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date: 25 February 2021

Collaboration and Meaning Making in the Women’s Choral Rehearsal

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter gives examples of collaborative choral methods that impact female singers positively and holistically as individuals and musicians. A brief overview of the inception and facets of feminist pedagogy reveal its potential influence on singers and lays the groundwork for a qualitative research study of a collegiate women’s choir led by a conductor who has adopted the values of feminist pedagogy. The case study illustrates ways in which feminist pedagogy can be implemented in the choral rehearsal through collaborative methods that give singers the opportunity to make their own decisions within the music-making process. Through these collaborative learning techniques, singers experience an increase in mental engagement, confidence in their abilities, ownership in the music-making process, and improved musicianship. The exploration of multiple meanings and meaning-making via collaborative methods is a catalyst for self-expression, improved performance experiences, and a greater capacity within choral pedagogy to understand and relate with others.

Keywords: feminist pedagogy, women’s choir, choral methods, choral pedagogy, collaborative learning

From Terms to Concepts

The words feminist and feminism provoke wide-ranging emotional and intellectual responses—both positive and negative. Many individuals align themselves with tenets of feminism (e.g., equal rights), even though they would not label themselves as feminist (Redfern & Aune, 2010). This chapter provides an opportunity for readers to move beyond the common polarized reactions to these terms and engage thoughtfully with the concepts behind the terms. The material and research within this chapter have affected me personally, challenged my thinking, and offered suggestions for new ways of rehearsing and being. Listening to the voices of women about their experiences has been humbling and rewarding in my journey as a conductor and teacher.


In conjunction with the feminist movement from the 1960s through the 1990s, some educators fused aspects of feminist theory and gender research with pedagogical approaches in the classroom.1 Lamb, Dolloff, and Howe (2002) expound:

The development of feminist theory and gender research has resulted in an expansion in our conceptions of what “matters” in school and university classrooms. What (p. 186) matters is not only the musical content of our programs but our pedagogy—how we interact musically and personally with our students, the way we design our musical environments to be inclusive of and to provide opportunities for all students. (p. 660)

The impact of the values of feminism on education developed into feminist pedagogy, which explores an inclusive and empowering manner of teaching.

This chapter focuses on what matters—pedagogy and its influence on singers. An overview of the inception of feminist pedagogy and its main tenets lays the groundwork for a qualitative research case study with Professor Whitley’s collegiate women’s choir. Professor Whitley was selected for this study because she is a nationally renowned conductor whose rehearsal approaches align with the values of feminist pedagogy. Professor Whitley is a senior level faculty member at a Research 1 university in the United States. Under her direction, the women’s choir has become one of the premier choirs at the university and has been featured at state, regional, and national ACDA conventions. The study illustrates nontraditional rehearsal methods rooted in values of feminism and it demonstrates ways in which those methods affect female singers as individuals and musicians. The methods presented are collaborative in nature: inviting the thoughts and opinions of singers through discussion, inviting singer decision making through sound, and giving singers opportunities to reflect upon multiple meanings and making meaning. A substantive portion of this chapter’s content is derived from a previous research project, which follows the guidelines set up by the Institutional Review Board pertaining to the protection of research participant identity (Wolfe, 2015). Consequently, the names of the research participants are pseudonyms.

Feminist Pedagogy

The inception of feminist pedagogy

The feminist movement advocates for equal rights for all people with particular support for marginalized populations (e.g., women); respects myriad differences among people, such as gender, sex, sexual orientation and identity, race, ethnicity, social class, religion, exceptionalities, and age; and welcomes varied and even conflicting voices. Feminist pedagogy emerged from these values of the feminist movement and their application in education. Several works of literature were influential in the inception of feminist pedagogy (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986; Gilligan, 1982/1993; Noddings, 1984). Previous to the publication of these works, women and feminine qualities were often excluded in research and in theoretical discourse. Because of their absence in preceding research and theory, works by Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (1986), Gilligan (1982/1993), and Noddings (1984) focus on women and/or feminine qualities. Men, however, are not excluded: Some men develop, learn, and function in the ways presented in these seminal works, which may differ from conclusions found (p. 187) in previous research and theories (Gilligan, 1982/1993, p. xiii; 2011, p. 25). In addition, women do not necessarily develop, learn, and function in the same way as one another. Groundbreaking research by authors such as Belenky and Gilligan challenges former long-standing perspectives and reveals various ways of development and learning for both men and women. For the purposes of this chapter, I give a brief overview of the results of research by Belenky et al. that pertain to teaching approaches in the classroom (1986).

