January typically is a time for many of us to catch our breath. With the rush of the holiday season behind us, there is a sense of renewal with the new year, and an opportunity to examine our pedagogy before the schedule is again heavy with performances as the spring arrives.
Musicians/Conductors/Teachers (and we are all three in one!) constantly strive to improve on their performance and pedagogy. Self-reflection and critically examining what we do is part of our DNA. This occurs moment to moment in a rehearsal, as we formatively assess what we are hearing. It occurs on a deeper level as we reflect on the success of the last rehearsal we had as we plan for the next one. In this blog, I hope to pose questions that will instigate thinking and self-reflection pertaining to broad issues we face in working with our singers.
For instance, consider the question of gender inclusivity. As students are expressing varying gender identities earlier, and people of all ages are becoming more confident in outwardly expressing gender not conforming to binary choices, words matter. Using “Guys,” “Ladies,” “Men,” “Boys and Girls” is not as inclusive as “Choir,” “Sopranos (Altos, Tenors, Basses),” “6thGrade,” “Friends,” “Everyone,” or any other non-gendered term. It can take a little practice to accomplish this switch, but for that singer in your ensemble who is non-binary or questioning, it can mean a lot knowing that you are making the effort to change.
Take a moment to examine repertoire for “hidden curricula.” This applies to repertoire for all ages. Consider the text of “Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater” and what it implies, for example. If you were to switch the gender of an individual described in a lyric, would the lyric still be appropriate and acceptable?
Don’t know where to begin? Start simple! This article published by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD.org), Creating a Gender-Inclusive Classroom, provides some excellent starting points. Want to learn more? Genderspectrum.org has an extensive list of resources available on the web.
Mark and Kim Elicker and their son Ethan were a wonderful family, but they all had so much more love to give. About six years ago they traveled to China to adopt two year old Alex. This is his story – a story of endless love and musical magic.
Before Alex came home to his family, Kim, an early childhood educator herself, took her son Ethan to Kindermusik from the time he was a baby until he aged out. Lydia Klinger was their Kindermusik educator and really drew the family in. Kim shares why she choose Kindermusik:
Lydia was the reason we started and fell in love with the program. With Ethan I admit I valued the social benefits of being with other Mom’s and families. As an early childhood educator I connected with the developmental appropriateness of the curriculum. Years later when we adopted Alex, I once again became a stay at home mom and I wanted that connection to other families. I chose Kindermusik again with Alex because I loved it so much with Ethan, but I honestly, remember seeking activities that I believed would foster our bond and attachment.
When Alex came home with the Elickers at age two he wasn’t very verbal. He was a child surrounded by sounds he had never heard. Occasionally, he’d speak a word or two of Mandarin, like mā-ma (mother), bà-ba (father), gē-ge (older brother), and siè-sie (thank you).
Dr. Boyle: When Alex came home with you, how would you describe him? Kim Elicker: He was quiet and energetic, though when he first came home he didn’t have a lot of stamina. He was curious and resourceful! He could play with a bucket, a box of crayons, and a paper bag. That was just him – he didn’t need anything fancy.
DB: You mentioned he wasn’t very verbal.
KE: He wasn’t. And that’s a typical very typical of children who are adopted into a family who speaks a different language than he was born into.
DB: Right…so what he had been hearing for the first two years of his life, he’s wasn’t hearing that any more and was a completely different environment for him. KE: Exactly. In our situation, everything changed – what he saw, what he heard, what he smelled, even what touched his skin. It was all very different.
DB: So…you shared with me that on days he was going to Kindermusik, Alex tended to be more verbal. KE: Yes. In the beginning, receptively he picked up English rather quickly. He was following simple one step directions.
DB: Little kids are sponges. KE: Yes! But his communication pretty much shut down verbally. We expected that from classes we took before the adoption. His brain was switching gears. We read to him, we talked to him, we engaged him all the time, but he didn’t attempt to speak a lot.
When we started Kindermusik, in the beginning much of it was listening in that particular first program he was in. I noticed his concentration level – his focus – was very intent. He would be very tired those afternoons after Kindermusik in the morning!
By his second set of classes, I started noticing a change. We’d go to Kindermusik, we’d have lunch, and the rest of the day he’d be much more talkative. He’d attempt new words. Anytime he tried new words, it seemed to be on Kindermusik days. Once I noticed the pattern, I really started paying attention to it. It followed this trend for about a year.
DB: And did you take part in the classes with him? KE: Yes.
DB: That’s great. There’s a great deal of research out there that tells us that because of the way music impacts the brain, when you make music with another person, it builds empathy between you and the other person, it builds trust between you and that other person. You can become more comfortable with that person when you share a musical experience. KE: That’s an interesting take on my situation. When you are first adopting you need to build trust. That’s part of the attachment process. It’s an interesting thing for me to hear you say – it makes total sense!
