Many years ago, when I started choirguy.com, my life was pretty simple. I had my faith, I had my family (my mom and my dad), I had my motorcycle and I had my job as a high school choir director. I was young, and life was just free flowing. I could literally go anywhere or do anything that I wanted. That isn’t always good–and ultimately, I wanted more. I wanted a family of my own.
Since that time a lot of things have happened. I wrapped up a M.A. and a Ph.D. I met a wonderful woman, we got married, and had children. I changed jobs, and we moved. I changed jobs again. With a family, I have set aside some things for a season of my life: I don’t sing professionally and I don’t ride my motorcycle.
This year, I begin my 21st year of teaching, my fourth in a middle school choir program. I never imagined myself in this role, and I feel like I no longer teach “choir.” Most of my time is spent managing classroom behavior, teaching very basic concepts, focusing on state standards, and trying to get kids to sing/participate. The challenge is that kids have to take music, and we don’t have general music, so anyone not in band or orchestra is in choir. So I do get the kids who love choir and want to be there, and all those kids that go with the flow. But I also get the kids who don’t want to be there. I still like teaching. But music as I knew it is gone for now. I also have over 300 students with no lesson time–so a lot of one-to-one interaction is gone.
I blame part of this on myself, part of it on institutions, and part of it on my education. In terms of my education, the more I learned, the more I was concerned about what my students knew and what they could do, rather than making concerts some kind of aesthetic monument. I’m still at that point, where I worry more about my students having core competencies that will allow them to pursue music for their entire lives. I want them to sing in high school (and work hard to try to get them there) and in college–but it is more important to me that they find something in music for the rest of their lives even if they don’t sing in a choir again. That philosophy puts me at odds with much of the choral establishment.
I’m also a techie (and blog at techinmusiced.com), and I love the intersection of technology and music education. I speak around the country on the topic, and am one of the leading voices in technology integration in secondary music education (although I am happy to work with teachers from all grade levels and disciplines). I truly come alive when I help teachers learn how to use technology to teach. I love speaking to audiences, dealing with small groups, or working one-on-one with teachers.
In the classroom, much of my day-to-day struggle is simply maintaining control in a classroom where respect is not a way of life. I work very hard to treat my students with respect (and I occasionally fail) with the hopes of training them to do the same to others. But when you have students that don’t want to be there, are told that their grades/behavior doesn’t matter by parents, and you are expected to deal with what you have been given…classes can be tough, and not only I, but the majority of kids in the class–the majority–of them suffer as well. I have so many great kids–but that 10% does their best to keep me from focusing on the large majority of good kids. Respect is a big issue in our school–and I don’t know how to change it, other than to keep on keeping on, and to make a greater effort to demonstrate respect.
When kids don’t buy into “choir,” you have to figure out what else to do. When nobody other than the choir director seems to care how they sound at a concert, something has to change. Half way through last year, we adopted ukuleles. We spent all of February learning general ukulele skills, and then the rest of the year prepared a concert with one ukulele song with each grade level choir. All students learned the song, but only a few performed with us (we can’t have all the kids play anyway–it would be too loud and we don’t have enough ukuleles). My orchestra colleague, who is very straight forward in dealing with others, said that the ukulele integration was clearly a success amidst my many other failures. We fundraised for 62 ukuleles, and were given 40 more from Kala Brand Music, and Reverb.com donated 100 tuners. Sadly, our kids don’t realize how lucky they are to have these instruments–and nobody in the district seems to care that we are providing this instruction at no extra cost to the district (not a cent has been paid for by the school or the district).
I have considered–and applied for–different positions in our district (technology integration) and outside our district (technology integration and choir) and have been passed on both with and without interviews. While I am sure that I need to work on my interviewing skills, I know that my years of experience (21) and education (Ph.D) do not help at all when younger teachers can be hired for $30K-$50K less per year. Collegiate opportunities are limited as I would have to move (we can’t) and would have to take a significant pay cut. As a result, I am stuck where I am at (say it however you will). Things need to change for me to survive–which may include taking even less from work home with me (school work or even the emotional load), getting counseling, and developing a support group.
One of my strategies for this year is to morphing choir at our school into a hybrid class that focuses on Sight Reading (using the S-Cubed Method developed by Dale Duncan), Singing (one or two part music), and Ukulele. I think I’ll be able to survive this way, and it gives the kids who will go on to choir at the high school the skills they will need to succeed (plus some), and it will give those that don’t go on to choir at the high school an authentic skill they can use in the future (ukulele) or transfer that skill to guitar. My “singers” love the addition of the ukulele because they realize they now have the ability to accompany themselves. I have just finished making 38 arrangements to use for our holiday concert, and over the year, I’ll start working on our spring music. I may also offer a extra curricular ukulele group (for kids that want more, or for kids not in choir), and possibly an open mic/coffee house night in the spring. I would also like to see us fundraise for Ukulele Kids Club, a group that donates ukuleles to kids in children’s hospitals. I am blogging about the ukulele stuff at ukestuff.info if you want to learn more.
I also have one class in 7th and 8th grade that is a non-singing music class, with the hopes that the kids in the singing choirs can benefit without their presence/disruption. With these classes, I plan to integrate some piano skills, music theory, GarageBand, and occasional videos. Technology plays a big role with those classes–but those classes can be REALLY hard to manage. Put another way, they would never put that combination of kids in a “normal” class as they would make the class unmanageable.
Personally, the ukulele has renewed my own love for music. I still can’t get away to play in a weekly band or to sing with the Minnesota Opera or Minnesota Chorale–but I can play ukulele at home (and occasionally attend a local jam session).
As for everything else, I am still me. I am lucky to be married to a woman who tolerates me and my somewhat binary view of the world; I am lucky to have a stepson (ending the end of his high school career) and two boys that are genetically mine–an eight year old who is rather intense and driven, much like his father, and a four year old who generally is pretty easy going but is strong willed–and is able to use charm to disarm those moments where he pushes you over the edge. I am also blessed to still have my mom and dad in this world, as well as my wife’s large family. We are blessed to live in a nice home, and to have nice things. My wife and kids are worth every bit of “single freedom” that I gave up–and more. I just wish I could love my job the way that I used to love my job, and that’s hard as a male (we men like to associate our identities with our jobs).
In the past, much of this blog has recounted my progress with weight loss. I still struggle with weight (I fell off the bandwagon in June and haven’t gotten back on), and I need to find the motivation and discipline to do what I need to do.
So, what does this all mean? It means that I am no longer “choirguy.” My Apple devices want to autocorrect that to “choirboy” anyway. Choir is no longer the single defining thing in my life. “CHOIR” used to be the license plate of my motorcycle! Faith should be, and then family, and then my job or hobbies. So I am not going to be doing much more with this particular blog. At the same time, my e-mail is connected to the name, and while I can start moving to a new e-mail identity, that will take a while.
Furthermore, while my guidance is sought after with technology and ukulele–nobody really cares about the personal stuff in my life, and it doesn’t need to be out there. So I’m not going to have a blog with that content. I can journal on my own (generally on my iPad) for therapeutic and religious reasons–and that is enough.
So, if you have been following this blog over the years, thank you. But for now…the personal blog is over.