Premise of recruiting for choral music groups based on the athletic model is inherently flawed!

by Seth McMullen, R&S Chair for High School Choirs

There! I said it.

As a former (and still recovering) girl’s volleyball coach, I used to base my recruitment of singers on the same principles as my recruitment of athletes. After all, choir is like sport; a team activity, full of high performance drive, a dedication to excellence. Basically, as a volleyball coach I wanted the tallest, strongest, quickest, best athletes I could find, and then work with them, shape them, and mold them into a cohesive team. Isn’t it a logical conclusion then to look for the most talented, gifted, skilled, best musicians to fill out our choir “team?” I could work with them, shape them, and mold them into a cohesive unit – there you have it! Choral excellence!

So after combing the halls, middle schools and instrumental department for “talent,” I would field the best choral “team” I could find. The end result was a group of good singers, but year in and out they lacked cohesion and esprit de corps. The students became ultra-competitive with each other, because unfortunately what this model actually perpetuates is “diva-ism” (or devo-ism, guys certainly can be divas as well) in the most negative sense of the word; a competitive “I’m better than you are,” “look at what I can do,” “I can sing this higher and better” mentality that caused much more harm than good.

This mentality ultimately led to an attitude of entitlement that placed the good of the individual above the good of the ensemble, which to me is the antithesis of the collaborative ensemble experience I desire my students to have. Furthermore, as this philosophy permeated the program at all levels, it created a sense of the “haves” versus the “have nots,” which ultimately led to higher and higher attrition rates; the opposite of the desired result of recruiting – increased enrollment and involvement. Students felt de-valued because their perceived “worth” as a singer was less than another’s, causing them to look to other activities to fulfill their need to be a valued member of a community.

My conclusion is that this philosophy works in competitive sports programs where there are finite numbers of positions and spots available on a team. After all, if you can only have six people on the volleyball court at a time, it makes sense to ensure they are the absolute best you can field. But the choir is not a sports team! Most choral ensembles are not limited by numbers; they are limited by the choices we directors make during the selection process.

What if instead of trying to create an All-Star choir by filling our ensembles with the best singers we can find and hoping (or praying) they can manage to get along, we first build a community that nurtures the student and makes them feel that no matter how they perceive themselves vocally, socially, or physically they are valued, appreciated and needed for the success of the ensemble, all the while teaching them the foundations and techniques of healthy vocal production, sight reading, and the role that all singers must play in ensemble.

What if the goal was to teach students to value the contributions other students make to the ensemble, especially if it has nothing to do with their vocal aptitude? Putting this in motion, I found that the resulting cohesive choral community had become a self-sustaining machine. As a student’s self-awareness of their value to the community increased, so did their ability to recognize the contributions of others in similar ways.

Recognition of individual contribution creates a sense that: “We are all in this together,” and the student willingness to apply the lessons increased, improving the overall process and product. As the process and product (not necessarily concert performance) improved, more students were drawn to the community to fulfill their need to be valued members, and they were welcomed immediately by more “veteran” members.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Dr. Edith Copley (Director of Choral Activities, Northern Arizona University) told me prior to the completion of my degree: “You are going to be the ONLY voice teacher the majority of your students will ever have, so make sure you teach them how to sing!”

Isn’t the true calling of our job to teach students how to sing; to express themselves through vocal music; to discover and experience great art first hand? Isn’t this why we teach sight reading and great literature? Instead of looking for the talent in students outside our programs, encourage it in our current students.

This by no means says that I am going to turn away a singer just because they happen to be talented, gifted, and skilled musician; we have many in our program, just as I am sure there are in yours. But perhaps in recruiting for the choral program, we should adopt the philosophy that attitude trumps aptitude.