Who Enrolls in High School Music? (Elpus & Abril, 2019)

 

Source:

Elpus, K., & Abril, C. R. (2019). Who enrolls in high school music? A national profile of U.S. students, 2009-2013. Journal of Research in Music Education, 67(3), 323-338.

What did the researchers want to know?

What proportion of U.S. high school students enroll in ensemble and non-ensemble music courses, and what are the characteristics of students who enroll in ensemble music courses?

What did the researchers do?

Elpus and Abril utilized existing data on 25,210 high school students gathered via a nationally representative longitudinal study that followed students at 940 U.S. high schools. These data included demographic characteristics (e.g., sex, SES, race/ethnicity, prior academic achievement) as well as information from students’ high school transcripts, including whether they participated in a high school ensemble or non-ensemble music class. Elpus and Abril used bivariate and multivariate statistical analyses to identify demographic characteristics of music and nonmusic students and to investigate the unique impact of each characteristic.

What did the researchers find?

Of the students who graduated in 2013, 24% had enrolled in one or more music ensembles during at least one year of high school. Choir had the largest percentage of participation (13%), followed by band (11%) and orchestra (2%). In terms of non-ensemble courses, only 3% of students had enrolled in a guitar class, 3% in a piano class, and less than 1% in a music technology course.

The table below shows cross-tabulations for the entire sample, ensemble students, and each type of ensemble:

Characteristics of Music Ensemble Students and the Full Population
(Elpus & Abril, 2019)

Statistical analysis revealed that differences between instrumental and non-instrumental were statistically significant in every characteristic except birth-assigned assigned sex. In contrast, choir students did not differ significantly from non-choir students for any characteristic except for birth-assigned sex.

In order to investigate the unique impact of each demographic characteristic, Elpus and Abril used logistic regression, which is a statistical analysis that attempts to “control for” (i.e., remove the effects of) certain variables. These results showed that the probability of enrolling in an ensemble music class increases with SES as well as with prior academic achievement (as measured by a standardized algebra test). However, the latter was not true for Black/African American students, for whom “the likelihood of ensemble enrollment decreases as academic achievement increases” (p. 331).

It is also interesting to note that the effects of SES and prior academic achievement were not significant among choir students. When looking at each type of ensemble separately, SES only predicted enrollment among band vs. non-band students, while prior academic achievement only predicted enrollment among instrumental vs. non-instrumental students. With the exception of gender, choral students were more representative of the larger student population than band/orchestra students.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Elpus and Abril’s findings confirm that ensemble music courses are the most prevalent music offerings among U.S. high schools. We need to continue to think about how we might attract more students to participate in school music through non-ensemble courses. However, band and orchestra are disproportionately likely to enroll students of higher SES and higher prior academic achievement. Therefore, Elpus and Abril state, “the problem may not be in increasing the number of students in music courses (which is commonly heard in professional rhetoric) so much as ensuring that music courses are attracting a representative and wide cross-section of the general student population” (p. 334). As music educators, we can be aware of which types of students may tend to be less likely to enroll in ensemble music classes and actively work to recruit these students. 

Additionally, it is worth contemplating possible reasons why choir enrollment tends to be more reflective of the general population. Elpus and Abril suggest several possibilities:

  • The versatility of the singing voice and wide range of cultures and styles in choral music “might be more attractive to students from varying cultural backgrounds” (p. 335)
  • Choir may be “more readily available as an avenue of ensemble music-making for those high school students who, for any of a variety of reasons, did not begin to develop proficiency on a band or orchestra instrument in their earlier schooling” (p. 335).
  • “Choirs may require less time commitment and financial demands than band, which possibly makes them more attractive to students who have familial or work commitments and those of more limited financial means” (p. 335).

Based on these speculations, the following types of questions warrant reflection:

  • How might we increase the appeal and relevance of music course offerings to students from varying cultural backgrounds?
  • How might we provide avenues of entry into high school instrumental music classes for students who haven’t previously participated?
  • What time, financial, or other constraints may deter some students from participating in ensemble music classes? 
    • Are we being reasonable with the amount of time we expect from students outside of regular school hours?
      • Might our attendance and/or grading policies unfairly penalize students with work or family commitments?
      • Do we make the effort to truly listen to and take into consideration a student’s personal situation when they have a conflict?
    • What might be all the monetary costs—both obvious and hidden—to instrumental music participation (e.g., instrument rental/purchase, uniform fees, reeds and other supplies, private lessons)?
      • How realistic are these costs for students of lower SES? 
      • How might we help find ways to ease this financial burden and ensure that every student has the opportunity to participate and be successful in instrumental music?

