Pedagogy in the University's Black Chorus

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By Alex Swanson

The University of Illinois Black Chorus is, without speaking hyperbolically, one of the most benignant and influential forces on this campus. Any student hoping to someday become an educator should be aware of the unique pedagogy, or way of teaching, employed in formulating such an effective organization.

When I sing with this choir, as I have now for three semesters, I can’t feel anything apart from it. It’s fitting that Director Ollie Watts Davis often tells her ensemble, “I am you. You are me.” It does feel as though we are a solid entity, totally removed from individual self-awareness.

We rarely, if ever, receive sheet music. We learn melodies and lyrics by ear; Dr. Davis sings a part to us and we sing it back.

This methodology results in an almost unique system in which we must be engaged throughout the learning of a piece or else we’ve missed it. There is generally no text for us to retroactively refer to.

It would be, admittedly, difficult to install this exact pedagogy in other subject areas — good texts are generally helpful to the learning process.

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However, there is something compelling about stripping away everything but the raw material that’s being learned, stripping the signified from the signifier. That practice is one that could be, when appropriate, applied universally in academics.

This choir is also one of the very, very few academic organizations of which I have been a part where students are motivated to perform well, not in the pursuit of a certain grade or in fear of discipline, but for the love of the organization.

That’s where education needs to go. A sincere appreciation of the subject matter, a love of the class, veneration for the instructor — these things are what should, ideally, drive students to succeed, rather than fear. Fear fades in the classroom; students become desensitized to it.

Rather than threatening to lower a grade, Dr. Davis reflected, “‘I often admonish the students to ‘do well, then feel well, then do well, then feel well…’ It always starts with the doing.”

These recommendations are an integral component of her choir experience. I often find them playing in my head when I encounter a trying situation. The future educators studying at this University need to value this sort of moral instruction, instruction that extends beyond a stringent academic curriculum.

I am not asserting that instructors should impose their particular values on students in any such a way that could possibly result in the marginalization of certain identities. But there is a way in which teachers, while being respectful of various backgrounds and identities, can promote some sort of generally agreed upon standard of ethics.

This chorus is further a deeply powerful group in that it deals with issues regarding personal achievement, spirituality, tradition, religion, and of course, the intersections of race, culture, ethnicity and music.

Dr. Davis remarked that her choir, “never lose[s] sight of our purpose and dedication to the exceptional performance of the music of Black Americans and its transformative beauty and power.”

I have a suspicion that the tutelage used in the Black Chorus cannot, in all likelihood, be replicated. But it does have the potential to inspire.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest our society would be much improved if more teachers adopted policies utilized in the Black Chorus to cultivate classroom standards.

School, in a large part, is where we learn to socialize and where we garner a sense of morality in addition to becoming familiar with academic material.

Education, therefore, needs to be a holistic process. While it’s certainly easier written than done, it is currently being done. The Black Chorus serves as one such microcosm of what could, one day, develop on a larger scale in educational theory.

“By the time Black Chorus stands before an appreciative audience, we have all benefitted tremendously from the learning process and are excited to give away some of what we have received,” Davis said.

This coming Sunday afternoon, the Black Chorus will perform at Smith Recital Hall. For any student interested in didactics, it is sure to be a worthwhile, educational performance.

Alex is a senior in LAS.

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