Choral Elitism Part II – What is Success?

I wrote the blog Choral Elitism – It’s Real in 2018. Since then, it has been accessed nearly 50,000 times in 100 countries. The topic has struck a nerve with our profession. I recognize the article’s reach has much more to do with a widespread recognition of the problem than scholarly writing. Nonetheless, I am incredibly grateful that so many healthy conversations have been had around what we can do to help the music world become a more loving and beautiful place.

Self-Reflection and Evaluation

Like many, living through a global pandemic has made me closely examine my life and profession. While this past year has been one of the most stressful and grief-filled of my life, it has also presented some unexpected gifts. For the first time in my career, I have been able to step away from the grind and more deeply investigate my relationship with the field of music education.

A teaching career has meant graciously accepting a life of selflessness. There is no greater joy than observing our students learn and grow. Music educators play an essential role in helping to shape young people who go on and help make the world a better place. This humbling responsibility makes me take my job very seriously and has led to an incredibly enriching life.

Despite being fed by the benevolence and nobility of the service aspects of the profession, I often find myself looking inward. I question whether I am making a substantial enough difference in the lives of my students. How is it that we should think of teacher “success” in music education? I consider this to be a stand-alone article but reading my original piece on choral elitism may provide richer context for these reflections. My thoughts are posited through the lens of my experience as a high school choir director, but I would encourage contemplation from all areas of the field.

Can success be measured?

Let’s dive into subjectivity right off the bat. In my opinion, the answer is a resounding yes! Success can be measured, but bear in mind that the rubric varies drastically from one program to the next. And the director is often the only one in a good position to evaluate. Some of my most tremendous successes as a choir director wouldn’t seem like much to an outside observer who watched a single rehearsal or performance.

One of many personal examples involves my 9th grade tenor-bass chorus. Each year, this non-auditioned ensemble contains numerous students with no singing experience. Often, up to a third of the group can’t match pitch consistently when the school year begins. It can take months of creative pedagogy, differentiation, peer mentoring, modeling, and sheer tenacity to get the entire group to sing a healthy, in-tune, unison pitch. No one besides the teacher could be able to measure the incredible effort it took to make something like that happen.

We need to keep that in mind when we attempt to place a measuring stick upon someone else’s success. When we watch a performance of a colleague’s ensemble, we usually have no awareness of that group’s starting point. A choir perceived as mediocre may have exhibited much more growth than one that received straight superior ratings. A virtue in music education is that we strive for perfection, even though it can never be achieved. To me, that makes growth much more important than surface-level measurements of success.

What About My Degree(s)?

I will preface this by acknowledging that earning any degree should be applauded. Years of hard work and commitment are required to complete an undergraduate or graduate program of study. Having just been accepted into a doctoral program myself, I can already see the years of hard work ahead of me. College music programs fill many wonderful needs and inspire many along their journey into music education. All of that said, I don’t believe the level of degree, or from which institution(s), should factor into an evaluation of a teacher’s success. No amount of training automatically equates to lasting contribution to a career field.

There are issues of equity to consider. According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, first-generation college students are far less likely to earn a college degree (Ketaldi et al., 2018). The biggest reason is socioeconomic status, but they also don’t have the advantage of parents with firsthand college experience to help guide them through the process. The study also found a discrepancy with terminal programs. Of those who completed undergraduate studies, first-generation students were half as likely to enter a doctoral degree.

It is a problem if folks are considered as “elite” in our profession just because of the degree(s) they have earned. Teachers with less privileged backgrounds should be given equal opportunities to shine in the field of music. While many teachers with doctorates are talented, I propose that thousands of Bachelor and Master level directors are contributing just as much or more to our artform. I am thrilled there has been an effort to uplift women and BIPOC, but concerned that DMAs and PhDs continue to dominate the conference clinic and guest conducting landscape in the United States. It makes me wonder, how many incredible artists are we missing out on when we place so much weight on those three letters? In my opinion, our profession places way too much emphasis on which level of degree has been earned.

A caveat, I hold a lot of privilege as a white cisgender male. My personal experience in no way qualifies me to speak on behalf of marginalized communities. The inequities in higher education run deeper than music and this facet alone is worthy of its own research and discussion.

What About the Level I Teach?