Women’s Ways of Knowing presents the results of a qualitative research study conducted by four women psychologists who interviewed 135 female students (high school, college, or recent alumnae) and 45 mothers from various social classes and races (Belenky et al., 1986). The study explored “how women’s self-concepts and ways of knowing are intertwined” and “how women struggle to claim the power of their own minds” (p. 3). In addition, they examined how the institutions of the family and the school “promote and hinder women’s development” (p. 4). Aspects of the Belenky et al. study particularly pertinent to the present case study addressed the inclusion of personal experience in learning, the midwife-teacher model, and connectedness within the learning process.

Belenky et al. (1986) stated, “Most of the women we interviewed were drawn to the sort of knowledge that emerges from firsthand observation” (p. 200), even though the majority of their institutional education emphasized abstract or out-of-context learning. Although many of the women did not oppose an abstract approach to learning, they preferred to “start from personal experience” (p. 202) and to “make meaning of their experiences” (p. 203). The participants named out-of-school learning as the most powerful in their lives (p. 200), but the most empowering courses they attended helped them “translate their ideas … [from] private experience into a shared public language” (p. 203). Giving women time to explore the connections between firsthand experiences and constructing new knowledge may be a more beneficial educational approach for women (p. 229).

Most of the research participants “lacked confidence” in themselves as thinkers (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 193). This struggle, according to the study, was directly related to suppressing one’s thoughts and ideas. The authors presented a new model of teaching called the midwife-teacher model that addressed this struggle:

Many women expressed … a belief that they possessed latent knowledge. The kind of teacher they praised and the kind for which they yearned was one who would help them articulate and expand their latent knowledge: a midwife-teacher. Midwife-teachers are the opposite of banker-teachers. While the bankers deposit knowledge in the learner’s head, the midwives draw it out. They assist the students in giving birth to their own ideas, in making their own tacit knowledge explicit and elaborating it … They support their students’ thinking but they do not do the students’ thinking for them or expect the students to think as they do. (pp. 217–218)

The midwife-teacher model opposes the banker-teacher model because it encourages students to voice and develop their own ideas, rather than simply giving ideas to students.2

(p. 188) The midwife-teacher model encourages dialogue and community within the classroom, which can result in connectedness through shared knowledge construction. In community, rather than a hierarchy, “people get to know each other. They do not act as representatives of positions or as occupants of roles but as individuals with particular styles of thinking” (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 221). Teachers and students alike, “engage in the process of thinking, and they talk out what they are thinking in a public dialogue” (p. 219). Watching professors solve and fail to solve problems within a shared knowledge construction process gives the research participants healthy “models of thinking as a human, imperfect, and attainable activity” (p. 217).

Belenky et al. (1986) purported that traditional education “do[es] not adequately serve the needs of women” (p. 4). They concluded that,

[E]‌ducators can help women develop their own authentic voices if they emphasize connection over separation, understanding and acceptance over assessment, and collaboration over debate; if they accord respect to and allow time for the knowledge that emerges from firsthand experience; if instead of imposing their own expectations and arbitrary requirements, they encourage students to evolve their own patterns of work based on the problems they are pursuing. (p. 229)

Based on the results of their study, Belenky et al. (1986) illustrated how some women may benefit from classrooms that are less hierarchical than the traditional model. Professors within these classrooms incorporate nonhegemonic pedagogical approaches, such as the inclusion of personal experience in learning, the opportunity to voice and develop student ideas, and co-constructing knowledge with teachers and students through dialogue. The results of this study by Belenky et al. (1986) align with values of feminist pedagogy.

Characteristics of feminist pedagogy

Feminist pedagogy is often misconstrued as “curriculum reform, analysis of girls’ and women’s experiences in educational environments, teaching about women, teaching feminist ideas, and teaching done by self-identified feminists” (Crabtree, Sapp, & Licona, 2009, p. 2). Feminist pedagogy includes advocacy for women and promotes the inclusion and liberation of all people—particularly those who are marginalized. In addition, feminist pedagogues move toward the following five aspects in praxis: equalization of power, collaboration, affective learning, inclusiveness of diversity, and social responsibility (Crabtree et al., 2009; Kimmel, 1999; Shrewsbury, 1997). Inclusion of diversity and social justice are not directly studied in this case study or included in this chapter: Such topics are addressed in the choral music profession through publications pertaining to repertoire selection (Holt & Jordan, 2008; Wahl, 2009) and community engagement (Saltzman Romey, Sweet, & Wanyama, 2009).

(p. 189) Equalization of power

Moving toward an equalization of power counteracts the hierarchical construct of the teacher-dominated classroom and teacher-student relationship by empowering each individual to express his or her voice (Shrewsbury, 1997, p. 168–169). Rather than the teacher being treated as the only person that brings knowledge to the classroom, each individual, student and teacher alike, is considered knowledgeable based on the intellectual and experiential insights they bring. The teacher invites students to share their voices to enhance the learning of all present (including the teacher) and encourage the development of students as individuals. All persons are invited to talk and listen to one another, to express their inner selves, and to honor each individual. This respectful relating leads to collaboration.


