Chorus Education Programs Today

Partnering, Collaborating, and Deepening Community Connections

More and more choruses are developing in-school programs in partnership with local schools and nurturing their own youth choruses. In doing this work, they are learning that successfully involving more young people and their communities in choral singing often involves meeting them where they are.

In Pamela Shortall’s ideal world, every school would have music teachers “busting out of the seams”—orchestra, band, choir, the whole gamut. As associate director of school and community partnerships for the Chicago Children’s Choir, she’s observed a recent “Renaissance” in Chicago arts education that has left the Windy City closer to this vision than you might expect. But she knows this isn’t the case everywhere.

A U.S. Department of Education survey of public schools from 2009 (the most recent year available) found that more than 1.3 million elementary students and 832,000 secondary school students had no access to in-school music education. Perhaps more telling, Department research published in 2012 shows that elementary schools with the highest poverty concentration are significantly less likely to offer music instruction.

Given the magnitude of these challenges, Julie Haydon readily admits that her efforts directing children’s choirs for Oakland’s Cantare Con Vivo and overseeing its after-school choir program can feel like “a drop in the bucket.” Nonetheless, she believes choruses belong in the education business. “Choral music in particular has a profound way for young people to find their voice, musically and in life. This is a unique gift that the choral community can offer, and that the school community can offer. The community becomes stronger when we can share voices,” she says.

Because the need is seemingly limitless, it makes sense for choruses considering educational initiatives to stop and ask themselves an important question: What can we do to give ourselves the best chance to make a difference?

Start with self-examination

Choral leaders who have been down this path understand that the journey toward a successful choral education program begins with clarity about motives and resources. “It’s important to think about the purpose for starting the program, what you want to accomplish,” says Shortall. In other words, does it fit with your chorus’s mission? “It’s really easy to want to be all things to all people,” Shortall says, “especially when starting a new project, but if the educational component is connected to the core of a chorus’s work, it will keep [the chorus] grounded.” Maintaining that focus is key for the long haul, says Haydon, because “any new step is going to bring challenges you can’t even imagine…funding and logistics and others you can’t even think of.” If your educational initiative aligns with your mission, she says, “that will drive everything forward and people will stay committed.”

VocalEssence’s decision to establish a youth choir for Twin Cities students in 2017 was part of a broader effort by the organization, which turns 50 this season, to rethink its relationship to the community. In programming strategy discussions, associate conductor and director of learning, engagement, and community programs Phillip Shoultz says staffers started using a phrase that became a “litmus test” for the organization: “Together we sing.” That spirit plays out in the youth choir, VocalEssence Singers Of This Age (SOTA), in the sense that “we’re bringing people from diverse backgrounds together into a shared space to make music with the hope of increasing understanding,” Shoultz says.

Travis Branam, who founded the Denver-based youth ensemble VoCo (formerly 303 Choir), challenges those considering educational work to answer some tough questions. Co-presenting with Shoultz in a session at the 2018 Chorus America Conference, he asked choral leaders, “Do you really want to do community work? Or are you more motivated by the chance to be in charge of your own ensemble?” And he asked singers, “Do you just want a place for you and people like you to belong?”

Alysia Lee, the founder and artistic director of Sister Cities Girlchoir and coordinator of fine arts for the Maryland State Department of Education, cautions choral leaders to examine their missions particularly closely if increasing diversity is a goal. She feels it’s time to move beyond commonly practiced, “paternalistic” ideas about bringing diversity to “the opera/choral/orchestral world.” People of color are still underrepresented, she says. “That has not changed in 20 years. So is that an important goal that we have multicultural orchestras? Or is the goal that we make sure that every kid has the opportunity to engage in music making that’s of a high quality and that allows them to be creative?”

Once you feel confident that your music education goals jibe with your mission and values, you need to think about the human resources, says Lauren Southard, director of outreach and choir programs for the Indianapolis Children's Choir (ICC). What is your capacity for taking on something new? Do you have the right staff structure? What are the skill sets required for your initiative? For instance, she says, do you have someone ready to work with kids? For classroom work, do they have a solid idea of what they want the curriculum to represent?

If, after all of this self-examination, you find yourself even more daunted by the immensity of the ocean you’ve decided to navigate, Haydon has five words of advice: Go deep before you go wide. “It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed when I think of how many thousands I want to offer [our resources] to.” But, she’s found, “if you are just doing a surface-level program with a lot of different kids, you’re not having as deep an impact. If we spread ourselves too thin, we would not be as life changing as we can be when we go deep.”

Learn to collaborate

When it comes to establishing partnerships with schools and others who can connect your chorus to young people, experienced choral educators agree the first step is to get out into the community, observe, ask questions, and listen in order to find out where the gaps are. When the ICC works with a school, Southard says “we always have to make it clear that we’re not taking the place of what’s already there. We have to give them something ‘beyond.’ For us to exist in the community and be valued by the community, we have to value what they already have.” Shoultz agrees, which is why SOTA takes a workshop-based approach, “augmenting what they’re already providing in the schools. It’s important that we draw a line in the sand that we never have community organizations or professional organizations going into the schools to replace what the schools should be providing.”