Successful Sight-singing Strategies (Killian & Henry, 2005)

Source:

Killian, J. N., & Henry, M. L. (2005). A comparison of successful and unsuccessful strategies in individual sight-singing preparation and performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 53(1), 51-65.

What did the researchers want to know?

What observable strategies or characteristics are associated with high-, medium-, or low-accuracy among high school sight-singers?

What did the researchers do?

Participants were 198 singers in two high school choir camps designed to help prepare students for Texas all-state choir competition. Killian and Henry recorded each participant sight-singing two melodies—one in which they were given 30 seconds to prepare and one in which there was no preparation time. Each student’s performances were audio-recorded and later scored for accuracy, which Killian and Henry used to classify them into high-, medium-, and low-accuracy groups. The researchers also viewed videos of each student’s preparation and compiled a list of observed behaviors, which included the following:

  1. pitch strategies (tonicizing, using Curwen hand signs, using solfege or numbers)
  2. rhythm strategies (keeping a beat in the body)
  3. overall strategies (tempo, starting over, isolating trouble spots)

Participants also completed a survey to provide demographic information, such as age, voice part, and sight-singing practice habits.

What did the researchers find?

Strategies associated with higher sight-singing accuracy for either condition included tonicizing (vocally establishing the key), physically keeping the beat, and using hand signs. Students who performed with more accuracy were also more likely to state that they practice sight-singing individually and/or that their director tests sight-singing individually.

Note: Killian and Henry’s complete findings, including the effect of preparation time and other demographic differences associated with sight-singing accuracy, can be accessed in the full article, which is available for free to NAfME members at https://nafme.org/my-classroom/journals-magazines/.

What does this mean for my classroom?

If we wish to improve our students’ sight-singing abilities, modeling and practicing strategies such as tonicizing (establishing the key), physically keeping the beat, and using hand signs may help. For example, tonicizing before any type of singing will strengthen students’ audiation and recognition of where the tonal center is, thus helping them sing with a more accurate sense of pitch. This could be done by arpeggiating the tonic chord or singing a quick “tune-up” in the appropriate key.

Tune-up/Sequence of Tones in D Major

If sight-singing is an important skill we wish our students to have, we should also consider encouraging them to practice sight-singing on their own and holding them accountable through individual sight-singing tests.

“Testing the Beneficial Effects of Singing in a Choir on Mood and Stress” (Linnemann, Schnersch, & Nater, 2017)


Source:

Linnemann, A., Schnersch, A., & Nater, U. M. (2017). Testing the beneficial effects of singing in a choir on mood and stress in a longitudinal study: The role of social contacts. Musicae Scientiae, 21(2), 195-212. 

What did the researchers want to know?

Can singing in a choir enhance mood and reduce stress? If so, do these effects increase over time, and/or are they associated with social contacts within the choir?

What did the researchers do?

Linnemann, Schnersch, and Nater studied 44 singers in an amateur university choir that rehearsed one evening per week for the duration of a semester. The participants completed a mood assessment questionnaire before and after each rehearsal, in which they rated their stress on a scale of 1-100 and rated their mood on six visual scales pertaining to three dimensions: calmness (agitated — calm; relaxed — tense), valence (unwell — well; content — discontent), and energetic arousal (tired — awake; full of energy — without energy). To explore connections between mood/stress and social contacts, participants were also asked to create a “social network map” (in which they indicated the number of their close friends, friends, and acquaintances who were also in the choir) and to rate their perceived social support within the choir. The researchers used a complex analysis called hierarchical linear modeling to compare each participant’s pre- and post-rehearsal scores as well as change throughout the semester.

What did the researchers find?

There were statistically significant differences in participants’ calmness and valence before and after choir rehearsals. On average, participants felt more calm and relaxed after choir rehearsals, as well as more content and well. There was also a statistically significant difference in pre- and post-rehearsal subjective stress levels, with participants generally reporting less stress after choir rehearsals than before.

