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What I learned at choir today

Singing in barbershop choruses and quartets is my main hobby. We're lucky enough to have a remarkably talented musical director in our chorus Spirit of Harmony. She is a great example of an "outstanding" teacher in her field. In this morning's rehearsal for our big competition in Bournemouth next week she demonstrated some fabulous teacher skills which I thought would be worth recording here.

It's tempting to forget, when discussing language teaching pedagogy, that generic teaching skills may well be more important than the particular approach you choose to adopt. Whether you are a TPRS teacher, keen driller, comprehensible input fan or communicative language teacher, you need to connect with the class. Our musical director Sally's skills include the following:

- Showing total passion for her area of expertise. She bursts with enthusiasm for choral harmony music.
- Having expert subject knowledge. Sally is a leader in her field so we have belief in her experience and expertise. (She was a judge in Gareth Malone's series The Choir a year or two ago.)
- Working at pace. In particular she uses quick transitions from one activity to the next. You don't get bored.
- Varying tasks. Although we do some repeated warm-ups, she adds new elements from time to time to freshen things up.
- Structuring the input. She builds up the teaching sequence in a logical fashion, constantly reinforcing the key teaching points, for example, today, how to use air successfully to hold pitch when singing.
- Scanning the room, left to right, front to back. Everyone feels involved.
- Smiling and using humour to release tension and encourage singers to relax.
- Encouraging a growth mindset. We are constantly urged to believe we can be better.
- Not talking too much. Instructions and models are clear, repeated, then practice ensues quickly.
- Giving opportunities for practice. She knows just how many examples to give us, allowing for improved singing technique to be embedded in memory. (The same techniques will be revised in future weeks.)
- Using criticism when required. Errors are spotted, corrected, then opportunities to improve are offered. If criticism is quite severe it is always followed at some point by praise when improvements are made.
- Asking for questions and feedback, then listening to it carefully.
- Using metaphor to explain or clarify a teaching point. For example this morning she used the image of an arrow being fired when you start to sing a note. You need effective onset and the note needs to be sung right through to its target.
- Showing confidence and natural authority. Managing a choir of 60 men needs some presence in the room.

I could probably add more, but my point is that when you are taught by someone with this skill set it's a pleasure, maybe all the more so when you know a bit about teaching yourself. It's these generic competencies you need to build relationships and be the most successful classroom practitioner. Through deliberate practice of such skills all teachers can get a little better.

If this sort if thing interests you, then I recommend once more Doug Lemov's book Teach Like a Champion 2.0. He does not refer to language teaching, but much of his advice is relevant to all teachers, whatever their subject area.

Our chorus is here:

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. From a fellow barbershopper: your MD sounds amazing and her enthusiasm and effectiveness are clear, judging by your amazing performance are BABS in Bournemouth.

  2. Replies
    1. In Bristol with Black Sheep Harmony. It's a great way to keep sane!

  3. Yes, I agree, but training a choir is very very different from teaching French. ( I know because I do both) So, please translate your analogy into French teaching Thank you

    1. No thanks, this post was about generic teaching skills. My numerous other blogs give a clear indication on my views about French teaching. The above checklist would be relevant to any approach, I think.


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