Then the task turns to establishing relationships and lines of communication. You will need to build a long-term relationship if you’re going to make a difference, Haydon says. Lay out expectations right away and find out who your partner’s key voices are. Principals come and go, which is why teachers are critical allies. And if the music teachers are stretched thin, “your best advocate may be the art teacher or security guard,” Shortall notes. Most successful collaborations start with a lot of clarity, she says. “With that you can address problems right at the beginning—before there’s a problem.”

Even then, some schools or community organizations will need you to be flexible. The principal may have signed an agreement to provide you with a classroom every week, but when you show up you regularly find the space is being used for detention. When something like that happens, “you can feel as though the school is not responsive,” Lee says, and you have to let them know it’s not OK. But realize that, especially at underfunded schools, “the principal has a thousand loose ends to deal with every day.”

When working with a school like that, she says, you can help it to be a good partner. Grow the collaboration gradually, Lee advises. For a school to arrange a full year of programming with Sister Cities GirlChoir, the school must participate in a successful shorter-term program. “We don’t marry till we’ve dated,” Lee says. In regular check-ins, she works with school staff on problem solving. “Break it into small steps so they understand the importance of stability. Are the buses paid for? Are permission slips getting to the office?” If their budget is large enough, it also helps if the school or community partner “has some skin in the game,” says Haydon. If they’ve contributed financially to the partnership—by hiring a liaison to your program, for example—“it shows they value your time and commitment.”

Shoultz laid the groundwork for SOTA through year-long residency partnerships with four Twin Cities public schools serving largely African American and Asian American communities. He spread the word about his plans for a citywide choir first by reaching out to students in classrooms and lunchrooms, and via all-school announcements. But he found the most important connection he had to make was with parents. Many of the people he dealt with don’t speak English. To add to the challenge, he had to cold call parents asking permission for their children to join the choir. “I got hung up on several times,” he says. “They’d tell me, ‘I don’t know you. Why should I let my child sing with you?’” An introductory video helped him get his foot in a few doors, enough to attract 40 singers to SOTA’s first rehearsal. Parents are any youth music education program’s “real constituents,” says Lee. For that reason, she believes “families need to be the key audience at some of your performances—programs molded for them to celebrate the success of their kids”.

Even with the most sincere intentions and the best of plans, not every partnership works. A school may face major issues that prevent it from giving your music education initiative the attention it needs. At that point, says Southall, it may be best to “bless and release.” Start with a candid conversation, she advises. “If I can communicate with the key person, I probably won’t walk away, but if not, I usually know it’s time.” Even then, it may not mean you’re walking away forever, she says. “You can take a break for a year or two to give the school time to get organized.”

Prepare for logistical challenges: There and Back Again

Obtaining permissions, confirming classroom availability, getting in touch with a decision-maker when you really need an answer…. There’s no end to the list of logistical hurdles choruses developing educational programs are bound to face. At the beginning of most everyone’s list is transportation. When youth choirs are part of your program and rehearsals and concerts don’t take place at the schools singers attend, transportation may become your problem. Parents don’t always own cars. Budgeting for transportation can be “nightmarish,” says Lee. The cost is high "and it takes a lot of administrative time, but it’s a necessary evil."

To get singers to concerts, bus transportation tends to be the go-to option. Choral education programs also coordinate carpooling, and sometimes they introduce older children to public transportation. For its inaugural season, SOTA experimented with using local cab companies to deliver singers to rehearsal. The plan evolved over the course of the year, largely in response to choir members’ feedback, and ultimately SOTA decided not to stick with cabs as a primary transportation method. The point, says Shoultz, is that it’s important “to be in dialogue with our constituents, to ask questions, learn from them, and admit when something’s not working.”

Members of the Detroit Children’s Choir rely heavily on public transportation. The system is “not the best,” says executive program and operation manager Paola Smith-Marquez, and when winter brings snow to Detroit, as it often does, the city “collapses” and rehearsal attendance drops by 50 percent or more. But it provides a path to Symphony Hall, or to Michigan Central train station, where the choir was invited to join Detroit rapper Big Sean to celebrate Ford Motor Company’s grand plan to turn the crumbling landmark into a symbol of a Detroit Renaissance. For Smith-Marquez, this kind of access makes the logistical problems worth it. “When you expose yourself to an environment that brings you to really nice places,” she says, “it’s a unique experience for our kids.” The opportunities change the way these young singers see themselves as well as their perception of the city. “Right now being a Detroiter is cool,” says Smith-Marquez. “Detroit is changing and these kids are seeing that change.”

Reexamine your thinking about repertoire and standards

“What are the kids going to sing?”

Introducing the Chorus America Conference panel on in-school partnerships, Lee said that’s often the first thing she’s asked about her program. She thinks repertoire can become a hot-button issue for music educators, because “classical musicians get very fearful of losing art forms.” Instead, she says, “We have to allow for evolution to take place. We should all be thinking of ourselves as lovers of music. And so the dream here is that music education continues, that music survives, not necessarily my style that I prefer.”

