Four first-year fundamentals:
a repertoire guide for not "failing" in your first year of teaching
by Stacia Cammarano, Director of Choral Music, Shadle High School, Spokane
“I don’t want to fail!” This exaggerated exclamation nags every first-year teacher as they stare down their first teaching position. We all know that teaching is not perfect, nor an exact science. We expect some ups and downs throughout the year, but, we truly want our first year to be filled with successes. We want our students to discover a love of choral music. We want to see student numbers grow in ensembles. We want to foster a welcoming and thriving choral community.
How can novice teachers be successful in that crucial first year? It comes down to repertoire selection.
After graduating from my teaching program, I searched high and low for the answer to “how do I not fail?” I interviewed friends and colleagues who had admirable and robust programs and none of them had this magic answer. But along the way I took copious notes, and after my own first year of teaching, I can confidently say that following these fundamental guidelines can ensure a positive first year experience.
Repertoire Fundamental #1: Make your students feel successful
This is the rule that trumps all other rules. No matter what you do in your first year, make your students feel successful every step of the way.
• Fall Repertoire
Select straightforward and accessible over challenging and impressive.
Many first-year teachers are surrounded by advanced choral music from their personal choral experience, particularly students who have recently graduated from strong collegiate programs. Thus, first-year teachers often program music that is too challenging for their new students. As you prepare for the first fall concert, take a step back from your personal experience and program music that will be accessible to your students and will promote a feeling of musical success. If there are complaints about the easy nature of the music, challenge students to improve vowels, expression, intonation, and stage presence. There are always musical elements to improve even after students have mastered what they consider to be the easy notes. At the end of the season, students will feel a sense of success after singing such a well-prepared concert. Choose more challenging repertoire as the year progresses and after you have assessed your students’ strengths and weaknesses.
• Delay the dream of personal favorites
Put your “repertoire bucket list” and dreams aside for now. Selecting more accessible music that will help students gain confidence will build a stable choral program. Soonja Larsen, of Eastside Catholic High School, says “helping the students gain confidence in their singing and feeling successful was a huge part to my success in building a program. I had to put my repertoire wants aside for this and assign what was attainable for their level at the time.” Once your students feel confident and your program has blossomed, then you can start programming those personal favorite compositions.
• Continue to select music that students can master
As the year continues, keep choosing music that you know your students can sing well. If students want to sing a different style of music or try something new, find repertoire selections that are obtainable but that will not overwhelm them. Be transparent when explaining your selections to them. Let them know you want everything they do this year to be a positive and successful experience.
At the end of the year, help your ensembles reflect on the specific improvements they’ve made. For my students, I created an “audio timeline” of their progress by pulling snippets from our concerts throughout the year. Unprompted, students observed and celebrated how much their vowels had improved throughout our repertoire. When students leave your class having self-identified their success, they will return in the fall energized and excited for another year of learning.
Repertoire Fundamental #2: Choose repertoire to teach specific skills
Students will know at the end of the year if they learned anything worthwhile. Combine in-class lessons with your repertoire to show students that what they are learning is beneficial to their choral experience.
Choose repertoire that will address specific challenges you have aurally identified. Examples include poor intonation, vowel formation, or pitch accuracy.
Choose a composition with a Latin text for ensembles focusing on pure vowels. When singing in Latin, there is little room for error in the five pure vowels found in the language which will allow students to hone in on clean vowel formation.
Select an arrangement of an American folksong or spiritual if you’d like to isolate poor “American” vowels stemming from students singing with their speaking voice. Talk with your students about how this piece is uniquely American in origin but that proper vowel formation is still necessary even when singing a more vernacular English text. This type of repertoire can teach ensembles to differentiate between speaking in English and singing in English.
Seek homophonic or homorhythmic songs if the students struggle with advanced rhythmic or melodic passages. Teach these sections to the whole choir at once; there will be power in numbers when all students are singing these passages.
Songs sung in unison (for beginning choirs) or with unison passages (for more advanced choirs) are a great way for students to work on intonation and ensemble listening if that is a challenge you want to address.
• Choose repertoire that can be supported and enhanced by your in-class music theory lessons
Incorporate lessons into your daily routine and have them relate to your repertoire later in class. Jeffrey Boen of Lewis and Clark High School selected repertoire that had one or two thematic lines that could be pulled out, plugged into Finale, and distributed in class for sight-reading practice. Mr. Boen would “use that line as a sight-reading warmup in the beginning of class. Then, when we would reach that point in the music [students] would have already seen it”.
Show your students real-life application of music theory concepts you are covering in class. In my program, I teach a music theory lesson once or twice a week. In my first year, we focused on note identification, singing in solfege, and writing in the counts to rhythmic examples. As the year progressed, I had students apply these technical skills to their repertoire to help them improve. If we reached a challenging passage in our song, I had students sit down and write in the rhythm counts. If there was an inaccurate interval in their line, we went over it in solfege before returning to words.
The result will be that students will see the correlation between music literacy and improved choral singing. To maximize this correlation factor, always relate your music theory lessons back to the selected repertoire.
• Keep reflecting!
At the end of the year, revisit challenges you identified at the beginning of the year and give them audio samples demonstrating this improvement. If music theory or sight-reading concepts are priorities, record class data to show growth. If a specific sight-reading program is used, go back to the easiest example and praise students on how much they have learned.
