"We are convinced that this could be a game changer for teaching more than just notes and rhythms, but bringing a broader sense of community to the music."
Jason Max Ferdinand's new book, Teaching With Heart, takes a new approach to choral directing. The compendium was released earlier this month through GIA Publications.
Inspiration for the project stems from Ferdinand's choir, the Aeolians, which he took to the American Choral Directors Association's national conference in 2019. There the singers blew away the audience by challenging racial biases in the choral world with their outstanding performances of traditional Western classical songs and Black music. This past summer, the Aeolians released their first album.
After their success, Ferdinand's progressive teaching style moved to the forefront of the conversation. Choral directors around the United States wanted to know how to re-create what he has perfected at Alabama's Oakwood University, where the Aeolians are based.
"I know a lot of people are interested in that 'Aeolian' experience, and, honestly, this book and how it's laid out is a great part of what we do here."
Ferdinand emphasizes that his teaching process is about choirs and teamwork. He worked with contributors from around the country to make the guide practical and accessible. The book includes 12 modules that correspond with the tracks on the Aeolians' album, as well as questions for choir directors to ask singers and students to help guide the thinking process around creating socially conscious music. There also are four hours' worth of conversations with composers and arrangers on the project. The book is laid out so teachers can get going quickly.
"My choir is not all music majors and minors," he said. "We really talk a lot about learning life lessons that you can use, whether you're going into medicine or dentistry or law. We need to take a deep dive into more than just notes, rhythms and phrasings, but really go deep down on how this has been impacted by society."
When the Aeolians' new recording came out in August, members of the choir realized that many of its songs spoke to social issues that were happening right now. A song like "We Shall Overcome" was recorded before the killing of George Floyd, and "We Remember Them," a song about losing loved ones, was done pre-COVID. It led to Ferdinand asking how to approach and teach around these important topics in virtual-based classes during the semester.
"This process happened very organically, where some of the teachers picked certain songs and created lesson plans that help extract life principles from the songs," he said. "One teacher attach them to the national core standards for music and socioemotional learning standards."
In today's world, Ferdinand believes that choirs can no longer just teach notes and rhythms. His students would be lost if that is all they did, because now he has them spend so much time talking about the nitty-gritty of the music, including why, how and where it was written. It is important now in this socially aware world to have a clear understanding of the music being performed, he said. That has been his formula that's worked for his choir for many years.
"We take people on that roller coaster ride of life, just life period," he says about the audience experience. "And I think it is so much more meaningful, for the performance, for the listeners to leave there thinking, 'Wow, they really made me think about X. They made me think about why, and I want to make some adjustments to my life or make some adjustment about how I relate to other people.'"
One of the core concepts of the book and a driving force in Ferdinand's teaching is that music can be transformative, whether people realize it or not.
"We shouldn't program passively and sing or play passively," he said. "And it has to be connected to society. Speaking up about issues and marrying it with our performance practices, I think that's such a powerful thing."