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student-run a cappella groups vs. professor-run chorus

I teach at a private college where there is a music department, but no major. For nine years I've led the college choir: our numbers usually float around 25. Our primary repertoire is jazz and pop due to the interest of the group and the campus environment. Two years ago, a grad student who had done his undergrad in music at another school, started two a cappella groups: one female and one mixed. These groups were largely successful as he was a solid musician and very dedicated to the quality. He and I had an understanding that a student was not allowed to leave the chorus to be in his group, but had do to both.
Last fall the groups were led by undergarduates as the founder had graduated and left the school. I was on sabbatical. The quality plummeted. When I returned to campus this spring, my chorus had about 8 people in it.
The question for discussion is one that is larger than my school alone: what do we do as educators, to both support student-run initiatives, and to make sure we can maintain our own programs in a enviorment that does not have a lot of talent to draw on in the first place. I understand the student's desire to create and have fun together, but I also know that most of them are not yet trained enough to employ discernment on many levels.
On our campus, our dance department is being overrun by the student-led dance team, and our theatre is being overrun by the student-led Best of Broadway group. My colleagues and I are not dinosaurs, and are willing to do what we can, but feel we are losing a cultural battle. What are others in this situation doing? Thanks!
Replies (6): Threaded | Chronological
on January 29, 2014 5:45am
It is wonderful that students are motivated to create music isn't it? I understand your predicament - mine is similar, but not exactly the same.
I conduct the women's chorus on campus and there is also a student-run, female a cappella group on campus too. My main focus is more on traditional choral music (we still do different styles, but more traditional than your chorus, probably) whereas the main focus of the a cappella group is pop music (which they arrange together). Since the desires of the groups are different, we have overlap within the groups, but are not "fighting" for the same students. Actually, I went and did a workshop with the a cappella group at one point before a competition they were headed to. After that, I had more of their group join my group than before! I definitely reached out to them and asked them to join my group and I think it has increased the quality of their group as well! I also mention their group to the women's chorus at the beginning of each semester and I let them advertise their auditions to the women in my group.
Maybe with some outreach, they will see that they can learn from you and take back what they know to make their group better (while still singing with you)?
I hope it works out for the best for you! Good luck!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on January 29, 2014 7:22am
Here's your problem, right here...  "I understand the student's desire to create and have fun together, but I also know that most of them are not yet trained enough to employ discernment on many levels."  Have you seen the questions posted to this forum by first year teachers and choir directors?  Who have a wonderful musical education, but no practical experience?  Most first year teachers also don't have discernment on many levels.  
Coming from a college with a lot of student run groups, I can say that I feel they are of CRITICAL importance to student development.  The point is not only to have students involved in a nice program while they are at college, but to be sure students are gaining the experience they need to succeed as the next generation of music leaders when they leave.  Our program of student-lead groups spawns an AMAZING number of successful professional musicians, composers, and directors.  The number of my classmates who are now professional musicians is ASTOUNDING for a music program at a small liberal arts college.  Even the non-music majors seem to go on to careers as professional musicians in record numbers.  Students graduate with the skills to run a rehearsal, arrange music, (and oops!  that didn't work, re-arrange, oops! still not working, rearrange...) schedule and promote concerts and events...  They find out the holes in their skill-set first-hand, early on, and eagerly sign up for conducting class, composition and theory, voice lessons, piano lessons... to get the skills they need.  They find the holes in their skill-set while working unpaid with their peers, who are a much more forgiving group than the average middle school class, or principal with a tight budget.  It's really the perfect nursery for developing your classroom management skills.  They graduate with experience they can point to when applying to grad school, or for a job.  
Personally, I was simultaneously in three singing groups, (2 college-run, 1 student-run) taking voice lessons (college-run) and banjo lessons (unofficially, and ungraded, but from the head of the music department.)  I arrange to audit music theory since I couldn't fit it into my schedule.  None of this was unusual.  And I wasn't a music major, or even a music minor.  
If your "official" music programs are strong, they are in no danger.  Don't set yourself up in opposition to the student-run groups.  MAJOR error in tact!  College students love an "us vs. them" conflict with the older generation.  They will fight you tooth and nail and they will win.  Be proud that your students are inspired to start something of their own and take them seriously as co-leaders in the musical culture at your organization.  Schedule meetings with the officers of the student-lead groups periodically to discuss possible scheduling conflicts.  Ask them if there is a class they would like to see added to the curriculum on rehearsal management, blues harmony, legal issues...  These are not small children you are dealing with, they are the students who are most likely to go on to music careers.  If you have specific concerns, schedule a meeting, just like you would with any professor in the department and listen to their concerns as well.  