DB: Sounds like music was an important part of Alex’s process. KE: Yes! I remember sharing the news of Alex’s increased verbal activity with Lydia, our Kindermusik educator. She said it just gave her chills! She was excited to get that feedback.
DB: I would imagine! Kindermusik is certainly fun with music and movement, but the mission is really to help kids develop socially and emotionally…getting them to interface with other kids and have positive interactions with adults. It helps them move through those developmental domains. KE: Certainly. And in our case, it was quite obvious because he wasn’t really verbal at all…it was very easy to pick up on when was happening.
DB: It’s just so cool to hear about this – a very specific situation in which music helped a child affected by a rather involved transition find his voice. That’s music reaching parts of the brain that everyday speech or conversation does not. I would imagine that music coupled with music was helpful. KE: Yes! That was his other area. According to the typical US standard, he would have been lacking in gross motor. Within six months he had caught up. The movement in the class was beneficial.
DB: That’s great. So how long was Alex involved in the classes? KE: He was five, almost six when we stopped. When we love something we stick with it!
Early childhood music classes were a very important part of the Elicker’s lives. Ethan, now 15, lives for the trumpet and plays as often as he can. And Alex? He’s going into third grade this fall. He’s taking piano lessons and singing in church. His ultimate goal is to play organ! Lydia, their Kindermusik Educator, retired after 20 years of serving musical smiles to her community. She now plays with the Harrisburg Symphony. The Elickers still keep in touch with her. Recently, she arranged a meeting with the Symphony’s guest trumpeter, Allen Vizzuti and Ethan.
For the Elickers, participating in music classes helped smooth the complex process of an international adoption, helping Alex open up and explore his verbal possibilities in his new language. As an educator, Kim knew exactly what was happening. As a mom, she got to see music work its magic in her son’s young life. That’s why music educators do what they do. They are in it to change lives.
More than almost anything else, literacy is the key to freedom, possibility, and advancement. Those who are literate in a collective language are able to work better together, learn from and inspire each other, achieve higher, and discover a world of previously unknown possibilities.
Likewise, since music is a mode of understanding like a language, the means by which we understand, create, interpret, and perform at a higher level is by laying a common foundation of musical literacy
I became an educator to help young people find their singing voices and advance their personal musicianship. What I did not realize, at the time, was how engaged I would become with how adolescents develop through choral experiences. I remember when my thoughts came to a fore—the Mixed Choir was preparing for an international tour. We engaged in additional rehearsals and sectionals, the students sang run out concerts, faculty and administrators held meetings with parents, and the choir participated in team-building activities. With more than 55 singers traveling to Europe, we crafted several interactions to facilitate a smooth and enjoyable trip.
Upon our return, student after student told me the choir had “bonded.” I probed into the students’ experiences and realized they described a sense of belonging and community that developed through extended time together. Participating in choir helped singers feel connected to one another, fostered emerging friendships, and encouraged greater self-awareness and self-growth. Choir members positioned singing in the center of their social development. One student said:
But when you hear someone singing it’s their voice, but it’s also a different way of seeing someone. We are using ourselves. We become the instrument when we work together. When you are singing, you are making yourself vulnerable. You want to make friendships with those people because you are already opening yourself up to them by singing. (Parker, 2010, p. 347)
My interest was piqued when choir members discussed how the repertoire contributed to their experiences of belonging:
In English class the other day, we were reading Beloved and a character said, ‘Oh my Jesus.’ The rest of the chorus kids in the class broke into song [at that time in chorus class, students were rehearsing Moses Hogan’s I’m gonna sing ‘til the spirit which includes several ‘Oh my Jesus’ within it]. We always have that class right after chorus and so many chorus people are in it. It occurred to me after that experience that maybe other people don’t get it” (p. 346).
Adolescents shared that choir is significant because it is a protected, safe space for those who seek friendships and compelling musical experiences. For some, choir acts as an in-group that serves powerfully to build adolescent social identity. Through conducting several research studies, I have learned that young people have important experiences to tell and unique ways of telling—I believe listening to adolescent voices will sustain and inspire our developing practices as choral music educators and advance advocacy efforts for music education.
I look forward to engaging with you in how to create and sustain supportive communities through building relationships, student leadership, enhancing and expecting high-level music-making, and communication within and outside of the school community during my presentation, “What Happens in Choir…Adolescent Development through Singing” at Eastern ACDA in Boston. I hope to see you there.
Parker, E. C. (2010). Exploring student experiences of belonging within an urban high school choral ensemble: An action research study. Music Education Research, 12, 339–352. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14613808.2010.519379 Elizabeth Cassidy Parker, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Music Education at the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University. She also conducts the Troubadors, one of four ensembles of the Pennsylvania Girlchoir. Prior to her work at Temple, Elizabeth taught at the Schwob School of Music at Columbus State University, GA. Selected journal publications include the Journal of Research in Music Education, Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, Choral Journal, Music Education Research, and the International Journal of Music Education.