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9-19-18

Shared Language, Shared Pedagogy, Real Growth:
Choral Literacy and Standards

 
 

by Dr. Geoffrey Boers

A few years ago, I found myself in a bit of an argument with Stu Hunt, long time choral educator and founder of the Four Minute Mastery music reading curriculum, as we were wrestling with the definition of music literacy. He, a champion of musicianship skills, argued for the importance of reading. But I was looking for a broader definition, as, having had the opportunity to travel extensively and work with choirs of all ages and abilities around the world, I felt as if I had heard excellence, hence literacy, demonstrated in a wide variety ways. Conversely, I have heard choirs demonstrate excellence in one area while, seemingly by their performance, were illiterate in other aspects of choral singing. One of my favorite high school choirs sang well very difficult repertoire, yet could not read music at a basic level. A church choir could read anything I put in front of them but demonstrated illiteracy in vocal technique. A college choir impressed me at a convention with flawless intonation, while both phrasing and vocal technique suffered. Moreover, profession-wide we there is a disparity of literacy between teachers in various aspects of choral teaching. Considering literacy in vocal pedagogy, much research points to the reality that most singers do not learn to sing well in the ensemble setting. Some teachers may be expert in achieving a unified “choral tone” while not attending to the singers’ voices, while others who teach voice well and whose ensemble artistry suffers. With regard to literacy of expression and artistry, when I ask conductors “what is it you want here,” the most common answer is “I don’t know.”

Stu took it upon himself to hunt for possible curriculum, scopes and sequences, and standards in choral music. Finding a few rubrics for adjudication here and there, some state standards full of non-performance based generalities, he asked leaders in both ACDA and NAfME, and came up empty. After looking at the NAfME national website and discovering rubrics and standards for Band, Orchestra, General Music, Jazz, Guitar, Technology, and Theory but no Choral Rubric, Stu looked to the band world for help.

There, he found an old American College Band rubric from many years ago. This graded rubric, as do other similar charts, clearly defines musical, pedagogical, and skill goals for instrumentalists, grades one through six. Developed nearly fifty years ago, today most music and teaching tools written for band is graded utilizing this rubric. This allows new teachers regardless of placement, or any teacher faced with any combination of instrumentation, or any seasoned teacher moving to a new position to quickly gain appropriate teaching resources and methods.

Why No Choral Standards?

Band and orchestra long have benefited from a rubric of goals and markers of development for their ensembles from beginning to advanced. These markers reflect growth of technique on the instrument, as well as musicianship skills and artistry, all of which are reflected in resource materials and repertoire. But choir has curiously never had such a rubric. Why?—for  two good reasons. First, the variation of ability levels within our ensembles. We do not start collectively in the fifth grade with new instruments and workbooks and move through the years together. Each of our choirs are a challenging mix of beginners, advanced singers, singers who can read, singers whose instruments are changing beyond their control, or a mix of voices well-nourished, hungry, sick, or challenged by time of rehearsal. These variations of age, experience, physical development, and limitations make it impossible to create a grade-based rubric for choirs. Hence, existing rubrics lean toward the knowing about, rather than the doing of music.

Second, ensembles growth is not determined by age, or grade. Our University Chorus at the University of Washington is open to anyone who has not sung before and would like to learn. It attracts a wide variety of students, but predominantly ESL students who wish for an arts credit. Language challenges, low motivation, and no experience makes this college choir, using the band rubric, Grade 1. Last year I worked with a primary choir in Canada, so disciplined that it could read better than most beginning high school choirs, and sang in multiple parts and languages with sophistication. Which grade would they be?

The Need for a System of Goals, Markers of Literacy: Curriculum, Assessment and Adjudication

The lack of goals, mileposts, or markers of development creates great challenges in the choral profession in three areas:  Curriculum, that is, knowing what to teach, Assessment, both for the purposes of determining appropriate levels of instruction and student growth, and Adjudication, receiving reliable, consistent and helpful feedback for professional growth which provides a road map for further ensemble growth.

Developing curriculum and determining what to teach is a challenge for many teachers. Remarkably, within this past year I have spoken with a doctoral conducting student with vast experience suddenly needing resources to teach elementary school music; a Jewish student, a fine conductor with no background with church choirs, yet with an opportunity to conduct one; a teacher new to the area from across the country—expert in the sound and standards of another region—with a new job struggling to find methodology to match the teaching at his new home; a band director in a district struggling financially, is asked to take over the choir program; all of whom needing a tool to know what teach, so that they can look into the many resources that provide ideas for how to teach.

With the advent of greater attention to State and National Standards, and the expectation that goals and outcomes of teaching are posted, taught, and effectively measured, choral directors are placed in a difficult position—how to create curriculum goals without a rubric. In the words of one respected music educator, “we make [stuff] up!” Traditional choral assessment is commonly an end-of-term “Quartets” test for SATB choirs (and variations thereof for other voicings), where the conductor listens to the choir in individual quartets and gives a subjective assessment of each student’s performance. This exam, neither reliable, nor objective, only tests the ability to be part independent on learned songs—a very limited assessment. It is nigh impossible to provide reliable data to an administrator that clearly demonstrates growth, and more importantly, the need for students to remain in choir to become literate.