Collaboration is multidimensional in the feminist classroom, involving (but not limited to) curriculum, method, and community. The presumed responsibility of the teacher is to create, compile, and/or organize the curriculum of a course. In contrast, feminist pedagogues invite “students to participate in decisions about the content and process of the class, asking for feedback about the class and teaching methods throughout the course, and co-teaching the course” (Kimmel, 1999, p. 65). Students are given greater levels of involvement and responsibility regarding almost all aspects of the course. As a result, they use high-level cognitive skills and “develop skills of planning, negotiating, evaluating, and decision making” (Shrewsbury, 1997, p. 169). Being involved in a course to this degree not only engages students intellectually, but also creates a space for relationships to develop among students and between student and teacher. This sense of “connectedness” (Shrewsbury, 1997, p. 171) caused by collaborative decision making and feedback, combined with the autonomy of each person sharing their voice, inspires community in the classroom.

Inclusion of affective learning

At a feminist practice conference in 1994, a pedagogical group decided on the major tenets of feminist pedagogy and agreed that “emotions are central to learning” (Kimmel, 1999, p. 67). Kimmel stated that, “Inclusion of the affective domain is part of a student-centered education movement that focuses on student development as part of the instructional mandate” (p. 67). Intellectual and emotional development are intertwined. To separate them in the classroom negates a part of the student. Since feminist “teachers demonstrate sincere concern for their students as people and as learners,” they seek to support students as whole individuals (Crabtree et al., 2009, p. 4–5). Fostering the integrity of the student—the person inside and outside of the course, the emotional and cognitive growth, the individuality and membership of a team—allows students to be “wholehearted” learners in the classroom (hooks, 1994, p. 193).

(p. 190) Seeking to define feminist pedagogy

At its core, feminist pedagogy is a “movement against hegemonic educational practices that … reproduce an oppressively gendered, classed, racialized, and androcentric social order” (Crabtree et al., 2009, p. 1). Feminist pedagogues seek the wholehearted development of individuals through learning environments that are “cooperative rather than competitive, attentive to student experiences, and concerned with the personal and relational aims and sources of knowledge” (Maher & Tetreault, 1992, p. 58). Feminist pedagogy is simultaneously caring, holistic, inclusive, engaging, empowering, and liberating for all individuals.

Based on the extensive qualitative research study by Belenky et al. (1986), I purport that incorporating the values of feminist pedagogy into the women’s choral rehearsal could benefit women singers as individuals and musicians. These values challenge traditional hegemonic methods that may not serve female singers well (Koza, 1994, p. 74). With the exception of O’Toole’s dissertation (1994), I have not found any other studies that examine the effects of the incorporation of the values of feminist pedagogy into the choral rehearsal. Additional research is needed.

Case Study Overview: Feminist Pedagogy in the Women’s Choral Rehearsal

While researching feminist pedagogy, I crossed paths with two conductors who were former students of Professor Whitley. I shared the concepts of my research with them and they both felt that Professor Whitley’s teaching reflects feminist pedagogy. They encouraged me to contact her. When I met with Professor Whitley, she and I confirmed that her philosophy and methods align with feminist pedagogy. As a result, she agreed for her collegiate Women’s Ensemble to be the case study site.

The fieldwork for the study consisted of two 80-minute rehearsal observations; one three-hour interview with Professor Whitley; and nine 80-minute individual interviews with undergraduate and graduate female singers with varying musical experience (non-music and music majors). The initial data collection totaled 18 hours.3 The singers were contacted via an online survey forwarded to them by Professor Whitley’s graduate assistant (Wolfe, 2015, Appendix C). The survey determined if singers were experts who had participated in previous choirs and could compare their experience in Women’s Ensemble with past experiences. 12 singers that completed the survey were considered experts and invited to participate. Of the 12, nine women responded to the invitation: Alicia, Anna, Delaney, Dorothy, Hannah, Lilia, Natalia, Maeve, and Sarafina. I hired someone unrelated to the research participants to transcribe the interviews in which pseudonyms were used. I reviewed each transcription with the recording, edited (p. 191) the transcriptions for accuracy, coded each portion of the transcriptions and rehearsal observations, and organized the data based on themes.4

Collaboration and meaning-making were two themes evident throughout each singer interview and are discussed in this chapter. The conductor’s perspective of her philosophy and methods are presented, followed by the singers’ perspectives of methods and selected common effects of those methods on the singers.

Collaboration in the choral rehearsal: conductor perspective

Conductor philosophy

Professor Whitley: In broad strokes, I want students to see me as approachable. I want them to know that I am there to collaborate and to facilitate. I am not there to tell them how to do it. I want them to be able to leverage their own knowledges and experiences and grow that in the context of community—the idea that corporate expertise is always stronger than any single person’s.

