SO frustrated that my administrator wants my fifth graders to be "American Idol"-like students to sing the National Anthem at tomorrow's A+ assembly and is upset that I don't have them.  She can't accept that what they just performed was great!  That "this" is it!  Fifth grade. They hit the notes correctly, got all the words correct and even had some matching vowels . . . but are ten or eleven years old.  Are there any words I could share regarding adolescent development and the difficulty of "that song" that would be better than the words I have in my head right now?  I think they did awesome.  She said -- IN FRONT OF THEM -- they "weren't very good" and that they "need more practice".  I want to scream and defend my girls, who were put on the spot and had not prepared to do this at an after school rehearsal she called at the last minute.  I want to say the right thing and do the right thing . . . but . . . 
Replies (9): Threaded | Chronological
on May 14, 2013 3:25am
Make her sing it in front of them. It would serve her right.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 14, 2013 4:32am
Dear paul,
What a travesity!  I would be dead on honest and direct. 
1. She has no business speaking negatively to your students.  Anything in the future should be directed to you, in private.
2. Her understanding of music education is sophmoric and immature.
3. The national standards are clear and you will continue to teach to those standards.  
4. It is not your responsibility to teach her about music education.  
State your position that your students performed admirably based on age, repertoire and meeting times per week.  State your disappointment in her for not having positive, encouraging comments for your students.  "I understand that music education is not your expertize.  I do not expect you to understand how subtle and graceful the childs' voice can be.  But I do expect you to be a champion of our young singers.  I expect you to speak only to developmentally appropriate practice."
Depending on her personality and leadership style:
1. I would put it in writing in a letter with a copy to her administrator.
2. I would ask for a one on one meeting with her.
Good luck!
Andrew Brown 
Applauded by an audience of 3
on May 14, 2013 6:05am
I'm sorry. It's sometimes so hard to explain what we do to administrators when everyone thinks they are an expert from watching "reality" TV. Are there any well respected children's choruses in your area? Any districts that are viewed (correctly) as having very fine music programs? I would find some links to recordings of age-appropriate singing from sources that an administrator and non-musician is going to understand are reliable and send them, along with a calm, carefully worded email (have a friend or colleague read it over so that you can keep your tone under control!) that briefly explains some of what we all know and she doesn't. (i.e., typical fifth grade singing range, appropriate sound for children's voices, etc.) If you have a curriculum, perhaps it lists some of those things - "sings, with appropriate tone quality, a variety of music".
I would also have a talk with her about critiquing your group in front of them, if you think that you could have that talk without causing more problems. I don't know your relationship with her or the situation in your school.
There are also a ton of mainstream online articles about how difficult the anthem can be to sing, and why. Some of those links might be worth passing along, too.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on May 14, 2013 8:23am
We empathize, and have been there. (By now you are probably already in the process of whatever has been worked out - or not worked out.  ;/ )
Are you required to turn in lesson plans to her?  Does she read/approve them?  Is there something in there about "age-appropriate-tone" , "bel canto[beautiful singing]" [that word might be great to discuss with her..] ."Ms, ___this comes as a surprise to many Americans, but we have shifted, in our popular culture, to a singing process that is unsafe, and unhealthy.  It involves incorrect pressure on the vocal cords, which is  dangerous for any age, but particularly young developing voices.  Many popular singers have utilized this, and their listeners, who also have no trainging, accept it as great singing, when it is truly pushed, unsafe singing.  We all agree that safety is important - your classroom teachers would stop a student who was engaging in an unsafe practice for their bodies - such as jumping off the monkey bars directly onto their knees.  Just as that  could seriously impair the safe development of their knees, backs, etc., pushing their voices in ways that are damaging can seriously impair their future - singing and speaking.  Just as your classroom teachers and P.E. teachers must look out for the students' safety, it is my responsibility, as their vocal music teacher, to watch for their vocal safety, and guide them in correct habits."  (Or similar words that you are comfortable  with.)
