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.
Several years ago, my co-director and I decided to split the 7th and 8th grade choirs by gender at Marsteller Middle School in Bristow, VA. Little did we know the dramatic effect that would have on our male enrollment. In just two years we reached a 1 to 1 ratio of boys to girls and at our largest, had over 900 students in choir. My session will focus mostly on the repertoire and gimmicks I use, both in class and on stage, to get young men interested in singing and looking and sounding their best. This blog, however, has been written by my singers. They are the backbone of the session and will be there with me, showcasing many of the songs we’ll be discussing. I asked them “What’s cool about being in a men’s chorus?” and told them to send their response to me via the Remind app, which limits their text to 140 characters. Here’s what they had to say:
To me, Men’s Select helps me to liberate my creative passion for the art of music.
I enjoy being in a men’s chorus because we form close bonds with each other and with Mr. Keirstead and have fun singing together.
Men’s Chorus is a great class. I get to be in a class with a lot of my friends and I love being able to express myself in music.
I enjoy Men’s Chorus because it is one of the classes where I can go and do what I like doing, which is singing.
What I love about men’s chorus is that we get to go around and perform for our parents and little kids, showing them how much fun chorus is.
In Men’s Chorus you get to show your talent and hang out with guys that do it, too. You don’t need to sing too high and the music is great.
We are not just a boys’ choir. Mr. Keirstead has taught us all to be men.
I don’t have to worry about impressing girls. It’s fun hanging out with just my guy friends.
Men’s Chorus is fun! Not just the singing and dancing, but the actual learning of the music is fun in itself.
A men’s choir gives me an opportunity to have fun learning about music with kids like me. It makes me feel normal while learning music.
Being in men’s chorus is a good human experience, not only for the students, but for the teacher, also.
You can make new friends and support each other in and outside of men’s chorus.
Being in men’s chorus is a unique opportunity to show who you are and the person you are inside, where you won’t be judged by others.
Men’s Chorus is cool because of the awesome songs and dances along with the cool outfits!
Being in a men’s chorus is fun because we can all relate to each other and understand each other. Also, we sing songs that are meant for our voice range.
I think it’s cool to be in a men’s chorus because we all understand each other better. Also, we get along with each other without it getting awkward.
And finally, from the kid who didn’t follow directions and sent several 140-character texts to finish this thought…
Men’s Chorus is an inspirational class to get you to where you want to be when you grow up. Being separated into these two classes of men and women allows the teachers to dig deeper into the music and focus on the important things without only touching on them. This also allows the students to stay engaged in their music because being around the other gender distracts them from their musical experience.
Philip Keirstead is one of two choral directors at Marsteller middle School in Prince William County, Virginia. There he directs the 7th Grade Men’s Chorus, 8th Grade Advanced Men’s Chorus, and co-directs the 6th Grade Mixed Choir with Julie Phelan.
Philip attended James Madison University where he was a founding member and treasurer of its first collegiate chapter of the American Choral Director’s Association. He served as student conductor of the University Chorus and graduated Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree is music education. He currently serves on the university’s Music Education Advisory Committee. Philip completed his Master of Choral Music Education Degree at Florida State University in 2015.
Philip began his teaching career at Hylton High School in Woodbridge, VA, serving as assistant choral director and musical director. He has served the Virginia Music Educators Association as District IX Choral Representative and as the VCDA Secretary. Philip is also very active in the American Choral Directors Association, having served as the Middle School Repertoire and Standards Chair and organizing the All-Virginia Middle School Honor Choir and auditions.
Guest conducting engagements include several district and county choir events in and around Virginia. In 2011, Mr. Keirstead and his 8th Grade Men’s Select Choir were invited to give a presentation entitled “Get Guys Singing” which focused on repertoire that attracts young men to chorus. This presentation was reprised at the ACDA Southern Division Conference in Jacksonville, FL in 2014. Philip was named Prince William County’s Middle School Teacher of the Year for the 2011-2012 school year and was a runner-up for the Washington Post Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award.