Congratulations on your blooming student groups.  They are a sign that your students take their music seriously.  Now be sure that your department takes its students seriously as well.  
-M. Furtak
Applauded by an audience of 4
on January 30, 2014 8:21am
Dear Alexandra,
I trust you will take the last repsonse "with a [huge] grain of salt". You are obviously not a first year instructor, so your level of discernment is not at issue here. And coming from a school such as yours where no music major is being offered, the students participating in a capella groups will NOT be going on to careers in music.
As you suggest, student run cappella groups are amateur groups (as you would expect), and discerment can indeed be an issue. They are fun groups for their members, for sure, and they do provide valuable, real-life experience in organizing and producing events as well as working with others, but the level of singing and performing is generally not very good. Yes, there are exceptions, but from what I have observed over many years at many college campuses, most are pretty average and often times embarassingly weak.
I think Ahsley's suggestions are the most valuable to you, though your situation is more challenging because the type of repertoire you perform is closer to that of the a cappella groups. My first thought in relation to your situation is that you will likely recover to a certain degree from the attrition that took place in the wake of your absence. Students often try something different under those circumstances and will probably return to your group. Beyond that, I would suggest focusing on producing unique, high-quality, highly visibile programs using really good instrumentalists for accompaniment (plus some a cappella). Be creative, use a real variety of great music, and offer a variety of opportunties - solos as well as large and small ensembles (maybe even including some that have instruments only). Collaborate with other factions on campus, especially those that are successful and have high-visibility. Make the experience positive and successful. And remember that you have and ALWAYS will have considerably more expertise than any of your students. You have much to offer them!
Finally, I would suggest being very proactive and creative in recruiting students, especially at the beginning of the year and the start of the semester. The a cappella groups are good at this, but you have the advantage of being on campus before students arrive, and you can set up a strong, highly visible campaign using every possible medium both on and off campus (inlcuding social media). You could even go so far as to identify students with an interest in singing from their college application forms (from the admissions office) and contact them before they arrive on campus.
At any rate, don't give up and best wishes!
PS If you would like some suggestions of repertoire, please feel free to let me know.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on January 30, 2014 8:24am
I agree with the two previous responses-- it's great to have this degree of interest and initiative among students.  Another aspect of our challenge is, how can we expand the awareness and experience of students?  How can you and the dance instructor expand the students' interest in pop and jazz, to include the many other ways that people have expressed themselves through music and dance, around the world and through the centuries, including of course the classical traditions? 
I don't have any easy answers, but jazz and pop artists routinely talk about "chops" (technique and practice); some specifically about classical "chops".  Fats Waller studied classical piano as a child, and as an adult--perhaps the greatest jazz pianist of his era--often came home after performing into the wee hours, to relax by playing Bach before turning in.  The popular guitar magazines emphasize the whole gamut of guitar styles, including classical ("there's nothing like classical guitar exercises to develop your chops," wrote one rock guitarist).  Dance studios and programs frequently expect students to take ballet, modern, tap and jazz.  Artists from other cultures routinely talk about the same fundamental concepts relating to style, expression, discipline, etc.
How can you help your students realize how much their lives will be enriched by expanding their musical experiences and practices?  How can you use the great body of knowledge, technique and practice developed by the classical traditions, to help them express themselves as musicians and dancers?
on January 30, 2014 10:21am
Dear Alexandra,
I teach at an institution similar to yours, with no music major and an interdisciplinary department.  The most important thing I have learned is collaboration.  Each year my ensembles do an interdisciplinary performance, lessons and carols with the chapel music program, a masterwork with local professional players, and a cabaret with solos and small group numbers.
I agree with Michael about getting your program as visible as possible.  The two biggest things that have helped me have been visibility and forming an auditioned chamber choir (and bringing that group everywhere imaginable).
VISIBILITY - Sing everywhere.  When they get close to a performance bring them to admissions, to the president's office, to the dean, to the student union.  Sing the national anthem at a basketball game or some popular sporting events, go caroling, have pizza, be social.  This will also help the administration to see your intrinsic value on campus and give you support in a variety of ways.
CHAMBER CHOIR - Having auditions for a chamber choir brought some talented students out of the woodwork who were not previously in my chorus.  I started it going into my second year at the college, and thought it was maybe a year too early, but it was absolutely the right choice.  Holding auditions gave me a reason to send an email to the entire student body, and it attracted attention.  Small a cappella groups are often the advanced ensembles in high school settings, so it makes sense that these are talented singers who want to do well.  And then kick their butts and get them out in the community.