What specific words did she use [if any] that made you think she wanted American Idol-ness?   I would ask her to be very specific about what she is asking for - tone, physicalization, etc. (since you have to communicate that to the students}, and perhaps Chris' suggestion is a good one.  (If her tone quality is pushed/unsupported, you can respond with, 'Your style is fine in some situations, but I have serious concerns, as do many of my colleagues, that that type of singing is not appropriate for the age group we have." ) I would present her with articles on vocal care/nodules - some pages from the books Expressive Singing and/or You, the Singer have clear, concise, reaonsably-objective explanations of these things. {Meanwhile, you might teach a short-simplified version to your students! :) } If you wish, I'll scan the specific pages and email them to you.  You might share with her, in a mode of 'I was excited to discover what I did not know!" :) some of what you learned through your background.
I was in a similar situation - my principal [young/somewhat inexperienced] sang and assistant-coached the school gospel choir.  In this case - extremely pushy, unhealthy tones were emphasized - kids were asking for water constantly due to the pushed air that was drying their cords, returning the next day with larnyxgitis.  - [But I'm in no way implying that is always the case.  I know that many Gospel Choirs exist where educated leadership and vocal health is well-employed.  I have coached some myself.]
Other points you may wish to share:
Vocal surgery is an all-too-common phenomenon these days.  Search famous singers' names and "vocal surgery"- in any genre - and you may be surprised.  Some of these surgeries might have been necessary due to inherent physical traits - bone structure, allergies and suchlike.  Many could have been avoided through correct, healthy technique.
One good story-example of the good of training is Cyndi Lauper.  In the early 80's she was singing ["punk"-ish rock] with unhealthy technique.  She began to develop frequent larnyxgitis, possibly nodes.  Her doctor said, "See a voice teacher."  She did - an opera singer who is also a widely-respected, excellent teacher- and, after a year, came back "without a scratch" on her voice - singing the same material, with essentially the same tone quality, but using a healthier process that allowed her to continue singing for many years.
Vocal tension is often a result of social/environmental stress.  (Classic case - we get a "lump' in our throat and speaking/singing is more challenging when we are very sad, angry, frustrated....even extremely happy/grateful).  Ask her, very gently, if she had thought about the fact that asking the students to perform on the spot, with little/no notice, might make some of them very stressed, negatively affecting their singing (not to mention their learning for the remainder of the day..;/ ) I have taught chorus and voice - all ages - for over 20 years, and have seen that singer's reactions to this vary "from soup to nuts".  A few welcome the challenge and opportunity.  Most feel that it's ok, but shaky/sketchy.  Some would "rather die."
If you truly love the job where you are, and can tolerate/stand up to/evade  her invasions of your professionalism, then you have my utmost admiration and support.  Your students will benefit greatly.  However, if this is her typical mode of operation, and you have doubts....I quote a career expert, "The best negotiating tool is another offer."
I will share the details of my situation through the Choralnet private email.
If she has enough openness in her attitude, and learns more about healthy, age-appropriate singing, it is "win-win" for all.  If she is insistent on her inappropriate efforts to control your program, you may find that it is difficult [ impossible?] for you  - and the choral educational program you are leading - to come out positively. :/ , and it may be best to look elsewhere.
I'm sorry that I had just returned from vacation, and was too busy catching up to delve into this forum yesterday.
I believe I'm not alone in my interest in how this turns out!
I wish all the best to you and your students.  :)
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 14, 2013 9:21am
Andrew and Chris,
Your points quite valid and are well-taken.
However, with the current climate in many school systems, I think we are wise to be careful.  I would not advise anything that might inflame issues and cost Paul his job.  (Even if he chooses to leave, negativity associated with  our name, professionally, is difficult to shake - even if it was attached by someone else, and not due to any action on our part.)
Administrators can have egos, and we choral people are not immune to workplace "ganging"  [bosses/workers gathering/creative negative information excessively to put the "victim' in a falsely-created negative light]   Sometimes others in our workplaces are "jealous' - they perceive that we are priviledged, "born with talent", etc.  (They're basically clueless about our hard work and preparation.)
