Category: Education

GET GUYS SINGING: Thoughts from the choir…

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.

Coming to Boston: the Student Conducting Masterclass

Since conducting is at the heart of all we do, we think that everyone will find something of interest in both the public student conducting classes (scheduled for Friday afternoon of the conference) as well as in the process by which students are chosen for those classes. They were designed with this in mind. 

Four conductors — two undergraduates and two graduates — will conduct the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, and will be coached by outstanding teachers: Ann Howard Jones leads the undergraduate classes, and William Weinert leads the graduate classes. 

And these truly are classes, with a format that allows for substantive time between the ensemble, the student, and the teacher: Each conductor will have 30 minutes to rehearse two pieces, as well as additional time one-on-one beforehand with maestro Jones or Weinert, respectively, to review and prepare for their time in front of the ensemble. 

Applicants need to submit video of their conducting (rehearsing and performing) and analyses of the pieces they conduct. Adjudicators from outside the division will score these anonymized applications. And while this selection process is meant to be competitive (the only competitive aspect of the class, by the way), it also is meant to offer professor and student a kind of practicum, an exercise reflecting and focusing on the real-life responsibilities of a conductor. While the student is, of course, responsible for the content of the application, it affords a coaching opportunity for professor and student. 

Conducting is a fascinating skill, and one in which we learn continually, with the challenges of every new piece and ensemble. From the interaction of these talented young conductors and master teachers, we can all expect to come away with insights that will feed into our own practice. So we hope that everyone will join us for the public sessions, that many students will apply, and—if you are a conducting teacher—that you will encourage your students to investigate the application process (deadline is October 1st!). Even simply considering the opportunity and process seriously, together, will encourage a dialogue about the essence of conducting—which is, perhaps, the most important dialogue you could be having right now.
– Wayne Abercrombie & Tony ThorntonCo-chairs
Conducting Masterclass Committee


Teaching Rhythmic Literacy in Rehearsal

Dr. Jason Bishop
R&S Chair for Youth & Student Activities

Like many choral conductors I’m sure, I begin nearly every new semester by making some change to my bag of rehearsal tricks. Whether it’s a small tweak or a major overhaul, exploring fresh new methods for addressing the same challenges keeps our rehearsals dynamic and deepens our understanding of our craft.

This semester, if you find yourself seeking a different method for teaching rhythmic literacy or strengthening rhythmic accuracy, I might suggest you check out, which provides multiple resources for employing the rhythmic literacy system known as Takadimi in your classes and rehearsals. Developed by Richard Hoffman, William Pelto, and John W. White in 1996, Takadimi is a beat-oriented language for teaching rhythmic literacy that fuses some of the best attributes of more familiar rhythmic systems (such as Kodály or Gordon) into a self-contained methodology. One of Takadimi’s key features is that it eliminates the possibility of duplicating syllabic patterns for distinctly different rhythms, thereby allowing singers to associate common rhythmic figures with combinations of syllables that are unique to those rhythms.

At, you can read the article unveiling the system in the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy, as well as access different teaching tools, read teacher testimonials, download a concise and very useful handout for summarizing the system, and more. I give credit to Carol Krueger, a well known musical literacy guru in our field, for inspiring me to learn more about this system. I began using it in my own rehearsals about a year ago at every level, and it has yielded tremendous results.

I look forward to seeing many choral friends at the national conference in Salt Lake City next month. In the midst of enjoying inspirational concerts and informative sessions, be sure to go watch the conducting competition, make an appointment with one of the 40+ conductors offering Face-to-Face sessions, and attend the Youth & Student Activities Roundtable on Saturday morning. See you in Utah!

“Why do you sing in a choir?”

Dr. Mark Boyle
Men’s Choir R&S Chair

Recently I had the privilege of conducting the Mucho Macho Choral Festival–designed to get 6th through 9th grade young men excited about choral singing–and I decided to take some time to have these choristers share why that sang in choir. It was eye opening that these young singers felt so free to share such personal insight with a group of strangers.

I then did the same thing with a group of 150 middle schoolers in the Wisconsin Middle Level All State Choir–a fine SATB ensemble made up of 7th and 8th grade singers. They each shared from their heart, and I decided to write a blog post about the experience.

One young musician, Scedra, had many of us crying with her answer to the question ‘Why do you sing in choir?” Beyond the music, it’s our job to create a safe space for our musicians. Singing is such a personal art form; if you don’t feel safe, you won’t offer music filed with emotion, passion, and honesty.

Challenges of the Two-Year College Choir

Alice Cavanaugh
Two-Year College R&S Chair

The two-year college choir perpetually suffers from an identity crisis. We are college/university choirs with very real and challenging differences from our four-year counterparts. Searching for inspiration and resources for two-year college choirs often leads to dead ends when these differences rear their ugly heads. We each have formulated our own techniques for dealing with those challenges: persistent high turnover rates, repertoire dilemmas, unbalanced skill levels, and budget restrictions. Consequently, each of us is a resource for two-year college choirs.

We have success stories to share. At the 2013 ACDA convention in Dallas, I had the pleasure to meet Dr. Carolina Flores, then president of the ACDA Connecticut Chapter and a two-year college choir director. We had the opportunity to share ideas, repertoire, and to discuss the strengths and weaknesses within our programs. In addition to learning from each other, we took our collaboration a step further and brought our choirs together, across state lines, for a joint concert. This was invigorating for the students and demonstrated that we are not alone in facing the unique challenges of directing community college choirs.

As we approach the 2015 ACDA convention in Utah, I encourage you to attend so that we can form a superb resource – the knowledge and expertise of two-year college choir directors from across the Eastern Division and across the nation.