At the heart of Professor Whitley’s philosophy is the belief that singers in the choir are knowledgeable and individually valuable. Knowledge is defined in a broad sense: Regardless of a singer’s musical expertise, students are considered knowledgeable through their various talents, their intellectual pursuits, and life experiences.5 Rather than a classroom focused on the conductor sharing his/her knowledge and creating the music based on the conductor’s interpretation alone, Professor Whitley invites singers to creatively engage in the music-making process and actively share their various ways of knowing. This approach does not negate the knowledge or preparation of the conductor. Professor Whitley enters the rehearsal with a thorough preparation of the score, her conducting gesture, the rehearsal procedure, etc. In addition, she approaches the music-making process in ways that give students opportunities to lead, to make their own musical choices, and to share their thoughts about the music-making process.

This philosophy manifests in Professor Whitley’s rehearsal through myriad approaches:

  • rehearsing and performing selected repertoire without a conductor;

  • ensemble rehearsal formations that decenter the conductor;

  • discussing the reasoning behind various conductor decisions (e.g., soloist selection and voice placement);

  • collectively deciding on criteria for selecting soloists and voting on soloist selection;

  • encouraging students to lead portions of the rehearsal;

  • singing in the choir when graduate students conduct;

  • initiating discussion regarding interpretation and meaning of the music by inviting the thoughts and opinions of the singers; and

  • asking thought-provoking questions to help students make musical decisions (Wolfe, 2015, p. 102).

(p. 192) Each of the listed approaches influences singers positively and aligns with feminist pedagogy. The last two approaches—initiating discussion by inviting the thoughts and opinions of singers and asking thought-provoking questions to help students make musical decisions—were the methods most thoroughly discussed by the interviewees and, therefore, are examined in this chapter.

Conductor overview of method

professor whitley:What if you are presented with a student who says, “Why are we singing that phrase in that way because to me it looks like actually this is an intensity in the composition, not a retreat?” … what if, in fact, we don’t take a defensive posture and [instead] say, “Let’s try it that way. Let’s sing it that way. What do we think about that?” Am I willing as a teacher to shift my view because of the input of an ensemble member? I hope so. And that is a very different thing, isn’t it, than what we think of as a democratic classroom? So the idea that students vote on where the breath happens, that is a misunderstanding, I think, of an inclusive classroom that allows for the views of students to be expressed.

nana:[How do you] help create that inclusive environment?

professor whitley:You have to provide that opening for them to participate, so there has to be an invitation. That can be a direct invitation in the form of a question. It can be an indirect invitation, which is to say that they know that their thoughts are valued and I will hear them. If they put their hand up, they will be recognized. And that informal invitation comes over a period of time because you have to set up a situation of safety and trust in order for that to happen.

Professor Whitley described rehearsal collaboration as inclusive, where students’ thoughts and ideas are welcomed, heard, and considered in the music-making process. She differentiates this inclusive environment from a democratic environment. A democratic environment gives each participant the opportunity to vote on every decision. In a choral rehearsal setting, an exclusively democratic approach could prove to be inefficient and laborious. Contrastingly, an inclusive environment intentionally invites students to participate more fully in the music-making process. Through thought-provoking questions, students are invited to discuss musical ideas and think about the music more deeply rather than simply respond to what they see in a conducting gesture, what they are verbally told by the conductor, and/or what they see in the musical score.

Collaboration in the choral rehearsal: student perspective

Method 1: Collaboration through inviting discussion. Each interviewed singer described the collaborative process through discussion within the rehearsal. Dorothy and Lilia recounted specific examples of these conductor-initiated conversations:

dorothy:[Professor Whitley] will say, “Let’s try this sound with this piece of music,” or maybe “Let’s try this or maybe I like that better.” So, it is like she has that structured, formulated plan of what she wants it to sound like, but it is almost like (p. 193) she is still playing devil’s advocate in her mind … And she will even ask us, “Do you like that sound better? Good. Me too.” So it is a collaborative environment. Yes, she is leading, but she is also asking our input as well.

lilia:A lot of times she asks us for opinions about, “Okay, how should this sound and why?” … There is always that sense of democracy. A lot of times we make musical decisions together …

Professor Whitley has a clear sense of her musical options as a conductor and leans toward her preferred interpretive decisions. Nevertheless, she includes the singers in the interpretive process by inviting their input. Dorothy described an experimentation process in rehearsal. Professor Whitley has a rehearsal plan, but allows time for the ensemble to sing portions of the music multiple ways asking for feedback. Dorothy and Lilia both gave a picture of a conductor who knows what “she wants,” but still felt they were included in a process where some musical decisions were made “together.” Lilia believed the process had a sense of democracy. Although it is not a true democracy, these descriptions point toward a collaborative environment where singers feel included in making musical decisions.