I am not paranoid, and certainly do not see myself as more priviledged than anyone.  I simply learned this the hard way, well into my career.  :/
If the administrator does not invade his professionalism again, and things are relatively smooth from here on, it might be wise to chalk it up as a "week from h--l" and let it go.
However, if this is her habit, and she continues, then our suggestions are definitely worth considering.
I would advise Paul to have someone else in the room - ideally an educator's lawyer.  Teacher's unions generally provide these. First,  I would advise speaking privately with the system music administrator, if there is one, and if not, with the personnel administrator.   Of course, express your concerms in a professional manner, pointed toward, "What do you advise as the steps toward my best solution?" rather than a complaint.  (This woman likely has a history, and has been "dumped" at that school, or is there only  temporarily.)
I would also advise recording the conversation.  And bringing all the paperwork with you - emails from her, pages about curriculum, standards, vocal health, etc.  Plan to make concise, respectful, but powerful statements, and do not allow yourself to be interrupted - some people manipulate with rudeness.
People gave me this same advice, but the administrators [she secretly invited another one] were so manipulative and pushy that I found it basically impossible to stand my ground against a tidal-wave of inappropriate, illogical comments.
It is interesting to read these responses from the perspective of the gender of each, and the administrator being a woman.. ;)...not sure what that's just interesting.
on May 15, 2013 1:18am
I just tonight read your post, so I know that your A+ Assembly has already happened. I, too, am outraged that your bully administrator thinks she knows more about your area of expertise than you do. She's an arrogant one, that's for sure (I'm refraining from doin' some cussin' here). This is "tiger by the tail" time, isn't it?
Some Evidence-Based Ideas about Saying and Doing the Right Thing when Communicating with a Bullying, Arrogant Administrator after She Has "Put Down" the 5th Grade Choir Girls to Their Faces:
(1) If she has started to walk out after her remarks to the choir, then get to her side ASAP and speak in conversational volume (so the girls can overhear), saying something like, "Ms. --------, you and I have to talk about what just happened as soon as possible today. Can we do that at (name a likely possible time that day)." She won't like that and most likely will try to dismiss the possibility because you will have insinuated a criticism of her actions and words (horrors!), but she just made an overt, out-loud criticism of both you and those lovely girls--they're your number one priority, of course. In this circumstance, do not get pulled into a discussion right then in front of the girls about what she did & said.
You do have to speak to the girls ASAP--preferrably in her absence--about what just happened, to at least soften the blow she delivered to their sense of self-pride in the singing they had just performed. If she remains in the room, then you either have to (a) ask her to leave, or (b) ask the girls to reassemble in another location so you can talk to them without the administrator present, or--(c) if she is standing behind you and you have to speak to the girls in her presence, then say something like, "I respectfully disagree with Ms. -------. As a trained and experienced vocal music educator, I believe you sang our Nation's Anthem very beautifully, very skillfully, and very expressively. Ms. ---------- believes that you should sing the Anthem in a way that you do not yet know how to do with skill and beauty, and your voices are not yet strong enough to sing that way without hurting your voices. So, let's all admire Ms. -------'s passionate interest in you singing the Anthem as well as possible at the assembly, but let's also understand that she is not the vocal expert who was hired to be your teacher." If that is said to the girls in her presence, she will be the one to request a meeting with you. These words also can be said in a post-event private meeting with the girls.
(2) In a private meeting with her, take a good gulp and say something like: "I admire your passionate interest in wanting these girls singing the National Anthem as well as possible, but I respectfully disagree with you that the girls 'weren't very good' when they sang the Anthem, and, with respect, I and the girls were deeply offended by the put-down criticism you leveled at us publicly. I am the trained and experienced vocal music educator that was hired by the School Board to teach these children, and I believe they sang our Nation's Anthem very beautifully and very skillfully, and in a way that was age- and experience-appropriate. Clearly, you believe that the girls should sing the Anthem in a way that they do not know how to do with skill and beauty, and their voices are not strong enough to sing that way without the risk of being physically hurt. These are areas that I have expertise in and you do not. So, please, if you have suggestions to make about how any of the children I teach should sing, tell them to me privately, and we can have a respectful discussion about them."