Show them that hard work, even when not singing, is paying off!
Repertoire Fundamental #3: Choose repertoire that will forge positive relationships with students
Listen to your students and consider putting your own wants aside. Choose repertoire that will engage students and promote a positive classroom atmosphere. Creating solid foundations with the students in your program is imperative for long-term success.
• Music with meaning
Several teachers suggest programing music that you already know and love. Your passion will inspire students and will help them create a meaningful connection to the music. But don’t choose a song that is out of their reach! Keep Fundamental #1 in mind. Additionally, be aware of the pitfall I fell into: do not re-teach the song with your old choir in mind. Revisit the song as a teacher and truly plan out how you are going to teach it to your new students with their unique ability and experience levels in mind.
• The power of buy-in
Before making major changes to your choir program, you need “buy-in” with your students, says Barbara Tappa of Ferris High School. Students will start to “buy-in” to your teaching style if they see, hear, and feel the improvement to their sound. Choose songs that will create buy-in with these students so that you can make changes to the program in the future if needed.
Another way to establish buy-in is to program music that will not only help your students improve their singing, but that will help them build ensemble trust and respect. In your first year with these students, program relatable and meaningful repertoire that will open up a line of vulnerable communication with students. Show them the emotional requirements of making beautiful choral music. Students will trust the changes you make if they feel confident in their singing and if they trust you as their teacher and leader.
• Meet them in the middle
Listen to students and their ideas about repertoire and performance choice. Do not compromise your own standards when it comes to selecting quality repertoire, but consider meeting students somewhere in the middle for the sake of acquiring that “buy-in” in your first year.
For example, my students wanted songs that had choreography. I responded with a firm ‘no’ to that idea but I did program an American spiritual with four percussion parts. Instead of outright ignoring my students’ request, I listened to their wishes and chose a song where it was appropriate and necessary to move and sway with the music.
An additional benefit that came with this song was the ability for me to assign percussion parts to my high achieving students who needed to be challenged. A good example was a senior boy who never seemed to warm up to me. After giving him the main djembe part, he would wave at me in the halls and finally engaged with class. When selecting repertoire, consider looking for pieces that will help you create a connection with certain students who you have not been able to create a relationship with yet.
• Keep the traditions
My high school has three songs that they sing throughout the year, every year, and students asked me on my first day if I would keep them. By keeping the songs, you are automatically ingratiating yourself into their choir lives and the school’s choir culture. These songs are important to your students so show that they mean a lot to you, too, even if they are not your first choice for repertoire selection. If a traditional song is too challenging for your choir, as I found, make arrangement modifications as needed while still respecting what this song means to your students and the school.
Repertoire Fundamental #4: Do not worry about what other teachers think
The opinions of others, both real and imagined, can plague a first-year teacher. Make repertoire choices and classroom decisions based on fundamentals #1, #2, and #3, not on what other teachers are doing or saying.
• For my fall concert, I only performed two songs per choir because I didn’t want to rush, overwhelm, or stress my new students. It was a 25-minute concert and it worked out very well for my choirs.
• For our Large Group Festival, I only performed two songs, again, because as a new teacher, I was unfamiliar with what repertoire to choose and could only find two that worked for my group. While we sang a shorter set than all of the other schools, my students still were able to showcase their best work at this performance.
In the future, several teachers suggest choosing one piece in a foreign language, one that showcases long, fluid, legato lyrical lines, and one that showcases the rhythmic or tonal challenges your students can handle.
• There were several songs this year that might have fallen into more of the pop or shtick genre. I’ve done everything this year from body percussion, to mic-ing a ukulele, to ordering a rubber chicken, to deciding which student should wear the knight helmet. But you know what? These were the songs that my students enjoyed the most. I was a little self-conscious talking to my colleagues about these silly repertoire selections but they fit with my four guidelines and consequently, they made my students feel successful, taught musical skills, and offered a fun opportunity for myself and my students to start building a positive relationship.
• In the end, remember that many of these colleagues and fellow teachers are there to help you. If you have a question about repertoire or teaching, reach out to music teachers in the area and ask for help. Utilize these four guidelines, but also utilize the experienced teachers around you.
And now with that first year of teaching behind me, I can attest that there is no perfect formula for your first year. I asked many teachers about it, and none of them had one uniform answer. But they did have exemplary advice, wisdom, and repertoire recommendations that will support a failure-free first year. As new teachers, we just want to be successful and this will look different in every teaching situation. Teaching will have its ups and downs. Prepare for the ride. Take these four fundamental guidelines with you and have a fantastic year!
PLEASE OPEN STACIA'S REP LIST. pdf LINK AT RIGHT.
Thank you to the teachers who contributed to this article:
Anonymous, Spokane WA
Jeffrey Boen, Lewis and Clark High School, Spokane WA
Matthew Johnson, University High School, Spokane Valley WA
Soonja Larsen, Eastside Catholic High School, Sammamish WA
Megan Lizama, Mount Vernon High School, Mount Vernon WA
Barbara Tappa, Ferris High School, Spokane WA
Laura Thompson, Chief Kanim Middle School, Fall City WA
Jake Winkler, Seattle Girls’ Choir, Seattle WA