Method 2: Collaboration through inviting decision making through sound. Asking thought-provoking questions encouraged students to make their own musical decisions. Answers to these questions were evidenced by a change in singing. Natalia described an example of a question that provoked students to think about the musical composition in a different way and respond through singing:

natalia:We will sing it once and then she says, “Now can you look in this section and see where your color may change?” And then she just has us do it. So, it is involving us almost entirely … It is just [like] saying, “Use your musicianship, please.”

Professor Whitley posed a question asking about where an appropriate color change should occur based on the composition. She gave the singers an opportunity to choose and then had them sing again. To Natalia, it was a reminder to use her “musicianship” and an opportunity to share her thoughts through her singing.

I observed this pedagogical approach multiple times throughout each rehearsal. Below is one example:

Professor Whitley said, “Think through this section. Are [the phrases] all equal? We will sing through it and be ready to answer that question after we sing.” They sang through to the end. “Very nicely done. How many measures comprise a phrase, 2 or 4?” Many singers answered “4.” “So, what’s going to help you know how to sing this section?” A few students responded. “How about harmony? Texture? Where you are in your range? … Let’s sing again and change it with those things in mind.”

She asked questions to help the singers engage with the composition at a deep level, but did not dictate for the singers how they should interpret the music. Rather than giving them specific verbal direction, she asked singers to think about aspects of the composition and how that could affect their sound. This approach invited the singers to be more (p. 194) thoughtful about the music and allowed them the freedom to make their own musical decisions based on the composition.

Impact of collaborative methods on singers

Each singer experienced positive outcomes on her musicianship resulting from rehearsal approaches that invite discussion and decision making through sound. The common effects illustrated in this chapter are increased mental engagement, confidence in one’s abilities, ownership of the musical product, and increased musicianship.

Increased mental engagement

Anna, Dorothy, Natalia, and Sarafina described an increased mental engagement with the music after thought-provoking questions were posed in rehearsal. Dorothy described an increased sense of mental engagement in general terms: She said, “[Collaboration] makes me think more about how music can be performed in different way.” In the following examples, Anna expressed a greater understanding of the music, while Natalia and Sarafina exemplified heightened creativity.

nana:How does [being allowed to have an opinion] make you feel?

anna:I like it a lot better “cuz it helps me understand things better because then I actually get it rather than memorizing something.”

natalia:And when she says that it makes me realize, “Okay, switch your brain back on. You are a talented musician. What choices would you make in this piece?”

sarafina:And she will many times say, “So, this word here, how can we color this differently?” And then we make a musical choice together and I think that making musical choices is a right brain activity. Instead of saying, “This note could really use some vibrato. Sing more vibrato here. This note could be straight, just sing this note straight,” [Professor Whitley says something like,] “What do you think the color is on the word serene? … Sing it!”

Anna felt that her understanding of the music increased when she was asked her opinion. Simply memorizing a response or doing what she was told did not give her understanding. Having an opportunity to choose helped her get it. When Professor Whitley asked questions, Natalia was reminded to think critically about the music and sing with intention. This interaction helped bring her musicianship from a posture of going through the motions of learning the notes to creating expressive music. Sarafina delineated the difference between the effects of a conductor telling singers what to do versus a conductor inviting singers’ choices in the music-making process. She experienced the use of primarily left-brain activity when being told by a conductor what/how to sing. In contrast, when she was asked a question that invited her to make a decision and sparked her imagination, her whole mind was fully engaged. With all four women, the inclusive decision-making process produced mental engagement through opportunities to make decisions, enhanced understanding of the music, and/or imaginative creativity.

(p. 195) Confidence

The collaborative and inclusive environment of Women’s Ensemble gave Alicia, Delaney, and Lilia a sense of confidence.

alicia:Whenever [Professor Whitley said], “I could not decide if I want this cut off here.” or “Here, can we please sing it both ways?” as a conductor, I feel relieved … It is nice to know I have room to experiment with that before I make the decision because I feel that the perfectionist in me says that you need to make a decision now so you look prepared in front of people.

delaney:It has brought up my confidence as a musician especially because I am so new. I don’t really have very much experience, so it is nice to still be respected and know that I can make my choices … That really boosted my confidence and it helps me feel that I belong here and this is what I am born to do.

nana:What has that [collaborative] process taught you about your own intuition, your own thoughts, your own musicianship?

lilia:To trust it. I think that people don’t realize that their creative instincts are usually valuable. Even if it is different from someone else’s … that doesn’t mean that it is wrong … I think that we probably all feel like really good musicians in her choir because she wants us to make decisions and she wants us to do what we think we should do with the sound.

