Critical Pedagogy for Music Education and the Choral Rehearsal

Many have asked how one applies the principles of Critical Pedagogy for Music Education to the choral rehearsal. While it is easier to write a general music lesson using a plan that focuses your thinking to problematize, prescribe, personalize and perform, many do not see how that might carry over into the choir. While the lesson plan model for classroom music does not transfer easily, the strategies and global precepts of critical pedagogy and Critical Pedagogy for Music Education do.

It is important to remember that Critical Pedagogy for Music Education is not a methodology. Methodologies imply a particular sequence of steps and an ordering of learning in a very specific way. For instance, Kodály has a very clear process by which students become musically literate. There is a procedure of preparation, presentation and practice whereby teachers introduce musical intervals in a specific and ordered way. Sol-mi is first, followed by sol-mi-la, etc. The Kodály experience is rich in folk material that is indigenous to the culture and in play party songs (sometimes thought of as games) to reinforce concepts. Orff, on the other hand, introduces musical experiences as they are connected to speech and focuses on experiences that are rich in improvisation and movement. Gordon also has a very specific taxonomy of steps one follows when presenting learning sequence activities to children. It begins with oral/aural and moves to theoretical understanding in a very deliberate order.

The choral rehearsal presents a unique set of problems as the choral experience is focused on repertoire rather than a specific skill set. Since each piece the choir sings presents its own unique challenges, no one size fits all. For some ensemble conductors, the performance is the end all and be all of the choral experience. Learn the notes, sing the rhythms, unify the vowels, tune the chords, and spin the phrase. For those conductors, a systematic routine or procedure works well. Those who advocate critical pedagogy are concerned with those issues too, but also have a concern for the ways in which the choral experience adds value to the singer’s life by changing perception and by transforming what is to what might and could be.

Tenets of critical pedagogy include the importance of dialogue; of shifting the power inside the classroom/rehearsal from the all-knowing teacher working with students who know nothing, to a teacher/student relationship that acknowledges that both have contributions to bring to the rehearsal. Advocates of Critical Pedagogy for Music Education are concerned with empowering the students to be musicians by nurturing and empowering their musicianship. Music literacy, in that paradigm, is much broader than being able to identify a key signature, a dynamic marking and a rhythm pattern. Choral conductors who embrace critical pedagogy recognize the importance of dialogue. In the choral rehearsal such dialogue is both verbal and musical with the ratio of taking to music making considered very carefully. Such dialogue involves singers and conductor posing and solving problems together. Advocates of Critical Pedagogy for Music Education recognize the power of community and know that fostering community is appropriately accomplished in the choral rehearsal.

In a recent class, I introduced several strategies that align to a commitment to Critical Pedagogy for Music Education. One strategy, I call “Circle All Around.” In this strategy the chairs in each section are arranged in two circles – one outer and one inner so that students in each circle face each other. This forms a partnership of two. Together, and informally, each set of partners scans the music to identify rehearsal or performance challenges and brainstorm a solution together. They predict those issues they may encounter that might hinder the group’s performance. The conductor then asks representatives of the group to clarify their issue and summarize the solution. Asking probing questions, the conductor helps the group to connect the issue, the solution and the music. Then, when the group sings the music, students check their predictions against the reality of what happens. A brief discussion follows. In some instances there is need for re-focusing, refining and remediating. The conductor moderates that. This technique comes from the literature on reciprocal teaching and differentiated instruction.

“Circle All Around” empowers musicianship and causes each singer to accept ownership and responsibility for ensuring that musical challenges are identified and conquered. Sometimes the conductor also identifies challenges, but after presenting the challenge, calls on students to suggest remedies. Individuals are often asked what they will do specifically to make something better.

As a conductor, I was able to apply principles of formative and summative assessment throughout. Schools are very concerned that teachers do ongoing assessments. As to formative assessment, I visited each group to monitor student engagement and student ability to stay on task. For summative assessment I was able to make judgments when we performed the music as an ensemble. Each time we stopped, I asked for a higher level of contribution.