Elizabeth Batey, R&S Chair for Middle School Choirs, Idaho ACDA
In my teaching career I’ve had the opportunity to teach in three very distinct, very different school districts in the northwest. Oddly enough, my first school district was urban, my current school district is suburban, and the third district, in which I have spent the majority of my time, is rural. Each position has had certain advantages and challenges depending upon socio-economic status of the students, administrative support, and the content I was required to teach.
Most of our Idaho ACDA members are rural choral directors. The reality of our great state of Idaho, and many states like ours is that we may be the only music instructor in the district or one of a handful in your district. We live where agriculture abounds and are literally surrounded by it. When I open up the back door to my choir room I can see a pasture of goats. At my last school, the grounds were surrounded by beet fields. This can be challenging when trying to create a choral program that will be respected and cherished by your school and community. While I am not an expert on the subject, I have had some success as a rural choral director and I’d like to share some of my tips and tricks for building and maintaining a choral program in a rural area.
Attend as many choral/musical professional development opportunities as you possibly can. For me, this means attending the annual October ACDA retreat in Sun Valley, Idaho to work with clinicians from around the country. When you are the only music teacher in the building, the district, the town, or the county, it helps to hone your craft as often as you can. Most of the time I pay for these trips out of my own pocket but I feel like it is money well spent. There are institutions, such as CapEd, who will sponsor teachers to go to conferences, they just take a little more work on your part. If conferences won’t work, a Masters may be an avenue worth exploring. The important thing is to stay on top of your game and hone your craft.
The teachers you meet while at conferences are invaluable! It is important to write down e-mail addresses and enter numbers into your phone. Then when you are working on a unit of solfege and remember the gentlemen from Boise who had an amazing lesson on teaching intervals, you can e-mail him and ask for the lesson plans.
Perhaps you are in an area where there are no jazz festivals within 250 miles, but you discover a teacher in a neighboring town is working on a jazz unit at the same time you are. You could arrange a mini-choir festival where your choir takes a field trip to their school for the day, you rehearse a combined number, and the other teacher hosts a scat workshop while you work with the combo. Both choirs share a concert that night. The possibilities are limited only by your budget and your imagination.
Share facilities, music and equipment
One thing I never have enough of is money. If you are a choir teacher who has a surplus please share your secrets! For the rest of us, sharing your resources may be the way to go.
I love it when my colleagues invite me to raid their music libraries, it’s almost like Christmas! If your choirs cannot fit on your risers, a fantastic problem to have, ask if you could borrow a few sets from a neighboring school. All it takes is a little sweat and time.
At my current school, I do not have an auditorium and I’m the type of director who refuses to perform in a gym. My choices are to go to another school with an auditorium or to find another acoustically pleasing location. Luckily, the high school I feed into has been gracious enough to host us and provide us with the equipment we need to have our concerts. You may have to pay a fee to rent a facility but it is often worth it to help your students feel successful.
A note on borrowing someone else’s facilities, music, or equipment; treat it better than you would your own. My mother taught me to leave someone’s home in better condition than when I arrived. When things have gone wrong, I have offered to replace or cover the cost of any damage incurred. Also, a token of thanks for their consideration is always appreciated and thoughtful.
Providing Performance Attire
Middle school choir programs may not have the budget or resources to provide the performance attire we would all desire. If you are not a stickler for formal attire, a choir t-shirt can be purchased for under $10 in most cases. If that is still outside of your student’s economic capabilities, choose a color and ask the students to dress accordingly. For example, our school colors are red and black, so I have asked my students to dress in all black with red accessories. I try not to stress the parents out, so I encourage my students to borrow from siblings, parents, friends, or as a last resort, go thrift store shopping. When it comes to my concerts, the last thing I want to think about is if they all matching perfectly. Would I like that? Yes. Will it ever happen at this school? Probably not. If you must have matching attire, consider choir robes. You can find robes on Craig’s List or donated from area churches. It’s truly amazing what people will give away to your program, if you ask.
This is a delicate subject in many schools and districts. A choir program is an expensive program. I try and fund-raise as little as possible. It makes me very uncomfortable to sell products. Even if I encourage the students not to, some go door to door. Instead, I have set up a donation account through my district where parents can simply donate if they have the funds instead of buying a product where the choir only gets 50%, at best, of the profits.
Another option is to have a benefit concert or recital. I’ve had students who couldn’t afford to go to All-State in the past so they put on a concert and asked for donations to help them get there. You would be surprised how much you will receive.
I was mentoring a first year band teacher who was not familiar with how to budget for the year and he spent his entire account before festival. When he realized the mistake he simply told the parents they were short funds to go to festival and placed a box on the edge of the stage stating that anything they could donate would help them get there. By the end of the concert he had made more money than I had selling candy bars for a month.
Cross Over to the “Dark Side”
Get involved with as many other programs at your school as you possibly can. When you have a smaller school, many times you may struggle to get students into the choir room. If you make yourself visible, accessible, approachable and fun the students will find you organically. Some suggestions are to coach if you have a knack for basketball, or help out the National Junior Honor Society on their latest project. It takes more effort, but the reward is immense.
Advocate for your Program
Get out in the school and community and show them what a valuable asset choir is to our culture and students’ well-being. Sing at the retirement homes, organize a choir volunteer project for the community, or carol through the holidays Don’t forget to serenade the principal and staff members on their birthdays, offer to provide the entertainment at a faculty party or community event, or sing the National Anthem at the next district board meeting. The ideas are endless and your students will help you come up with them if you give them the chance. If you integrate yourself into the fabric of the community they will be there to support you when you truly need it.
I think it’s funny I’m talking about technology because I’m technologically illiterate in most cases. However, when we find ourselves removed from our colleagues and struggling for ideas on how to teach a concept in a fresh way, or needing help with translations, or any number of other problems unique to our profession, technology may be the answer.
I love the Internet. When I need to demonstrate excellent breathing and terrible breathing technique, YouTube has millions of examples for my students. I can Skype my friends at the University of Idaho for help on translations and pronunciations. There are apps for teaching music in fun and interactive ways. These days there is not much that cannot be accomplished through technological means.
This seems like a no-brainer, but it is so important. We must plan and execute our concerts with our students, administration, and audience in mind. Far too often, I find myself looking through music and wanting to choose pieces for myself. What would I like to teach? What would sound great and cast me in a positive light? What pieces are most impressive? These are natural thoughts and it is okay to think about these questions as you choose music for your ensembles. However, we must remember that our ears and tastes have been developed through our training and musical experiences, which may not translate to our students.
Here are the questions I ask myself first, before I decide to teach any piece of music. (1) Does this piece teach the concepts that my students need to learn? (2) Will it challenge them without being frustrating? (3) Will my administration be impressed by the cross curricular nature of the piece? (4) Will the parents enjoy sitting through this song? To make it into my concert repertoire, I must have answered yes to at least three of the four questions.
It can be a lonely job being a rural choral director, but remember you are making a difference and there is a way to accomplish your goals. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to e-mail me as I would love to hear what has worked for you. May you all have a wonderful and successful year!
*These tips and tricks were used for a middle school choral program and can be modified or adjusted for a high school or elementary choral program.