Although Alicia did not use the word “confidence,” I believe the meaning of her statement points toward confidence. For Alicia, seeing Professor Whitley experiment in rehearsal gave her confidence to experiment within her own rehearsals, rather than feeling the need to be prepared with all of the right answers. She believed this freedom counteracted her struggle with perfectionism. For Delaney, having the opportunity to make decisions and share her thoughts (regardless of her level of experience) made her feel respected and boosted her confidence. In addition, it gave her a sense of belonging and assurance in her career path. Because Professor Whitley asked for her thoughts, Lilia felt her thoughts were valuable. The freedom to make creative choices gave Lilia the opportunity to trust her own musicianship. Her descriptions of trusting her musicianship and feeling like a good musician implied her sense of confidence grew from the collaborative process in Women’s Ensemble. The confidence that Alicia, Delaney, and Lilia have gained stemmed from experiencing a process that incorporated the freedom of choice in music-making, from making musical choices of their own, and from feeling that their choices and opinions are valued.


Delaney, Dorothy, and Natalia spoke of taking ownership in rehearsal through making their own musical choices:

delaney:… a lot of times when you are a musician you just listen to the conductor, and the conductor is right. They are always going to be right. But when she asks you how to do it right, you think, “What can I do to make it better?” (p. 196)

dorothy:[Professor Whitley] asked the choir, “How should this sound? What do you want the audience to be feeling here? … What do you think it should sound like?” So again, making it a more collaborative, more empowering environment, ownership for the choir.

natalia:It makes me feel that your input into what this choir is doing is very important … So it does give you a sense of ownership.

Delaney described how asking questions of the singers moved the responsibility of the music-making from the conductor to the singers. She now thinks about how “I” can make it better. Dorothy saw that specifically asking for singers’ thoughts was empowering and ownership-giving for the choir. Natalia felt that she was given a sense of ownership when her input in musical decision making was invited and valued. Giving students opportunities to make music-making decisions empowered them to take ownership of the musical process and product.

Increased musicianship

Among other research participants, Anna, Dorothy, Hannah, and Sarafina talked about the freedom to make their own choices within Women’s Ensemble. They connect the act of individual decision making with their growth in musicianship.

nana:[W]‌hat teaching approaches do you feel have influenced you most as a musician?

anna:One would definitely be Professor Whitley’s way of just letting us come to our own conclusion about how we want to let it sound.

nana:How does that process influence you as a musician?

dorothy:Makes me think more about how music can be performed in different ways and that there is not one right answer … I am able to make decisions as a musician … in that it is not just one right way.

hannah:I think the amount of trust that is in the way Professor Whitley teaches helps me grow as a musician on my own versus [in] previous choirs they plot out everything they want you to do … I think to make those decisions on your own is really when you are becoming more of a musician.

sarafina:She gives you room to explore and make corrections on your own without being nit-picky … she lets you be a musician … She has the confidence that you are there to do your job.

These four women expressed the importance of being able to make individual musical choices as a member of an ensemble. Anna and Sarafina took ownership of their music-making by drawing conclusions or making corrections on their own. Dorothy described how having a choice helped her think about her musical options. Hannah described how this collaborative process was different from her previous choirs where she was told what to do and she did it. In Women’s Ensemble, she connected more to the music because she was making decisions and, as a result, was becoming more of a musician. Having a choice in rehearsal combined with feeling trusted to (p. 197) make good musical decisions by the director positively influenced each of the singers as musicians.

Multiple meanings and meaning making: conductor perspective

Conductor philosophy

Professor Whitley described the exploration of the intertwining meaning of text and music as a vehicle to understand others: in history, in other cultures, and from various backgrounds. It was a way to understand oneself in context of others, rather than as separate individuals. It was a path, in Professor Whitley’s words, to learn respect for difference:

I think for them to understand that singing is a way that they understand themselves in the world is really important. You know, when they sing something very unfamiliar to them, if set up in the right way, they can be very reflective about the fact that they don’t really know anything about that world. I think, it teaches them a process for respect, for being respectful of differences. It is an ongoing process that says, “Here are my experiences, here are my experiences that are very different. How do I fit into this? Do I fit into it?”

This philosophy reiterated the aspect of feminist pedagogy that encouraged activism in the world. I see it as the first steps towards social justice—becoming aware of different groups or peoples and respecting those differences. When exploring these differences and meanings, singers are given the opportunities to become aware of their own thoughts and perspectives contextually.

Conductor overview of method

Professor Whitley believed it is important to draw attention continually to the interpretation of the relationship between text and music within the rehearsal in order for personal connections to occur:

[I]‌n an ongoing way, you have to connect the text to music over and over again … [w]e have to discuss what all those possibilities could be. We often come up with more than one view about what text could mean and I think that is really a positive and healthy thing actually. So, let’s look at this range of possibilities and as the individual singer you are going to express the one that makes the most sense to you. It does not matter if people have different views because what comes out is thoughtful.

Professor Whitley encouraged the exploration of multiple meanings. Among these various meanings, students had opportunities to make individual connections with the text and chose which of the multiple meanings made the most sense to them. Singers who (p. 198) were mentally and emotionally engaged with the music, as a result, were thoughtful in their singing.