Does the level I teach make me more successful? No. There is a paradox to explore here. The American education system is structured hierarchically, but music is not. Music belongs to all people and cultures around the world. Chris Munce (2019) talked about this on one of his podcasts. Because most conductors and teachers make their living within the education system, a false system of ranking has been created. Collegiate educators are perceived to be at the top, followed by high school directors, then middle school teachers, and way at the bottom are elementary and pre-school teachers. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Music education should be looked at as an ecosystem. Lakes are no more important than rivers, mountains are no more important than plains, and forests are no more important than deserts. They all serve in substantial ways. If one were to cease from existence, it would be detrimental to all other areas. The same is true of music. There are expert teachers at all levels, each fulfilling a vital role in making the world a better place through music.

What About Achievement?

As an Enneagram 3-wing-4, I can’t escape the fact that achievement will always be an influence in my career life. I have struggled greatly with how this deeply engrained personality type fits with my work as an educator. My priority has always been to put the students first with everything we do, with the deepest learning occurring in the classroom, not the stage. That said, in preparing my choirs for National and Regional ACDA performances and international competition, I have seen the value of spending months preparing for high-pressure concerts. Setting goals with innate risk can stretch the students beyond what they thought possible.

I am unapologetically proud of what my students have accomplished. However, I also recognize that this makes me no more special than other teachers. There are many choral programs in which an ACDA performance or winning a competition would have no value whatsoever. What about the educator who decides to dedicate their career to work at a historically unsupported Title 1 school? They know full well that the structures are not in place to ever perform at a music conference. Are they less successful? How about the one who dedicates 40 years as a choral director for 5-year-olds? Or the community college director who develops prison ensembles? Or the middle school director who sacrifices their lunch period so more students can be involved in music. Every one of us knows one of these amazing people. If you don’t, you are probably one of them!

Should We Celebrate Our Successes?

Yes! Unapologetically yes! We need more goodness shared. In addition, I would challenge us all to widen our lens with how we view success. Is an ensemble that beautifully executes difficult repertoire successful? Yes! Is a choir that moves from unison at the beginning of the year to mastering a two or three-part octavo later in the year successful? Yes! Is a single life changed for the better because of music study a success? Yes!

We need to open the door to more celebration. Many people avoid posting performances or anything else related to their teaching because of fear. Maybe my performance isn’t good enough. Maybe the thing I’m excited about sharing won’t be viewed as a success by others. There is a reason we have those fears. At some point, the elitism in our profession “set us straight.” Whether it was said aloud or simply felt, we learned to fear judgement. We allowed comparison to take over. 

Look Inward

Brené Brown (2015) said “Stay in your own lane. Comparison kills creativity and joy.” (p. 195) We can eradicate the toxicity of comparison in our field by being supportive of one another. Truly supportive. If you are bothered by someone posting a celebration on social media for example, consider looking inward at what is causing that trigger. Chances are you have been a victim of elitism and that micro-trauma is manifesting itself into feelings of comparison, envy, jealousy, resentment, scarcity, fear, or shame. Perhaps just reading the previous sentence has stirred up some of those feelings. I am confident speaking on this because I have been guilty many times. For me, therapy has been an important tool for working through those thoughts. For others, it might be intentional self-reflection. Either way, internal work is vulnerable and takes commitment. 

Thrive

Is it arrogant or self-centered to recognize our own success or that of our colleagues? I don’t think so. In fact, it is vital. Teaching is extremely difficult. Why do so many leave the profession before the five-year point? Whether you name it compassion fatigue, difficulty dealing with parents, toxic colleagues, or answering to an unsupportive administration, I think it all points back to feeling like what we do is not valued. If we create space to recognize success and worth in ourselves and our work, we will feel more valued, and we can thrive! Whether your tenor-bass chorus finally matches a pitch or Joey finally shows up to the concert on time, you are a success. Keep changing the world and thrive!

References

Brown, B. (2015) Rising Strong. Spiegel & Grau.

Kataldi, E. F., Bennett, C. T., & Chen, X. (2018). First-Generation Students College Access, Persistence, and Postbachelor’s Outcomes. National Center for Education Statistics: Stats in Brief2018(421), 1-31. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018421.pdf

Munce, C. (Host). (2019, June 27). Choral Snobbery? (No. 13) [Audio podcast episode]. In Choralosophy Podcast. Chris Munce. https://choralosophy.com/2019/06/27/episode-13-choral-snobbery-with-chris-maunu/

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