Monday, October 13, 2014

A Master Plan for Elementary School Performances

I truly believe there is an art to hosting elementary school performances (well, pretty much any event, but especially elementary school performances). And believe me, this art (like all art) is cultivated through experiences—both the good and the bad.

My very first holiday concert was a train wreck! I was so ill-prepared and had very little direction from my principal. The concert day seemed to materialize out of nowhere (sound familiar?) and the weeks leading up to it were riddled with interruptions and days off. I was sick (a given being a new teacher); the choir was small and not all that willing to work with me; the performance space was our cafeteria and it was never available; I had no help; the first date was cancelled due to inclement weather, and the rescheduled date did not allow for any additional rehearsals. I made the meager stage decorations myself and was up on cafeteria chairs trying to hang them an hour before the show. The entire show lasted about twenty minutes and featured one or two memorable students who actually sang with expression and joy while the rest glumly mouthed along.

To be fair, the kids performed as well as I could have expected and my principal seemed pleased. I was not, however. I knew that my students and I had a lot more talent and a lot more to give than what the parents saw at that very first concert. I was disappointed that I had failed to set my students up for success. While I am sure their parents congratulated them, I am equally sure that a lot of parents left with a ho-hum feeling about my effectiveness as a teacher and the necessity of a public music education.  And that’s the rub—music teachers are put on public display. Our concerts are often the face of our music programs and a huge public relations event for the school that set a tone in the building and within our communities. Oh, the sudden realization of what it meant to be a music teacher! But, I had experience now and a gauge by which I could measure our success. We could do better and we would do better.

I spent a lot of time reflecting on that performance. One of my biggest concerns was how short the concert was. My choir had limited rehearsal time and I had no control over that, so I knew I needed to bring in more kids as the choir was not going to be able to take on much more repertoire in the rehearsal time we had. I formed two after-school groups: one choir and one barred percussion ensemble. I chose challenging and musically satisfying repertoire that would be performed by and large with the kids on the barred percussion instruments accompanying the singers. My choir had more time to prepare for the spring concert so we were able to work up a few more songs and add some choreography. I also approached the second grade teachers about having their students perform (all of them) in the spring concert, and selected a few simpler pieces featuring some folk dances which I taught slowly over the next few months, again trying to keep the focus on the students making the music. Finally, I sought out a different performance space and asked teachers for help in monitoring the students backstage. I spent hours visualizing the entire performance—all of the transitions, the movement of instruments, dancers, and singers, and what I was going to say and when (which was going to be very little). I typed up a detailed plan of who would do what, when and where. I got to the middle school stage two hours before the concert and spent another several minutes visualizing the entire show while lying on my back in the dark. I turned on some relaxing music and let the audience in.

The show was amazing. It was almost an hour long and it was a constant display of students loving the stage and music. Everyone was floored. There was a crazy amount of energy and the kids were on fire. My principal was speechless. But, I was exhausted— I mean, beyond exhausted! What an undertaking! So, the pendulum had swung from one extreme to the other, and I knew I had to find a way to do this time and time again in my career. A new plan was in order for my second year of teaching.

Once again, the time had come for reflection. My goal was to still highlight the kids and all of the music-making activities we did in our classroom, and to keep myself out of the spotlight as much as possible. My principal in my second year asked that I keep the concerts between 35 and 45 minutes—no less, and certainly no more. So, I came up with a plan that turned into a format, which made my life a whole lot easier, and it’s just 13 steps (and months of rehearsing):
  1. Curtain up
  2. Principal introduces me and I thank the audience for coming and introduce the first piece
  3. Select singing group opens with three to five choral selections; no introductions to the pieces, just a simple bow after each, with a larger bow acknowledging the group after the final piece
  4. Curtain down
  5. Small group of volunteer recorder or barred percussion students play in front of the curtain while second or first grade takes the stage (depending on the concert)
  6. Curtain up
  7. Young grade level performs three selections (all prepared in general classes beginning about eight weeks before the concert)
  8. Curtain down
  9. Small group of recorder or barred percussion students play in front of the curtain while the choir takes the stage
  10. Curtain up
  11. Choir performs four to six selections
  12. I thank the audience, administration, and small army of teacher helpers
  13. Curtain down, house lights up, clean up and go home 
I actually provided this list to all of my helpers and tacked it up in the hallways. Before concerts, all of my helpers would meet for dinner. Sometimes it was potluck style and other times we would all just go out, and I would then brief everyone on the plan for the concert. I was fortunate to have a lot of support from the teachers in my buildings.

The grade-level teachers would get all of their students in lines and watch them backstage. I put tape on the floor and had a seating chart with a sign for each class. Leading up to the concert, the students would practice getting in riser formation, but just in case, I gave copies of the chart to all of the teachers. As the years went by, I added a stack of worksheets for the kids backstage to help maintain the peace. After they were done performing, the teachers would escort the kids to saved rows of seats in the auditorium to watch the older students.

I would assign one teacher as the backstage manager, and she would make sure to get the students in line backstage or in the hallways while the other group was performing. She was critical to my success and did a superb job in keeping everything running. It was like a miracle every time the curtain opened and all of the students were standing there with beautiful smiles on their faces.

Accompaniment tracks were burned to a single CD and given, along with the schedule, to an assigned helper to run the stereo, and stage hands were assigned to raise and lower the curtain and help move instruments and stands.

It seems like a lot, and it is, but I followed this same plan for the next eight years and things ran like clockwork. Every concert included close to 200 students, sometimes many more. What had at first seemed like an overwhelming ordeal became a comfortable routine for all of us, but it took a lot more than just teaching my students the music, and of course, I was indebted to the support from the rest of my staff. The format was reliable and that simple, yet detailed plan made all the difference in allowing me to deliver sustainable, predictable, and successful concerts for many years.

Do you follow a format in your programs? Please share!

Jeanette attended Ithaca College, majoring in Music Education with voice as her primary instrument. While at Ithaca, she performed with the Women's Chorale under the direction of Janet Galván and was a founding member of the college's first women's a cappella group. She completed her Master of Education degree from Wayne State University while teaching elementary music in L'Anse Creuse Public Schools. In her more than eight years of teaching elementary music education, Jeanette was the writer and recipient of several educational grants, director of after school music clubs, and one of the directors in a district-wide choir. She has also taught Elementary Music Education: Methods and Assessments as an adjunct professor at Rochester Community College in Rochester Hills, Michigan. In 2008, Jeanette became editor of Activate!, a magazine for music educators, and in 2009, she accepted the position of Classroom Resources Editor for Heritage Music Press.


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  2. Programming/Running the show is an art in itself. This seems to be a well-constructed plan--fine tuned by years of experience.