Finally, all teachers regardless of expertise and success need professional feedback and inspiration for growth.  Our current systems of adjudication rarely if ever provide this rare opportunity for individualized professional development. The ratings of I,II, III are, as is assessment, subjective and not reliable. The idea of a I or the meaning of 100 on a point total system varies from place to place, contest to contest, adjudicator to adjudicator. Even systems that train adjudicators to create an even playing field are awarding high school singers scores in the 90’s.  This is fraught with problems for all: the adjudicator has to find a reason to score school X 1 point lower than school Y, or soprano W 1 point lower than soprano Z, creating language of criticism in the process. Equally challenging is how does a choir or conductor improve once they have scored in the high 90’s? What do I say during a phone call (which occurs nearly every year), from a teacher who wants to quit teaching because they only get II’s at contest and the students are devastated? How can I encourage a high school recruit to sing in college if they have already been the best? Finally, how often to adjudicate a performance of a piece that has been overworked by an ensemble, never to be sung again post-adjudication? Adjudication must provide road maps forward in addition to assessment of past work.

The solution seemed to rest in naming literacies that defined the varied aspects of choral performance and musicianship, and to create a tool of what literacy looked and sounded like at every level of development. Since these goals and markers cannot be grade-based, they must be level-based.

LEVEL-BASED Choral Literacies and Standards

After pondering nearly forty years of conducting, teaching, adjudicating, and workshopping choirs of all ages and types, languages and cultures, abilities and goals, I began to list qualities of excellence and layer them from beginner to professional. When working with these layers of excellence, for example, how choirs learn resonance and vowels, and considering the whole of the descriptors from beginner to professional, it seemed most appropriate to divide the progression of literacy in six levels of development.

Second, I perused many adjudication systems, both instrumental and vocal, for descriptions of desired performance outcomes, language used, organization, distinction between age or ability, and scoring. Needless to say, considering the whole of forms and resources studied language was vague and inconsistent, distinction between ages or ability was ineffective, and scoring subjective.

Language, consistency, clarity, reliability became the foundations of what was to be formed. Literacy became defined in three general areas, Vocal Technique, Artistry, and Music Reading. Within these areas it was important to clearly define each element. Vocal Technique was then broken into two large areas: Tonal Technique, that is, all literacies relevant to resonance and aspects of performance affected by it, and Breath Technique, that it, all literacies referring to breath management and its application.

Twelve Literacies

Tonal Technique and Breath Technique were each divided into four specific areas of literacy. Tonal Technique was defined by Resonance and Vowels, as well as three other performance aspects that are related to tone: Blend and Balance, Vocal Facility and Independence, and Intonation. Breath Technique was defined as Breath Management, as well as three other performance aspects involving use of breath: Dynamics, Articulation, and Diction. Artistry was defined by two literacies, Rhythm and Expression. Finally, Music Reading was defined by literacies in reading Rhythm and Musical Markings, and Melody, Intervals, and Audiation. The result was the definition of choral performance and musicianship in TWELVE areas of literacy.

Finally, each of the twelve literacies were defined by specific markers of development within each level of development. What resulted was a rubric of positive outcomes, markers defining what excellence means at every level.

Defining Choral Literacies and Standards

Choral Literacies and Standards, or CLaS, is a six-level system for developing choral literacy in performance and reading, as defined by the twelve areas of literacy. The six levels are defined by ability and experience rather than age, they are:

LEVEL 1: Entry Level Choirs of All Ages
LEVEL 2: Elementary and Middle School Choirs, emerging High School, Church or
Community Choirs, non-auditioned Collegiate Choirs.
LEVEL 3: Advanced Middle School, Junior High Choirs, many High School, Church,
Community and entry-level Collegiate Choirs.
LEVEL 4: Advanced High School Choirs, excellent Church and Community Choirs, many
Collegiate Choirs.
LEVEL 5: Advanced Collegiate, Church and Community Choirs, many Semi-Professional
Choirs.
LEVEL 6: Top Professional and Semi-Professional Choirs, a rare Collegiate Choir.

These descriptions of literacies, mileposts of development, markers of mastery at each level provides an important resource for choral directors of all kinds:

CLaS is a curriculum guide made up of positive markers of development for all singers of all levels of ability. This curriculum guide gives teachers, districts and administrators a scope, sequence, and common language to build curriculum and collect level appropriate resources and repertoire.
CLaS defines vocal technique, musical technique, artistry, and music reading as literacies. As singers grow in these areas, they grow in musical literacy—singers and teachers alike learn ways to become more well-rounded and successful as they grow.
CLaS is an Assessment tool for Ensembles and Individuals. This system allows teachers to track ensemble and individual progress throughout the year, as well as receive consistent outside feedback. Meaningful data can be collected, and administration can know exactly the learning goals and outcomes.
CLaS is an Adjudication tool. This process allows adjudicators to use the same language as is being used in the classroom, to focus their listening, and to give useful and reliable feedback, and provide a “road map” for future growth.
CLaS encourages Music Reading Skill Development. CLaS has created from ten to thirty music reading assessments for every level, 1.0-1.9, 2.0-2.9 etc. and provides reading examples of the assessments for Treble Voices, Tenor/Bass Ensembles, and Mixed Choirs. Every choir can be taught and assessed at their specific ability level.