There was no statistically significant increase in feelings of calmness and valence over time. However, participants did report feeling more energetic after choir as time went on, yet they reported feeling less awake (possibly due to the 10pm rehearsal ending time). Further examination of fluctuations over time indicates that participants actually experienced an increase in stress, discontent, and feeling unwell after rehearsals immediately preceding the first performance.

Number or type of social connections in the choir was not significantly related to changes in mood or stress.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Results of this study suggest that singing in a choir can have positive effects on mood and stress level, and these benefits may not be due simply to social connections with other choir members, as previous researchers have suggested. Music teachers should be aware of these benefits, share these benefits with others (e.g., students, parents, administrators), and encourage students to participate in singing. However, teachers should be mindful that rehearsals leading up to a performance can lead to increased stress and negative feelings among choir members and be sensitive to this when preparing for a performance.

“Voice Change and Singing Experiences of Adolescent Females” (Sweet, 2018)

Source:

Sweet, B. (2018). Voice change and singing experiences of adolescent females. Journal of Research in Music Education, 66(2), 133-149.

What did the researcher want to know?

How does the adolescent female voice change influence young women’s use of their voice and their participation in singing in middle school, high school, and/or college?

What did the researcher do?

Sweet (2018) studied 17 female collegiate choral singers through one-on-one and focus group interviews.  She prompted the young women to reflect on their singing experiences since age 11, vocal challenges they have faced, and perceptions of how others interacted with them during their voice change experiences.

What did the researcher find?

Participants recalled experiencing numerous vocal challenges during adolescence, including vocal cracks, breaks, weakness, and unpredictability.  Additional challenges, such as laryngeal tension and lack of vocal flexibility, continued throughout adolescence.  Some participants noted that these changes extended into their 20s.

Participants’ recollections of their singing experiences since age 11 were more negative than positive. Emotions like frustration, fear, sadness, self-doubt, insecurity, and self-deprecation were prominent in their memories of singing during voice changes.  Sweet keenly noted that, as conveyed via participants’ tone of voice, facial expressions, and word emphasis, vocal challenges during adolescence were highly emotional experiences.

Teachers’ classification of adolescent female voices was a notable theme among the singers’ experiences.  “Participants who experienced a loss of strength or color in their higher range and had a stronger lower range mostly sang alto lines; participants who experienced a lack of phonation or lost power in lower notes were mostly assigned to higher vocal lines” (p. 142).  Rather than working with these singers through their difficulties, they felt their teachers had assigned them voice parts based on what was needed for the choir as a whole, at times even assigning them to sing vocal parts that were physically uncomfortable.  Additionally, “many participants felt that being assigned a particular voice part in middle school or early high school and rarely (or never) singing notes outside of that assigned voice part, sometimes for the entirety of their involvement in school choir, limited their vocal development and/or singing potential” (p. 142). 

What does this mean for my classroom?

Compared to the male voice change, the female adolescent voice change has received far less attention.  Choral teachers need to be aware of the unique challenges that voice change can pose for female students.  Teachers should be sensitive to the negative emotions adolescent female singers may experience as their voices change and help support students through these transitions.  Additionally, teachers might consider the ways in which the assigning of voice parts can benefit or hinder female singers and communicate and collaborate with them to determine flexible voice part assignment and enable a healthy and positive singing experience. 

Resources:

  • Thinking Outside the Voice Box: Adolescent Voice Change in Music Education, by Bridget Sweet
    • This upcoming book, scheduled for publication in October 2019 by Oxford University Press, encourages a holistic approach to working with adolescent changing voices and addresses female and male voices equally. According to Sweet, “the book is about understanding that voice change is tied up in so many aspects of adolescence and, to best teach/assist/support our students, we have to understand the bigger picture of this time of life, including psychological factors, emotional factors, many different facets of physiological growth, as well as the influence and impact of society’s perceptions of adolescence and voice change” (personal correspondence).
    • Update: Pre-order is available! Find on Amazon here.
  • Sweet’s 2016 Choral Journal article, “Choral Journal and the Adolescent Female Changing Voice:”
  • Sweet’s 2016 Choral Journal article, “Keeping the Glass Half Full: Teaching Adolescents with a Holistic Perspective”
  • The Female Voice, by Jean Abitbol
    • This brand new book features a variety of topics related to the female voice, including voice change during puberty, throughout the menstrual cycle, and as a result of hormonal birth control.