Choral Biases

When I think of choral bias, I immediately think of the comparisons that are often made between instrumentalists and singers.

Let me explain: 


When I was in high school, we had band and choir.  I participated only in choir, as that was my love, but I had many friends in band.  We hung out, we talked music, we participated in musicals together, etc.  It didn’t seem to matter whether you were in the band or the choir or both.

However, when I got to college I was in a for HUGE shock.  Not only was I a small fish in a big pond where competition amongst was enormous but now I had to contend with those who looked down on me.  The first class I remember attending that had both instrumentalists and singers in it was my piano class.

Now, I had taught myself how to play the piano simply because my grandparents didn’t believe I actually wanted to learn the instrument. Thankfully, they saw my desire and got me into lessons. The problem was in that I had taught myself so much, the teachers I had assumed I had more technical skills than I did.  This plagued me for years.  Because of the lessons I ended up taking from my choir teacher (who was a fabulous pianist) I continued to get better at playing and even accompanied one of the choirs I sang in on multiple occasions.  However, my technical skills still weren’t that fabulous when it came to scales, arpeggios, and Hanon (since I had never heard of that until I got to college).

Anyway, the first day of piano class came and we all introduced ourselves.  As soon as I said that I was a vocal major, I saw an immediate response that SHOCKED me.  A vast majority of the students looked at me with disgust on their face as though being a singer was a “less than musician”.  Some even voiced that opinion.  They said things like, “Oh…you’re a singer” and “Do you even know what the piano is?” The teacher even shared their opinions.  Every day after that, I felt as though I had to prove my worth as a musician.

Ok…I know, you’re out there saying “Well that’s just one class!”. Well, I hate to say it but you’re wrong.  That was only the first one.  Every theory, sight singing, dictation, or conducting class, etc. where musicians were not separated by instrument, I got the same response.  I didn’t get it.  Why did they think singers weren’t good enough?  Why did there seem to be such bias?

I have had many years to ponder this and experienced more instances when this happened both in and out of school.  I’ve even seen it as a choir teacher from my students’ parents.  Why does this happen?

One of my colleagues, that is a trombonist and teaches orchestra, and I talked about this.  He had never thought about the things that I shared.  Yet, as we were discussing my experiences and feelings, he realized that he too had participated in such events.  He admitted making fun of the lack of musicianship he had seen in singers.

Over the years, I’ve had many theories.  They usually come down to the teachers and/or parents that pass on bias to their students.  This is usually in the form of how difficult it is to play and instrument compared to how easy it is to just open your mouth and sing. Not even looking at how difficult it is to maintain pitch with or without accompaniment, how difficult it is to maintain respiration just as a trumpeter or oboist.

However, I have also noticed that too often there are singers that decide they want to be music majors but have failed to prepare themselves for the rigors of the program as much as they should.  Sometimes, they have been repeatedly advised to prepare but have failed to do so. Unfortunately, more often than not, they get to college unprepared because they either didn’t have a teacher to inform them of the requirements, a teacher that was qualified to inform them or a teacher that spent all of their time making choir “FUN” that the skills of a musician never got taught.  The students sounded great but didn’t understand what they were singing, why they were singing it or how it was created.

Both of these theories may not have been proven but they did seem to align with what I hearing from my colleague.  He felt I was definitely on right track. 

Well, the bias I have, has definitely been influenced by my experiences because of the feeling I had of always having to prove my worth.

It manifests itself in how rigorous my choral program is and the expectations I put on myself to prepare for class every day.  It meant that my first year I put an inordinate amount of pressure on myself to create that rigor and maintain it.

It manifests itself in what pieces I choose, what I teach my students, and the standard that has been placed on my students as I try to create a solid program that can compete with two of the finest musicians I have been privileged to work with…the band and orchestra teachers. Their skills make me want to be better.  They never try to make me feel inferior, yet I do.  The bias I have lived with for so long still performs in my mind and constantly recreates itself so I feel like I am still proving my worth.

I find that those same biases I complain about, I have had for my students.  I found myself, in my first year, comparing students based on whether they had taken piano lessons or not prior to taking my class.  I was finding myself wanting to teach to those students who had previous musical experience before those who had not.   What a terrible thing to do!

Thankfully, I realized what I was doing.  I can’t say it was a quick realization but at least it happened.  I realized that just because one of my students has had musical training prior to my class does not guarantee they will understand what I have to share with them. Sometimes, it’s the so-called ‘non musician’ that understands it first.  Today, I look at each student, make sure they understand, ask specific questions to check understanding and see how they apply the knowledge.  It is fascinating to me when it all comes together.