Lee believes the real question to ask about repertoire is, “What guides how we want to portray ourselves?” Her main goal is to create connection with the community. While she works to make sure “there’s enough artistically in the music,” she also insists on repertoire that is “reflective of the times we live in and gives voice to people that don’t have platforms to speak for themselves.”

An approach like that usually suggests you’ll be looking beyond the choral music canon for much of your repertoire. “It’s a challenge to program something outside your comfort zone because you don’t have all the answers,” says Shoultz. So with SOTA, he looks for musicians experienced in world music and popular genres to help him work with his singers. The lesson Branam has learned bringing rappers, indie rockers, and others to perform with VoCo is that conductors need “a willingness to cultivate relationships with artists who you never thought you’d find yourself in a room with, because at the end of day that’s what we in the choral world are asking other people to do,” expecting choral standards to “resonate with the entire universe.”

Shoultz is aiming to transform people’s notion of what a choir can be. “People have ‘choir’ painted into a little box,” he feels. But when you bring together people from different backgrounds and show respect for the music they love—whether it’s hip-hop, dance music, world music, or something else—choir can be “cool,” he says. “You reflect the community you’re singing for, and that is powerful. That choir is not only cool; it’s a way to create change in the world.”

Shoultz believes the door he’s opening will swing both ways, that his singers will try to understand why he loves Bach. Branam has a similar aspiration for VoCo: “My hope is that you walk in door because of a specific artist or style that we’re doing, but that you stay for the [music] that’s not what you’re most naturally inclined toward.”

These choral educators insist that becoming “cool” and building community do not require a compromise in standards. In his Conference session, Shoultz argued there is not “a standard; it’s a continuum of experiences, of ‘excellences.’” He says conductors have a responsibility to know what is “authentically excellent” in every style their chorus performs. “Every style has attributes we should be seeking to amplify.” For its in-school programs, Smith-Marquez says the Detroit Children’s Choir “customizes” styles and sources for each school, “so we’re going to bring a piece of music in a native African language, or maybe Spanish or another language, depending on the school.” When the choir brings together singers from all over the city, each school gets to share its music with the others. But the rehearsal structure is the same in each school, says Smith-Marquez, using standard exercises and curriculum.

Learning to read music is not the thing that gets most kids to join a youth chorus, but Shoultz finds “they will work hard to do something they can be proud of.” Haydon observes the same response among students in Cantare Con Vivo’s Kodaly-oriented in-school program. For them, she says, a quarter note becomes more than a note “somebody told them about; it’s a piece of knowledge they own and love by the time they’re learned to put a name to it.” While the Kodaly approach has a reputation for centering on Hungarian or Anglo music, Haydon says “we make a real effort to use music from all over the world to reflect our student population.”

Lee feels the performance standards her conservatory training focused on, facility and precision, are not enough for working in the community arts field. “While precision is wonderful,” she says, “we know that people who make it to the highest level have the precision and the expression.” So when she observes the work of public school music teachers, which is part of her job for the Maryland State Department of Education, she is most impressed by educators “who are walking this fine line between skill and expression, and really trying to help kids find a place in the middle. That’s how we connect.”

Measure your impact

Because excellence is a core value at the Chicago Children’s Choir, the organization is eager to know what difference that makes for its singers. So the CCC surveys them to find out about that and other concerns. Employing the Likert scale, the survey asks choir members how much they agree with statements like “I try to do my very best,” or “I don’t give up when things are difficult.” The responses show “they’re doing that, they’re really getting it,” and she adds, “what’s really exciting is we’re seeing that across the board at every level and every demographic.” There are “tons of assessment tools” available for educators who want to track learning, performance, and socioemotional goals, says Lee. Her advice is to “decide what your goals are and find one that’s tested and approved to track whatever is valuable to you.” At the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, “we’re constantly judging ourselves,” says Southard. The choir re-auditions singers every year and conducts music theory assessments. Directors invite older singers to write to them twice a year about their experiences and goals. “It gives us a lot to go on,” she says.

Equally important to many educators are their own observations of the behavior showing what young singers gain from their choral experiences. Smith-Marquez remembers a timid boy with a tiny voice who surprised her by volunteering to solo in a Christmas concert one year. “It was amazing,” she says. “I was like, ‘Who are you and what did you do with that shy little kid?’” She cherishes stories like this because she noticed from the first that a guarded, withdrawn look is not uncommon among the Detroit kids she works with. Many of them live in unsafe neighborhoods, she says. “Sometimes they call and say ‘I can’t get to rehearsal because of a shooting around here.’ They’re growing up in fear.” Smith-Marquez and her colleagues work with them, tell them they’re valuable, help them gain confidence. “We give them the decision-making. We ask them, ‘OK guys, who wants to be soloist today? Just stand up straight; you can do it. It’s OK to feel fear.”

The underlying message, she says, is “you’re safe with us.” As she said as she concluded her panel presentation at the Chorus America Conference, her aim at the Detroit Children’s Choir is to “create a space for kids to discover self-love.”

Don Lee is the managing editor of the Voice, as well as a media producer, editor, writer, and amateur choral singer who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. At NPR in Washington DC, he was the executive producer of Performance Today.