There Is Nothin’ Like Your Brain
Dr. Shelley Zuckerman, Director Upper School Choir and Lower School Music / July 1
Every year on the first day of choir, students pour into the choir room and pile their backpacks on the table. They come in like they’re coming home to something familiar and fresh but also new. They breathe in the bird’s-eye view of the river and, a-buzz with excitement, almost always ask “So what are we singing this year!?” And thus this begins another leg of our journey together. My first priority is to secure our foundation: "This room has to be a safe place.” In order for people to make themselves vulnerable, take artistic risks, and rise to new challenges, there needs to be a context of mutual respect and encouragement.
Concert Choir consists of Middle and Upper School students from seventh through twelfth grades, so the developmental differences among students vocally and socially are significant. From observation and open conversations with students both individually and in the ensemble rehearsal context, I know that some students are inhibited about singing full voice because they are afraid to be heard. Practicing breathing techniques, vowel blend, and dynamic nuances are moot points if when the time comes to sing, nothing comes out.
After working through Glenn Whitmann and Ian Kelleher’s book Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education along with the faculty this year, I now recognize when this happens that it is a room-full of amygdalae doing their job. In chapter 7 the authors discuss how stress both productively and destructively influences the brain at work:
“To create conditions where our students’ brains are primed to learn, we need to be constantly aware of and carefully balancing stressors and stress levels.” [p. 68]
When a student is so self-conscious about singing in front of someone else that they literally can’t find their voice, it is the amygdala sending sensory input to the rear brain, leading to a fight, flight or freeze reaction; in this case, freeze!
Every one of the factors that reduce stress listed in Table 7.1 [p. 69] are regular and effective aspects of our rehearsal time together: choice, novelty, humor, music, being told a story or anecdote, positive interactions with peers, acting kindly, movement, optimism, expressing gratitude, making correct predictions, and achieving challenges. Something more has been necessary, however, to achieve and sustain the proximal zone of discomfort in which choir students experience the reward of successful risk-taking without retreating in the face of overwhelming stress.
To move in this direction, I have changed how I work with choir students individually. Beginning this year, I have been meeting with students in small groups of one to four for voice lessons and sectional rehearsals. My purpose in doing this is to create a safe context in which students can take risks to develop singing technique and personal confidence that they can, in turn, build on in more public contexts. In addition to working on choral repertoire during voice lessons, each student prepares a solo of his/her choice to sing in a recital.
To keep the bar high but lower the stressful barriers to success, we held the first recital as an in-class event in December.We used the theater as the venue so that it would have the formality of a stage and sound system, but we did not invite faculty or student peers beyond the choir. I printed programs and provided a reception afterward so that students could celebrate their success together and encourage each other’s achievements. The second recital will be at the end of the spring semester, and we will broaden the audience enough to keep the stress of the challenge stimulating but not disabling.
The results of this one-on-one confidence builder have been distinct, though it is still a work in progress. Students recognize a difference in their willingness to risk singing out, and they have a growing understanding of how their amygdala fields stress and affects their ability to perform their best. I appreciate the conclusion of the chapter because it is the experience I aspire to create as an “I love your amygdala teacher”:
“It is fun for students when they themselves know they are doing something significantly challenging – but it is transformative because the task is well crafted to be intrinsically motivating and they trust the community that surrounds them.” [p. 76]
With no further ado, here are choir students singing about their amazing brains.