Multiple meanings and meaning making: student perspective

The following excerpts display various ways in which students are given opportunities to connect with the meanings of the text and music.

After reading [through the text and program notes in the score], Professor Whitley said, “Why does the pianist have to play that repetitive note so much [she sings it]? I am going to have you show the text with your bodies … They all pointed to East, West, North, South, as in the text. Professor Whitley asked, “What do we create? Balance, symmetry, the circle of life. What could that repetitive G mean with that image in mind?”

singer:“I learned in my Asian studies class that Om is the center.”

professor whitley:“I love it when we have cross-class connections! Will you go, ‘Om’?” [All the women chanted, “Om.”] It’s like a meditation bell. This is the same way she grows this composition. The phrasing is not traditional. Why are some phrases long and some short?”

another singer:“We read that it was like a dance. Some movement is longer and some shorter. It reflects movement.”

another singer:“In Buddhism, they believe that you are reincarnated until you reach Nirvana. The section where we escalate could be the end of life. The one where you soar, you finally reach it.” [All exploded in affirming comments and cheering.]

Through questions, Professor Whitley invited the students to make connections with a culture and tradition that may not be their own. By opening up the discussion to the singers (as opposed to telling them the meaning the conductor thought of), students created connections with various meanings. Realizations regarding the meaning(s) of the composition by students caused excitement within the ensemble.

Lilia compares her experience in Women’s Ensemble with her past experiences:

lilia:I would say for 90% of the music we do in Women’s Ensemble, we know exactly what it is about or where it came from … Not just because we are being told how to sing it, but we relate it to something and I think that all choirs do that somewhat but we are very thorough about it in Women’s Ensemble … Sometimes she will just give us a little bit of a thought prompt like, “Can you think about this or this when you are singing this?’ Or she will say, “What does that mean to you?” Or she will just bring our attention to the text and the musical meanings of different parts. And sometimes when we make certain musical decisions, we really pick a piece apart and analyze it. I think, “Oh my gosh … I wish we could tell the audience everything that we have thought about and all the musical decisions because I think that would will help them connect to it more too.”

(p. 199) Lilia said that 90% of the time in Women’s Ensemble, they relate it to something. This in-depth reflection was different than what she had experienced in previous choirs. From her examples of questions that follow this statement, it seems that this relating through thought-provoking questions helped instigate meaning making for her. These connections and decision-making processes were exciting to Lilia: She wanted to share them with the audience, so that they could connect in the same way.

Impact of exploring multiple meanings and meaning making on singers

Self-expression, improved performance experiences, and relationships with and understanding others were three affirmative benefits of exploring multiple meanings and meaning-making in the rehearsal for the interviewed women.


In their interviews, Alicia, Delaney, and Sarafina shared personal and difficult experiences in their lives. They described how exploring the meanings of music gave them opportunities to express those intimate parts of themselves:

alicia:There is a song called “The Kiss” and I think it is about somebody’s kiss not being as great as [they] had hoped for … Professor Whitley said, “Maybe you had a great first kiss, but maybe it doesn’t have to be a kiss. Maybe you have had something in your life that you really hoped would have been great and it ended up just being a huge disappointment.” All of this hung around my wedding. I mean, it’s a happy day. I look back on it, but I can never look at those pictures without thinking of the pain … as soon as she said it, I thought, “Oh great! I have it! And every time I sang that song, there was emotional connection there.”

In other portions of the interview, Alicia shares certain aspects of the events surrounding her wedding that were heartbreaking and disappointing. After Professor Whitley asks a question to help the students personally connect to the meaning of the music, Alicia is able to connect with that painful, personal experience. Connecting with her experience helps Alicia engage in singing the piece and express deep emotion.

nana:Do you feel, as a woman, that it has been important to you to have experienced this [pedagogy in Women’s Ensemble]?

delaney:… [I]‌t helps me express my own emotion that I pent up during the day. I feel better after I sing. I feel better after I can connect with music … I think as a woman, most people expect you to [pent up emotion] because if you are too expressive, they say things like, “You are such a girl.” But if I want to be respected, then you have to hold your head up high and keep charging forward or you are not going to get anywhere. Especially men—if you show your emotion all the time, they are not going to respect you and I definitely need respect here if I want to succeed and be the best teacher I can be.

(p. 200) Delaney feels that being overly expressive is not respected in the academic world, even in the field of music. To be respected as a musician and succeed in music as a profession, she believes emotional suppression is necessary. The emotional connection helps Delaney tap into her own suppressed emotion and release it through singing. It helps her “feel better.”

sarafina:I think one of the reasons why I like music so much is that it forces me … to be more emotional [Tears come to her eyes.]—that I am not very good at doing [laughs uncomfortably] … So, my mother … died when I was 18 … and I think when she died, then I closed myself off to that part of music-making. And I was really good at the analytical stuff, so that is what I excelled at. And with Women’s Ensemble, it has helped me heal somewhat or at least opened up a way for me to explore that emotional side that I am really good at cutting off in any other circumstance … I think it has pushed me to explore … those emotional boundaries and the space to feel that and not be so ashamed to cry when it touches you.

