The day I became old: it happened on Monday
Teaching Expectations: Increase Your Job Satisfaction and Rehearsal Efficiency Easily

by Lindsey Wilkerson, Miles City, MT
October 24, 2011
 
     
 

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The Problem

It happened on Monday.  That thing that you joke about until it happens.  I became old.  Or rather, for the purpose of this article, “old.”

This realization, of course, came through a conflict with an adolescent.  I was rehearsing one of my auditioned choirs and had stopped for a few minutes to rehearse the altos. 

I had already explained to the choir exactly what they needed to be able to do after that day’s rehearsal, in terms of demonstrating understanding. I had even just explained exactly which short parts for each section I was just going to briefly review.  (Keeping of mind that I do occasionally get carried away in my rehearsals trying to perfect thingraphic1gs…but I digress…)

I turned to explain to the sopranos something important about how their part fit with the other only to see a soprano in the back row reading a novel.  She hadn’t even put down the book to pretend like she was listening to me.  I just want to reiterate that this particular section had not been singing for maybe five minutes – at the most.
I, of course, was not impressed. You could fill in your own personal comment/reaction here or just imagine mine. 

Upon pondering the situation awhile longer, I came this startling conclusion: I am “old”.

I’m kidding, of course, and you might laugh.  I still fit into the “not quite 30” crowd.  But this old doesn’t refer to actual age or number of years in the profession or grumpiness or anything. This old refers to the fact that I am now far enough removed from this culture of teens (and therefore, all subsequent groups) that I could not anticipate a cultural minefield and therefore did not know that I would have to teach my expectations, and therefore reacted in anger causing conflict and resentment. 

The Communication Break-Down
My assumptions/expectations:  If you’re in a rehearsal, you shouldn’t be doing anything else except being involved with the rehearsal.  I cannot be engaging you personally at every single moment of the rehearsal because certain things need to be broken down by section.  And even if my rehearsal technique and pacing aren’t perfect, because they aren’t, you still don’t get to find something else to entertain yourself with. And just because you are not being disruptive does not mean that your behavior is OK.  Ours is not the environment for multi-tasking because it is not a boring class, it is our ensemble experience!  (I realize I have both productive and non-productive thought patterns demonstrated above – I am including both to show that I still have a long way to go, too!)

Rod Eichenberger tells a story about a time in his career when he interviewed for a job directing a church choir.  They wanted to know what he was going to do about the knitting.

“The what?” he said, dumbfounded as to how this question fit into his church choir interview.
Paraphrased, every time the choir stopped, the church ladies would take out their knitting projects.  Rod, a master of engagement, only chuckled.  “I don’t think it will be a problem,” he said.

As he tells the story, at his first rehearsal, as soon as they had finished the first piece, he immediately gave the pitch cue for the next one, at which point all the knitting needles went flying. And then it wasn’t a problem anymore.

So, while my issue might have been the result of an issue of engagement, there is a bigger issue here.

My child with the novel was doing something.  She was doing something productive as far as she was concerned.  She was not talking or disrupting my work with the other sections. 

But because I hadn’t taught my very specific expectations for her engagement in the rehearsal, and because I apparently needed to but hadn’t  taught the value of her engagement in the rehearsal even when I wasn’t speaking directly to her section, I got angry with her.  Then, of course, she was mad at me even though she “wasn’t doing anything.”

This culture of kid comes to each experience expecting to be engaged at all times, doing something that they think is personally valuable in the immediate present.  Because this is being ingrained in them culturally because of the ability of almost everything in their lives to be individualized and personalized, I would argue that key will be in re-teaching the behaviors that we expect to see in our classrooms and why.  And the why should not be “When I was…..we didn’t have/do/think…”

The key, then, is to proactively teach the behaviors you want to see, not simply react to the behaviors you don’t.  If you are interested in learning more about this concept, it stems from a national movement called the Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports (PBIS) which feeds directly our own Montana Behavior Institute (MBI) held in June every year at Montana State University.  You can find information on PBSI at www.    And you can find more information about MBI at http://opi.mt.gov/Programs/SchoolPrograms/MBI/index.html

The answer: Teaching Expectations and Reasonable Explanations
My teaching of expectations could have looked like this (either at the beginning of the year, ideally, or in that moment when I realized something was amiss).

“Here are my expectations for your rehearsals.  I will make every attempt to have you singing as much as possible.  If you are not singing because I am working with another section, you should be doing the following (then list, according to your expectations.) Acceptable activities would not include the following: working on homework, reading, using your cell phone, etc…

The next part is the most important, and it is so easy to skip!

graphic2Because, our ensemble is team and the time we have to work together is extremely valuable and short.  We must function as a whole.  The activity that you were currently working on can be done easily when we are not together.  Much of what I’m saying to the other sections in your choirs will apply to you directly in terms of vowels, breath technique, intonation, etc.  If you then can fix and adjust your section without me having to spend time re-working the exact same thing, everybody wins because we move forward faster.   It is not that doing homework, reading, etc. aren’t valuable activities, it is that the group must take priority now.”

The step we skip is the reasonable “because.”  The answer cannot be “because it is rude” or “because that is not ensembles how work.”  That does not tell your students anything about what the expected behavior looks like! It only tells them that what you don’t want - on a case by case basis, after you and they are upset. 

Prior to a reasonable explanation, it is not fair to them to assume that everyone in the room knows your expectation for behavior.  If they did, they would be doing it (mostly).  It is after this explanation that you can identify behavior issues that need to be addressed further.

To summarize, I seem to make these mistakes even though I am getting better about seeing and anticipating.  If I can help make your rehearsal life easier, that is the goal.  Reflect on problems and irritations you currently have in your classes.  Are some of these the result of a lack of clearly communicated expectations?  If so, a simple teaching or re-teaching might make your life easier!

Lindsey Wilkerson
Miles City, MT

Lindsey Wilkerson just finished her fifth year of teaching and her second year as choral director at CCDHS.  She has a degree in music education from the University of Montana and has participated in Rodney Eichenberger’s summer conducting workshop five times, conducting once on the master class.  She also has been fortunate to attend the VoiceCare Network’s IMPACT course.