CLaS as a Whole

The entire rubric represents a lifetime of choral growth, each singers and teacher can define their level of mastery using the rubric. It is humbling and overwhelming to read the entire rubric as each of us will recognize areas of strengths and areas that need more attention. The good news is that all of us can grow!

Since the amount of information on the CLaS rubric can be overwhelming, it was decided to create a simplified poster for classroom use, the CLaS All Levels Intro Poster which lays out an easy to understand goal for each literacy and level. These goals can be easily used for posting for assessment purposes. A CLaS All Levels Detailed Poster is also available and is a great tool for conductors and choirs to work together to set goals throughout the year.

Assessment with CLaS

Teachers can easily use the CLaS as an assessment tool. Teachers are encouraged to use the descriptors in each area to assess each ensemble’s literacy level at the beginning of each school year. This will help the director choose appropriate repertoire and methods. The tool can be used to assess individuals as well, and then throughout the year. With continued assessment, it is easy to show student growth through the year to administrators. As no director will ever cover all of the literacies or markers in one year, it is easy to show administrators and singers the need for continued participation in vocal ensembles.

Adjudication with CLaS

The adjudication process is among the most dynamic of applications of CLaS. Teachers will self-assess using the CLaS tool prior to adjudication. The self-assessed score will be reported to the contest organizer who, in turn, will put the self-assessed score on the adjudication sheet. The adjudicator will use a form that uses the exact goals and language that the choir has used for the year. If a teacher self-assesses at 2.7, then the Adjudicator will use a LEVEL 2 Adjudication form. The feedback then can be focused on literacies rather than only repertoire, and will use language the choir has been using. Finally, given that literacies are grouped together, the layout of the form allows adjudicators to provide a “road map” for teaching post contest.

A Year of Testing and Growing

CLaS was tested during the 2017-18 school year in schools, districts, and regions, in three states and British Columbia. As a result of the testing, the forms were simplified, language improved, and instructions developed to help teachers, contest organizers, and adjudicators easily use the forms.

CLaS and Future Applications: Repertoire and Resources, Conventions, Competitions and Composition

The potential applications for the CLaS tool are many. The tool has been used in its initial phases for assessment of repertoire and even in composition! It is possible that a website can be developed that serves as a level-based research tool for repertoire. Imagine needing to find repertoire for your 2.7 level choir and have specific and vetted repertoire at that level available.

It is possible that CLaS can be tied to music teaching resources such as music reading curriculunm. Already the CLaS tool has been connected to one music reading program, Four Minute Mastery. If your same choir needs 2.7 in repertoire, but reads at a 1.5, it will be possible to find resources that specifically work with that level and be able to know where to start.

CLaS can re-define how we think about organizing conventions. It is possible to organize certain Session Hours by levels, rather than specific genre of choirs. Imagine all Level-one teachers together, studying a particular aspect of teaching, while all other levels do the same. The entire convention could take on an issue of teaching, yet explore it by levels. It would also be possible to do cross-level education and mentoring with sessions that engage teachers of all levels to share, encourage, and give wisdom to those in levels above and below.

CLaS can re-define competition. Dividing competition by school size has been a way to mitigate the advantage that some suburban schools have over rural schools with regard to talent pool. However, excellence and literacy is being experienced in every type of school. Imagine a State competition not divided by 1A-6A, but Level 1 through Level 5.

Finally, composers can use the CLaS tool to help define what a quality composition can be at every level. How often middle school teachers complain of the challenge of finding accessible repertoire that has engaging texts. How often does an enthusiastic teacher program music that is two had for their choir because all the “good” music is for colleges. Already notable composers are enthusiastically looking at the tool as an inspiration to create quality master works for choirs of all ability levels.

Conclusion

Shared language is at the heart of every family. Inside jokes, funny stories, grandpa telling about the old days, and retelling treasured memories create a web of family history and precious relationship. CLaS is a step toward creating a shared language of goals and understanding amongst choral conductors and teachers, without prescribing teaching methods and individual taste or creativity. Rather, this understood language and shared vision will help us better communicate with each other, with people outside our profession, and create a greater sense of family, as we sojourn together to nurture our choral singers.

FINE

Interested in learning more about CLaS?

Check out the READ ME FIRST document in the CLas forms bundle. Forms are free HERE

or you may contact Geoffrey Boers, boersg@uw.edu.

For examples of music reading materials please contact Stu Hunt at www.toolsforconductors.com.