Discipline in the Choral Classroom

This is not intended to be a thorough expose´ about administering discipline in the classroom.  If you are looking for such a document, we recommend that you read Chapter 15, "Discipline is a Discipline," in Teaching Choral Music.  The purpose of this little opus is to make two points which will be very beneficial if you are having difficulty motivating your students.

In some schools (particularly those in urban areas) where discipline is affected by the use of drugs, broken homes, incarcerated parents, racial tension, and poor socioeconomic conditions, teachers should seek professional help in learning how to control and motivate these students.  Outside assistance from social workers and the district school superintendent's office is usually needed and should be provided.  The following remarks relate to typical, mischievous, and fun-loving adolescents.

The first point is based upon a fundamental human need: Acceptance.  Students must feel they are contributing to the activities of the class.  They must feel they belong.  The teacher's purpose for the class must be their purpose.  Otherwise, they will go about finding a purpose which suits them better.  Making a significant contribution precipitates that feeling of acceptance.

The primary reason students (particularly boys) have difficulty making a contribution to a mid-level choral situation is because, in most cases, their voices are changing.  If many of notes they attempt to sing are either too high or too low thus creating vocal discomfort, it will be obvious to them that their contribution is minimal.  Therefore it behooves the teacher to assure that they are singing in the comfortable singing area of the voice.  It behooves the teacher to select music in which the students' range and tessitura have been given primary consideration.  The music must we written for early adolescent singers, not pre-adolescence or adults.

The question is:  Which voicing is best for choirs containing early adolescent voices -- unison, two, three, or four parts?   The number of boys enrolled in the choir provides the answer.  If there are numerous girls and only two boys, it is very difficult to perform four-part music.  On the other hand, if there are numerous girls and at least four boys, directors may be surprised at how successfully the choir can sing four parts.  Some directors are inclined to place all the boys (if there are as few as four) on one part and divide the girls into two groups (Soprano I and II), thinking that four boys can balance ten girls on each part better than two boys.  If all four boys are cambiatas or if they are all baritones, that is sound logic; but if there are at least two cambiatas and two baritones, consider this reasoning.  Contemplate the comfortable singing tessitura of both cambiatas (from A below middle C to A above middle C) and baritones (D, middle line in the bass clef up to D above middle C).  If they sing together comfortably, they must sing a part that has an overall compass of A (top line, bass clef) upward to D (above middle C), only an interval of a fourth. Directors may choose a part that is written with an overall compass of F (fourth line, bass clef) to F (above middle C), which represents a composite overall range capability of both voices, a full octave which is the range found in more SABoys music.  In either case, there are problems when the boys sing the part together.  The part will keep the baritones in the upper area of their voices all the time, which causes vocal tension, poor intonation, and unhealthy vocal results.  The same part will keep the cambiatas in the lower area of their voices all the time, which does not allow them to use the most comfortable and best-sounding tones of their vocal instruments, the tones of D (above middle C) upward to G.  Therefore, none of the boys will be able to sing in the best area of his voice.  Putting them together hampers both cambiatas and baritones.  If the two cambiatas and two baritones are allowed to sing two separate parts written specifically for them, parts that permit the boys to use the most comfortable singing area and best tones of each, two boys are more likely to balance ten girls than are four boys who are hampered by the part they must sing.  For that reason, early-adolescent choirs almost always will function better singing four parts rather than three, provided those four parts are written to accommodate to their vocal limitations.  So, when boys are singing in the comfortable area of their voices, they will feel they are making a contribution to the classroom and the teacher will have fewer discipline problems.

The second point is centered around another indispensable human need: Love.  This may sound very simple but in reality it is extremely profound.  Teachers must love their students and they must love teaching music if they expect to motivate their students.  But loving the students and the music is not enough.  Teachers must be able to communicate that love to their students.  If mid-level students understand that teachers' have their well-being in mind (really love them), the students will go to the end of the earth to please them.  Mid-level students are quite capable of discerning a teacher's intent and if they perceive self-centeredness or a hidden agenda, they are likely to be revengeful and belligerent.  Students usually will comply to various rules and regulations if they are convinced that they are for the students' well-being.  If not, they have little compulsion to comply.  So, if the students do not realize you love them, determine ways to communicate it to them – without hidden agendas.

In Teaching Choral Music, Dr. Collins offers some sage advice:

In the more than thirty years I have been teaching, I have always made this point to each class of students who have taken my methods courses:  "You do not have the right to stop teaching until after you have taught for at least three years.  It takes that long to learn the discipline of discipline.  There may be mornings you would rather stay in bed than face the difficulties of the day, but as each year passes and as you hone your skills of teaching discipline, those early-morning fears and frustrations gradually turn into feelings of satisfaction and pride.  If you give up prematurely, you have relinquished a fundamental American right:  the right to see your dreams fulfilled."

If you are having discipline problems in your classroom, seek advice and assistance, address the problems, and find relief.  Life it too short to dread and despise each day.  Teaching is a very gratifying and enjoyable experience for most teachers.  It can it be for you too!!