Find your choir's "why"

by David Edmonds, R&R Chair for Student Activities

Every spring, in my Secondary Choral Methods class, I implore my future teachers to make a practice of writing each class’s rehearsal goals on the board at the beginning of their teaching day. This is a practice I picked up from a veteran choir director while I was still a young teacher, and I very quickly learned the value of this simple exercise.

Having our rehearsal goals visible on the board immediately brought a sense of purpose to each day’s class, and although it certainly wasn’t a magic bullet (somehow, our freshman boys still needed plenty of instruction on how to sit in a chair properly) these goals were a strong motivator in our day-to-day activities as a group. When class began, I could point to our goals and say, “we’ve got a great deal of work to do today!” and they didn’t have to just take my word for it—the goals were right there for them to see. When we moved successfully through a goal on the board, I could congratulate them sincerely and specifically on the task they had accomplished and, conversely, when we got bogged down in trying to achieve a goal I could come to a stop and tell them, “we didn’t get this accomplished today, and we must move on to the rest of our goals.” But rather than becoming a failure, as it might have felt to them had they not known the goal ahead of time, it instead became an as-yet-to-be-accomplished task for another rehearsal. It connected the days into a weekly and monthly process and gave us a greater sense of direction.

Since those days of teaching high school, I still try to do this regularly with the choirs here at the University of Montana. Though I might disseminate the information differently (I’ve sent out rehearsal plans via text, Facebook Messenger, posted online, etc.) the value has always remained. All this from simply writing our goals out each day…

It only took me about ten years(!) to think about extending this idea of goal-writing to “bigger picture” concepts like mission statements and choir purpose. Having always been an educator, I had felt that mission statements were perhaps beneficial for corporations but that they were rather silly and a waste of time in the world of education. After all, don’t we all know why we do what we do? Don’t we all feel the importance of education to society? But this was simply naïve on my part. Yes, of course, we all feel the importance of a quality education—it’s likely one of the reasons we became educators ourselves—but why, specifically, is singing in a choir important? Why are we choir directors? For what purpose do our specific choirs exist? What impact do we hope to have?

Ask these inquiries, and you’ll get as many answers as people to whom you present the questions. And that is where a mission statement comes in. So, what is your choir’s “Why Statement”? Last fall, the Chamber Chorale here at UM startled tackling this question. I can’t recommend enough creating a “Why Statement” for your choir. Not only will it serve to give greater purpose and direction to your group’s activities, but I can all but guarantee that you and your students will come to some valuable insights about why they sing, why they participate in a choir and what impact they hope to have as members of a music group, thereby providing a sense of purpose and direction to the day-to-day activities of the group. Here are a few things we found that have helped our process:

1) Don’t expect to create a finished product in an hour. We started these questions at our fall retreat, then spent more time working on it in sectionals a few weeks later, and have been continually refining our group “Why Statement” ever since.

2) Grab mission statements and core belief statements from other groups online. If your students have never been part of this process, having some good (and not so good) examples can be very helpful. Just be mindful not to copy or to be too heavily influenced by other statements.

3) Let the students do most of the “heavy lifting.” Remember, 32 heads are better than one. It’s scary sometimes (and I speak as a bit of a control freak) but you’ll be glad they input as much as they did—they’ll own it.

4) Guide the student discussion with concise questions. Some questions we used include:

a. Who are we as individuals and as a group?
b. Why do we do what we do?
c. What do we hope to accomplish as a team?
d. What will it take to achieve our goals?
e. What makes our choir unique?

5) Split up into different groups so the students can interact with different members (by section, by grade level, in pairs or very small groups). Sometimes meeting all together can be intimidating and limit the input from many members.

6) Keep a running list of the statements your group makes. Here were some of our “how” and “what” statements after one or two go-arounds working toward our “why”:

a. Through our mutual trust we become free to challenge each other genuinely (how)
b. We use our voices which are unique, personal, and vulnerable (how/what)
c. We build community through trust and safety (how/what)

7) Finally, don’t be afraid to revisit and refine your choir’s “why” statement from time to time. One of the things I despair at each year is that 25%-30% of the choir graduates! But this can also present an opportunity to take another look at your “why” statement and make sure each ‘new’ choir resonates with the core of the mission.

A final confession: we’re still in the middle of this process! Our goal is to have a viable statement before the end of the semester. Once finished, I plan to include this statement on all UM Choir syllabi, on a (non-cheesy) poster in our rehearsal space, and everywhere our members and our community might interact with the UM Choirs. I hope you’ll consider beginning the process to create a “why” statement. If you have already done so, please share what has worked (and not worked) for you and your choir!

~David Edmonds
University of Montana School of Music