The thoughtful teacher who ponders the following image by Robert Harrell will be able to get a more complete response in her class. More will happen. The business of how we interact with our “voices/instruments” in our classroom is of huge importance to our success as the (choir) directors of our classes:
Yesterday morning I was having difficulty getting 100% engagement with one of my classes, so I kept repeating the question. The ones who were participating kept getting louder (which to a point was a good thing), but the rest remained silent. Finally, I stopped and told them that I needed them to get louder like an organ rather than like a piano. (I told them in German because they already know those words.) They understood what I said but didn’t understand what I meant, so I explained:
A piano gets louder by pushing the keys down with increasing force. The quality of sound doesn’t really change, it just gets louder with greater force. An organ gets louder by adding voices. I can hold a key down and then start pulling out stops. Each time I pull out a new stop, the sound changes in both volume and quality. The organ plays at its loudest when I have pulled out all of the stops and all of the voices are sounding. (Yes, that’s where we get our phrase “pull out al the stops”, btw.) I am looking for all of my students to have a voice in the response, so I want my class to be loud like an organ, not like a piano. They got it, and the ones who hadn’t been participating began to do so.
As I thought about this later, I came up with the idea of making this a metaphor or analogy. First, the idea of getting louder like an organ remains valid. Beyond that, though, an organ does not have voices that are all the same or even in the same family. There are flutes, strings, reeds and solo stops, perhaps even specialty stops like harp and carillon. Each one has its place in the register of the instrument, and each student’s voice has its place in the classroom. Just as I would not want to play every piece of music with the same registration – or even use the same registration throughout the same piece – I don’t want the same amount of response from the class at all times. So here are some ideas (subject to revision):
Full Organ = total class response; this is for the times that I want students to reinforce each other and help each other comprehend and show that comprehension
Flutes = the quieter students; just as the flutes are the quietest family on the organ but still need to be heard, I need to be certain that my quiet students are heard and recognized
Strings = the mellow, go with the flow students; strings are the “foundation chorus” for other voices; together they can overpower other voices, especially the flutes, but they also provide the solid background that allows other voices/students to shine
Reeds = the “edgy” students; I’m not talking about uncooperative students, but these are the ones who bring a certain edge to the class, and you have to be careful about how and when you use them; sometimes it’s important for them to remain silent so that others can be heard
Solo stops = the superstars; they need their moments, but they also need to get out of the way most of the time; it can’t always be about them
Specialty stops = students with special skills that have very specific notes to add; these often take up a lot more of our time than we would like
If you play a pipe organ, you have to deal with the many things that can go wrong. If your air supply isn’t working properly, there’s no energy for the pipes to sound; some days are like that in class. If there is a tuning problem, you have to fix it. I think this relates to student behavior and attitude. While external factors constantly affect how in tune a pipe is (heat, cold, dampness, etc.), if it is out of tune, you have to either silence it or get it back in tune. A couple of years ago the voix celeste on the organ I play went out of tune; it was horrible. Until we could get it fixed, I had to avoid that stop. Many people didn’t notice, but I was very aware that I could not use that voice, and there were some pieces where I wanted it. My students are the same way: if they are “out of tune” with the class, I need to silence them or re-tune them. If the whole instrument goes out of tune, you have to silence the whole thing until you can get it re-tuned – a process that consists of bringing a few pipes at a time back into play. As laborious as it is on the organ, that is still far easier than re-tuning an entire class. However, for the sake of the player (teacher), instrument (class) and listeners (everyone else), it has to be done.