The most beautiful thing about students who want to sing but don't have a ton of talent is the amount of time and dedication they put in to doing the best they can.  They have huge hearts.
If you'd like to talk in person let me know and we can arrange that.  I'll also be at ACDA in Baltimore.
Very best,
Tim Reno
Siena College
Applauded by an audience of 1
on January 31, 2014 10:29am
Hi Michael and choral net communit, 
Appologies if I implied that Alexandra's discernment was an issue.  That was certainly not my intention!  I only meant that there are frequent posts to these forums from first year teachers who feel that their education has not given them as much hands-on rehearsal management experience as they might wish.  Alexandra spoke of the leaders of her school's student groups lacking discernment.  I think many posters to these forums who have graduated and gotten a job see themselves as also lacking discernment, despite their excellent educational qualifications.  Hands-on leadership experience is the best way to learn leadership skills.  Lots of time performing is one of the best cures for stage fright.  Lots of time composing (or arranging), with the opportunity to hear the results of your efforts and see what proved unneccessarily difficult in rehearsal is an invaluable tool for someone learning to compose.  Student-run groups give future professionals all of these opportunities on a weekly basis.  Classroom learning gives the knowledge, but practical application of that knowledge is usually limited to only a few performances, projects, or conducting opportunities in a semester.  
"And coming from a school such as yours where no music major is being offered, the students participating in a capella groups will NOT be going on to careers in music."  Oh, now that makes me so sad...  What a defeatist attitude!  Shall we close down the music programs at every college that doesn't offer a major?  At the risk of getting myself into real hot water with my elders and betters, and with the utmost respect for their years of experience, here are the students from Alexandra's program who will go on to careers in music:  
The shy student:  she was always a shy child, and never would have considered a career that put her in the limelight, so despite solid musical ability, she never tried out for solos in high school choir, and no one would have thought to encourage her to apply to conservatory.  She is an accounting major, but landed in your choir program, has made friends, and is gradually becoming more outgoing.  On graduation she will put her years of piano lessons and love of music to good use as a professional rehearsal accompanist.  Solos = scary.  Playing for someone else's solo = great fun.  
The financial aid student:  this talented young man always did want to be a music major.  His high school choir teacher recognised his talent and gave him extra help after school.  He sang with the church choir from a young age and got some extra coaching there as well.  He was accepted to conservatory, but when the financial aid packet arrived, it just wasn't doable.  He applied to your institution as a "just in case" because he knew the tuition would be affordable, and although a music major is not a possibility, he will graduate with an four year degree from an excellent school.  He will move to Boston and gig around with various groups, establish a solid reputation as a soloist, and eventually make enough money from his day job to pay off his student loans and pay for a grad degree in vocal performance.  
The student with great parents:  this student comes from a comfortable home, where her parents have always paid attention to her interests and made the effort to further them.  She started the violin at age 5 and voice lessons in middle school.  She also went away to biology camp and discovered an interest in amphibians.  When she told her parents she wanted to go to school for music, they nudged her towards a science degree instead.  "Keep that door open!  You can always find ways to include music in your life, they counciled, "but a good liberal arts institution will open doors in the sciences."  Being a gently-raised soul, she bowed to her parents advice.  On graduation, she discovered that jobs doing field work in the sciences are actually rather hard to come by without a grad degree.  She started singing with an internationally respected local oratorio society for fun, and was on hand to snap up a full-time job in the administration two years later.  She spends her days writing program notes about Vivaldi, coordinating reheasal schedules with the timpanist, and hunting out missing accidentals in the trumpet score for the director.  In her spare time, she runs population studies of endangered spotted salamanders with the local herpetology preservation group.  There's no money available for a paid position there, but she knows she's doing important work.  
The student with awful parents:  let's not say they're awful.  They are well-intentioned.  But they are very busy people, with three other kids.  They have got the afterschool activities down to a science.  Wednesday, everyone has T-ball or dance, because the two are within a five minute drive of each other.  This was a whistling kid.  A singing in the shower kid.  But it just didn't occur to anyone that he was particularly musical, because no one else in his family was musical.  He signed up for choir senior year of high school to fill a hole in his schedule.  He loved it immediately.  He has a great ear and a great voice, but he can't read music and he hasn't figured out how to open up the top of his range.  He arrived at your school on a sports scholarship.  He will quickly find his way into voice lessons and convince his roommate to help him with his sight reading.  He's starting from behind, but learning quickly.  On graduation, he'll find private piano lessons and join another choir.  He'll sing with a friend's band and take up the drums.  In ten years, he'll be playing back-up for Sting, who will then be 500 years old.  
M. Furtak
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