Engaged Rehearsals

Joy Hirokawa
R&S Chair, Children’s and Community Youth Choirs

Engagement. We hear this buzzword a lot. Are you “engaging” your choirs in rehearsal? What does that even mean? They are singing, so they must be “engaged,” right? But we all can tell when our singers are not engaged. The bored face, the glances around the room, the slumped posture, the tuning out as soon as a different voice part is being rehearsed. So, how do you get them engaged? Here are some suggestions for you to try that work with any age, elementary through adult!

  • Rather than tell them where the problems are in a particular section of music, ask them to tell each other (or tell you). Ex. “Choir, last time we rehearsed this piece, we had some problems. Take one minute to remind others in your section where some of the problem spots were for your particular part.” Then after one minute, “Choir, is there any place that you would like us to review for your section before we try it together?” This provides an opportunity for them to mentally review the material and audiate their part (a great form of individual practice), and to alert them to be aware of problems. They will tell you exactly what they need, and you will ultimately save on rehearsal time!
  • Utilize peer critiquing. Ex. “Altos, please listen to the Tenors as they sing this section, paying particular attention to their diction. At the end, give them a thumbs up, thumbs in the middle, or thumbs down.” After the tenors sing, “Altos, how did they do? (show thumbs up, middle, or down). Can you specify what they did well and why? How about what they need to do better?” Then, of course, provide an opportunity for the Tenors to critique the Altos! This provides some friendly rivalry and competition, but also teaches the choir what to listen for and what they might need to improve upon within their own section.
  • Point out interesting things for them to listen for that might not be in their part, and how their part interacts with those interesting musical events. Ex. “Choir, listen to what is going on in the accompaniment here. (Have the accompanist play.) How does this contribute to what we are doing in the vocal lines?” Then, of course, be sure that you are drawing their attention to the accompaniment at that particular spot when they sing with the accompaniment.
  • Use questioning to lead them to understand the music rather than telling them about the music. Ex. “Choir, I am going to sing this phrase two ways. Tell me which way you like better, and why.” Then model the phrase musically/unmusically, with good diction/poor diction, round vowels/collapsed vowels, or any number of comparisons so that by comparing, they will understand what it is you are working towards. Ask them to tell you why they prefer one over the other.
  • Discuss how phrasing influences the meaning of a text and let them be part of the interpretive process. Model a phrase with text emphasis on different words, and discuss which phrasing they prefer and why. This may take a few minutes, but my experience has been that when a choir is involved in the process, the group seldom has to be corrected on the phrasing again!
  • Always insist that they sing musically – even when doing warm ups, reciting text, or singing solfege!

These are some of my favorite techniques that help keep the choir engaged in the entire rehearsal process. I have found that these approaches give the choir more ownership of their music, provide more engagement in the rehearsal because there is always something to listen for, and ultimately, save rehearsal time!


It’s Not the Music

Robert Eaton
ACDA East President, 2010-2012

As the new school year approaches and with it the beginning of the process for honor choirs and auditioned conference choirs, many will be focused on preparing the most polished and refined audition recordings. Committees will be formed and procedures reviewed and scrutinized in order to provide a fair and impartial evaluation of those recordings. In short, much effort, talent, and in some cases money will be invested in the attempt to showcase the very best musical performances and performers. But, as an Association of Choral Directors, is this what we are all about? While musical excellence is always a worthy goal, should it be the predominant focus of our attention or should it be viewed more as a means to an end?

How one answers those questions depends a lot on how one answers the following:  Are we primarily choral Educators or choral Directors? Is presenting outstanding choral performances the best way to promote the Choral Art or is it the process for preparing the choral performance the best way to promote the Choral Art?

The positive influence of choral music on the lives, mores, and values of participants has been well chronicled by numerous authors, philosophers, and educators. All too often, though, our training for chorus directors largely neglects these statements and almost exclusively focuses on the technical training of a conductor and musician. Often significant time is spent developing strategies for dealing with “attendance policies” and chorus handbook rules and regulations.

In my own early years of teaching I too became irate with students who missed rehearsals or worse yet, a performance. I would rant about the values of parents who dared to make family plans that conflicted with a chorus concert, trip, or festival. The primary goal was to make the best music possible. Over time my attitude changed. Perhaps it was the exchange with former students whose names I could not remember and whose faces I recollected only dimly. They probably were one of those students I let stay in the choir because they ‘did no harm.’ Now they tell me how much chorus meant to them in high school, that it was what kept them in school, and how it was the source of their fondest memories. Or perhaps it was watching the 70 and 80 year-old vocalists who dragged themselves weekly, often with physical pain, to church or community choir rehearsals. Or the experience of vainly trying to comfort an elderly vocalist who tells you with tears that they can no longer sing in the ensemble. These experiences gradually led to me to a belief that it is the process of making music that is most important, even more important than the music itself.

Anyone who has received an email from me has perhaps seen my two signature quotes. They have become more and more a part of my moral compass as the years go by.

“The most important thing about performing is to make magic, to make a special moment in time. The whole process … is never about proving something but about sharing something.”  – Yo Yo Ma

“The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sing the best.”  – Attributed to Henry David Thoreau

As we prepare for yet another competitive season of choral music I suggest we at least think about:

  • Is there a place in an honor choir for a dedicated but less talented vocalist with an overwhelming commitment to the choral art?
  • Is there a place for a conference choir that may not exhibit the ideal tone but sings with strong conviction and emotion?
  • Should we require testimonials from former students and ensemble members relative to the process of making music?
  • On a broader scale, how do we instill this understanding of the influence we have on the lives of the individuals in our ensembles to our young and future choral director/educators?

Thanks for listening.

Bob Eaton