Reaching Across Boundaries: Teaching the Choral Ensemble as a Humanities Course

Educational institutions separate instruction by discrete subjects.  This includes classes in the arts.  The practice of “arts integration” offers an exception to this segmented approach (Eisner, 2002).  Teachers of non-arts classes employ arts activities to enhance student learning in other disciplines.  I propose that choral music educators could invert this principle by purposefully integrating humanities studies into their curriculum, thereby stretching beyond the typical boundaries of choral music classes.

By nature, the practice of choral singing involves multiple disciplines.  Repertoire often draws from a variety of languages and cultures, with immediate ties to literature and history. Despite the interdisciplinary nature inherent in choral music, well-meaning choral music educators may miss opportunities to enable students to formulate meaningful connections (Reimer, 2000).  Parents and administrators expect well-rehearsed public performances.  Choral music educators may feel pressure to choose repertoire “at the edges of the students’ capabilities” to demonstrate the highest level of musical skill students can achieve (Reimer, 2000, p. 12).  Although this can result in impressive levels of performance, it allows little time for enhanced exploration of the numerous facets of the content chosen for student learning.

Educational theorist Nel Noddings makes the case that educators in the 21st century need to break out of the traditional disciplines, blurring the lines between them.  While acknowledging the time required to “push back the boundaries of the disciplines,” she offers an important rationale: the aims of a changing world (21st century competencies) require an altered view of educational aims.  For example, when English Literature teachers choose books for study, they can make these choices align with a universal theme.  She recommends, “Choose a theme that matters, and pursue it in some depth” (Noddings, 2007, p. 79).

By choosing repertoire that is thematically linked, choral music educators treat each concert cycle as a curricular unit in which the singers can explore more deeply some aspect of what it means to be human.  This subtle shift requires a transformation of thinking:

  • Thinking of programming as choosing substantive and cohesive curricular content
  • Thinking of rehearsing as guided exploration, discovery, and reflection
  • Thinking of performing as enacted knowing and the outcome of project-based learning

In practical terms, this means:

  • Purposefully choosing thematically linked works.  More than just clever programming, this means choosing themes by topical relevance in terms of their potential to stimulate meaningful self-reflection and learning
  • Initially introducing students to full text sources and musical context, considering how composers might have been influenced by texts and using texts to stimulate reflection before, during, and after the note-learning process
  • Incorporating short, thought-provoking take-home assignments and allowing students to share from these briefly at each rehearsal
  • Finding more ways to make each individual singer’s learning experience visible, knowable, and measurable

More than just designing a concert around a theme, choral music educators could see repertoire selection as the core means to enable students to reach broader curricular goals, that is, as the catalyst to cause them to think about how to live richer, more satisfying lives.

In this session, attendees will be given two or three examples of actual concert programs that were treated as units of study in the humanities.  They will also learn strategies for introducing and rehearsing repertoire in a way that stimulates student exploration and reflection.  They will receive examples of short take-home assignments that students can easily complete and share in rehearsal.  Session attendees will learn how to capitalize on the rich learning opportunities sometimes overshadowed by the technical demands of music making.  With small adjustments, a choral ensemble can be more broadly conceived as a humanities course.