Engaging Boys in the Choral Rehearsal: Examining Their Distinct Learning Styles

Christopher M. Smith, DMA

R&R Chair for Men’s Choirs, SWACDA

For decades, studies including those using PET scans and MRIs have shown that boys learn differently than girls. One of the leading authors of books describing these findings and how they should inform education practitioners is Michael Gurian. In his book, “The Wonder of Boys,” Gurian delineates specific learning patterns of boys and how they differ from those of girls.

¥ Boys’ brains are inclined more toward spatial-mechanical strengths, whereas girls’ brains are more inclined toward verbal-emotive processing.

¥ Boys have less impulse control than girls, because of the hardwiring of their brains, which may explain why it is more common for girls to sit without fidgeting and learn to read and write at an earlier age than boys.

¥ Boys’ brains need more rest periods when learning. They “zone out” much quicker than girls, and require rest or play before reengaging in learning.

¥ Boys are more predisposed to focus on a single task, whereas the hardwiring of girls’ brains shows a strength in what some may call multitasking. Thus, transitions are more difficult for boys because of this brain lateralization, the phenomenon where a person’s brain processes are “taken over” by one hemisphere or the other.

¥ Boys brains have less oxytocin, which explains their predisposition toward physical play.

¥ Boys tend to be movement driven, and prefer to learn kinesthetically and with hands-on instruction.

These findings likely do not come as a surprise to most educators, as they see these differences manifest themselves everyday, particularly in the choral rehearsal. The question is: what are we as educators and conductors doing to meet boys and girls where they are in their mental development and ensure that their brains are being stimulated to learn musicianship and excel about the vocal arts?

One thing the choral director can do is take advantage of single-gender classroom situations to meet boys on their own level of development. These groups need not be a training choir (although this works well in many programs) as there is a wealth of good choral literature, by historical and living composers, available to the T/B choir. Contemplate the potential of teaching T/B voices separately throughout the middle and high school level, giving the director opportunities to focus on vocal problems specific to T/B situations. This is the model of Allegro Choirs of Kansas City, a community children’s choir organization, with which the author works. In this model, the youngest singers, from third to about sixth grade, sing in mixed treble ensembles (depending on when the boys’ voices change), while singers from seventh to twelfth grade sing in separate T/B and S/A ensembles. This model allows conductors to continue to focus on the vocal problems, and more importantly, the learning styles of the respective voice types and genders, and creates a platform for maximum engagement of the singers hardwired to learn in a specific way. Of course, while these choirs rehearse separately, they join for group pieces at concerts with minimal joint rehearsals.

There is much opportunity for innovation in the music rehearsal space, particularly in choral settings. Choral conductors are some of the best at incorporating new ideas and technique in teaching music. Within the choral education industry, there is no shortage of ideas for how to engage young singers, but nevertheless, this article includes a few suggestions for how to address these differences in learning styles in the choral rehearsal.

First, think and teach kinesthetically! Pair every lesson or concept with something that involves movement, even with just the hands, early and often. Solfege symbols are a great way to do this, but one should think outside the box. For example, if teaching a phrase shape, have the ensemble move their hands in some way to the shape of the phrase. If doing warmups, pair the exercise with some type of movement. Pulling resistance bands (basically a very large rubber band) while singing are great for teaching breath support through a musical phrase. When rehearsing articulation, come up with movement to manifest the ideas, such as using hands to “rub the dog” (legato), “pet the dog” (marcato), and “pick fleas off the dog” (staccato). You don’t have to be the only one conducting; invite your ensemble to mirror your conducting and to sing what they show.

There are also a number of weightlifting exercises which can teach good posture by themselves, such as the squat or the deadlift. If one studies the form of these exercises, particularly the deadlift, they may notice that the top of the lift produces a posture that is not unlike good choral posture. The choral directer can use most boys’ interest in working-out along with the mechanics of such exercises to engage their learning style and stimulate their bodies toward a better singing posture or technique. Think creatively to produce your own favorite kinesthetic activities, and your T/B voices will reward your efforts with an increased level of engagement.

Pacing is just as important in a rehearsal as kinesthetic engagement. Move quickly. One might try rehearsing a section of music for between 6-12 minutes, then adjust for the singers’ ability to stay on task and the directors own personality. The important thing is that the director is aware of their pacing. If the boys are “zoning out,” there is a chance the director needs to move on. Planning rehearsals to the minute is a good way to eliminate the director’s processing time between selections and keep singers engaged.

Organized and rapid transition time between selections is critical for young men. Develop a system of communication that establishes strong leadership using a brief exercise (connected to the next piece, but not necessarily), perhaps with one of the kinesthetic exercises above or something that reflects the director’s own palette. Call-and-response activities work well for this application. Deal with inattentiveness in these times by putting stop-gaps in place. In other words, plan for singers to want to “check out” and manage it accordingly. Take responsibility for inattentiveness in rehearsal, and hold your singers accountable if necessary.

Since boys “zone out” quicker than their counterparts, plan short breaks for them to recharge. In most situations, a planned recreational activity, or small-group bonding time, can be productive. If possible, have them walk outside, leave the room, or at least walk about the room. Telling a story, or having one of the singers tell a story, can be a productive re-centering activity as well. But remember, transitions are hard, so when break time is over, reengage them in the music with some attention sequence (similar to those described above).

It is important to note that these tips and tricks, while they have worked for the author and for many other conductors, may not be appropriate in every situation. The important thing is that each conductor assess their own practices with attention to the learning styles of their singers, particularly if they are boys.

References:

Collins, Don. “Preferred Practices in Teaching Boys Whose Voices are Changing,” Choral Journal 47, no. 5 (2006). 119-121.

Freer, Patrick. “Weight Lifting, Singing, and Adolescent Boys.” Choral Journal 52, no. 4 (2011). 32-41.

Gurian, Michael. “The Wonder of Boys: What Parents, Mentors and Educators Can Do to Shape Boys into Exceptional Men.” New York: Tarcher-Putnam, 2006.

Palant, Jonathan. “Relish the Rowdiness with Repertoire.” Choral Journal 47, no. 12 (2007). 53-55.

Palant, Jonathan. Brothers, Sing On! Conducting the Tenor-Bass Choir (Hal Leonard)

Schneider, Andrea. “How Boys’ Learning Styles Differ (and How We Can Support Them).” GoodTherapy. February 11, 2013. http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/how-boys-learning-styles-differ-0211134.