If you would like to increase your knowledge about age-appropriate and experience-appropriate singing, and about "human compatible communications," I have two recommendations, Paul: (1) Attend the primary summer course (Bodymind and Voice) offerred in the summers by the VoiceCare Network []  These 'issues' are specifically addressed.
(2) After I read your post, I clicked on your highlighted name and then the highlighted state in which you live: Arizona. The pop-up tells me that you live in the Phoenix area and are connected to ASU--all good information. Just so you know, there is a new choral music ed professor at University of Arizona in Tucson that is a friend and colleague of mine--Dr. Jeremy Manternach. He is a member of the VoiceCare Network and has deep evidence-based knowledge about voices and what happens anatomically and physiologically as they 'grow up,' and what happens to young voices when they are asked to: (1) sing in ways that they have not learned how to sing with physical efficiency in (so-called belted singing)--especially if they are asked to sing that way in a pitch range that is as wide as the Anthem presents; and (2) sing with the highly strenuous vocal coordinations for which their voices are not physically conditioned! He also is knowledgeable about "human compatible" learning and teaching and communications.
So, I recommend that you contact Jeremy at AU to discuss these issues with him, if you like. I don't have his UA email in front of me, so please "google it" if you choose to email or call him.
Good luck, Paul Townsend!!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 17, 2013 10:26am
Thank you all for your support and wisdom.  I spoke with the lady who actually runs the school -- the secretary -- thinking that SHE might be able to "passively" insert my concerns without confrontation.  They are really close. I told her the entire story and was not entirely pleased with her answer, but at our final performance last evening, the ladies sang the SSB and it was really good.  Prior to the performance, we again worked on forming vowels and listening to each other . . . they were nervous, but that was to be expected.  She took the microphone and announced to the audience that she had requested that I prepare the girls to sing and that I had spoken with her about the difficulty and warned her not to expect more than my girls were capable of -- she also had just seen 6th graders sing the song at a school district administrator's meeting (which drove her competitive juices for OUR girls to be better).  She then told the girls that they were BETTER than the 6th graders.  I don't know if she was just apologetically blowing smoke or if she was telling the truth, but she did a nice thing for those girls in front of their entire grade level and their parents.  Once again, thanks -- I know that John Howell is pleased in heaven as he looks over our posts and chuckles.
on May 18, 2013 5:23am
Paul, of course I am dismayed by your administrator's behavior.  But I'm wondering if her suggestion that your singers perform the National Anthem for an assembly might be construed as a compliment?  For many people, singing the nation's song--at a sports event, community gathering or Festival--is considered a big honor.  Being a Red Sox fan, I know I have always wanted to bring one of my college or children's choirs to Fenway Park--still hoping.  I don't agree that "that song"--challenging because of its wide range--is too difficult to be mastered by young singers.  My community children's chorus which enrolls "average" kids, ages 7-14, performed it recently for 5000+ fans at a UMass men's basketball game, and, of course, the video went up on YouTube almost immediately!  (See ).  I made a very simple 2-part a cappella arrangement in a good key, the older kids providing the harmony part and impressive high A flat.  The singers had a blast, and being part of an athletic event gave our chorus welcome visibility and validation in a town/region where kids' sports rule.  Don't give up on the National Anthem!
on May 20, 2013 6:10am
I'm glad it worked out - more or less - but I have to say that the part of Paul's post that struck me was "my girls, who were put on the spot and had not prepared to do this at an after school rehearsal she called at the last minute."  Catharine, how long did your students practice your arrangement before they performed?  I think the most frustrating part of the American Idol and Glee culture, for me, is that the general populace thinks that a musical performance can be put together at the last second in a single rehearsal.  On Glee, all they have to do is "feel" the song and they get it - right?  Except of course that the actors on the show spend hours in rehearsal and in the studio creating the tracks that play on TV.  I think the most important conversation to have with this administrator is an explanation of how many rehearsals it takes to perform a difficult piece.  Yes, you have talented students, and yes, they can handle the beast that is the National Anthem, but they also need time to learn it, and learn it healthfully.  (I think I just made up a word, but oh well.)
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