To avoid the pain of her mother’s death, Sarafina tends toward technical aspects in music, such as analysis and theory. The exploration of emotion and personal connection with the texts in Women’s Ensemble gives Sarafina a safe space to experience her grief. This release of emotion through singing, discussion, and tears play a part in her healing.

Improved performance experiences

Delaney and Lilia described improved aspects of performance resulting from the exploration of meanings.

lilia:I feel like certain pieces in my musical life have been transformed by knowing what they were about and especially pieces that maybe I did not connect to initially and then you find out what it is about or you just analyze it a little bit and then it just brings new life to it and it is certainly much more enjoyable to perform and easier to deliver accurately.

delaney:If there is no passion, you are just really analytical and, “This is this part, and this is this part and I need to get this note,” but when you are most passionate and you feel it, your performance is better because when you think too hard you are going to make more mistakes. But when you are feeling it and you feel good about it, it changes the meaning of everything. It is not, “I am supposed to do this here.” Instead, “Oh of course this goes here because it is portraying this feeling.”

Lilia believed her performances were more meaningful and enjoyable because she had the opportunity to explore the multiple meanings of the music. Delaney said this connection to meaning made her feel good in performance. Both Lilia and Delaney talked about how the accuracy of their performance was influenced. Lilia believed the music (p. 201) was easier to deliver accurately and Delaney said that she made fewer mistakes. For Lilia and Delaney, one could deduce that the technical aspects of music come more easily to them because of their personal connection to meaning.

Relationships with and understanding others

Anna, Hannah, Lilia, Natalia, and Maeve experienced the ways in which a deep connection with the music impacted how they thought about and related with others. Lilia and Natalia recognized a change in their thinking, while Anna and Hannah described its influence on how they relate to others.

nana:You mentioned in class how she will bring your attention to the text or the musical meaning. Do you mean she is helping you connect to it personally?

lilia:Yeah, sometimes. But sometimes in a more worldly sense or both, like in a more generalized, “What would this mean to this group of people?” … We did this piece my freshman year … about freedom … liberty and diversity … I remember us having a big discussion about all these cultures and why they come together and it was a piece that was supposed to reflect on a bigger society.

natalia:… it makes me realize things about people or different times or different situations that I have never been in and they change my way of thinking about certain things.

Discussions about text that refer to culture and a bigger society have helped Lilia connect with the world. When Natalia connects to the meaning of a piece, it changes her way of thinking. She learns about other people in situations different from her own. The process of digging deeper into the possible meanings of the text through discussion gave both of these women a broader worldview.

Anna, Hannah, and Maeve felt that aspects of their personal growth (also) resulted from hearing other women and discussing as an ensemble.

anna:It makes me more open to other people’s opinions and their perspectives. Just because I see something one way it doesn’t mean everyone else does.

maeve:You learn from what each person has to say and it is like every person’s input is valued in a way.

hannah:Any kind of collaborative process is good for team building—learning how to be a team player, understanding how people work together, and how we make decisions. That is just good for life.

Discussions in Women’s Ensemble helped Anna be more open to other’s perspectives. Maeve felt she learned from the other singers (as well as the conductor). Hannah was learning to be more of a team player. Through listening to others and making decisions as a group, these three women in their understanding of others, their understanding of music through others, and their understanding of being a member of a team.

(p. 202) Conclusion

When asked to give advice to conductors of women’s choirs, Delaney responded:

You acknowledge that this is a great group of women and once you acknowledge that, you can achieve a lot of great things … When you embrace all the women in your group they are going to feel better about themselves. I feel so much better because [Professor Whitley] embraces all of us as musicians. So if you are in charge, especially of a women’s group, and you take in all these people and you accept them as musicians, they are going to feel so much better and they are going to want to do more.

Delaney summarized the overall sense I received from listening to these women’s voices. The women in this study feel embraced as people and respected as musicians by Professor Whitley through collaborative rehearsal methods. By inviting singers into the decision making process through thought-provoking questions that initiate group discussion or individual responses through sound, singers in the study experienced an increase in mental engagement, confidence in their abilities, ownership in the music-making process, and improved musicianship. The women in the study also benefitted from the exploration of multiple meanings and meaning-making via collaborative methods: It gave them opportunities for self-expression, improved performance experiences, and a capacity to understand and relate with others.

Feminist pedagogy embodies a midwife-teacher approach that challenges traditional hegemonic structures through new ways of being, thinking, and doing (Jorgensen, 2003). Based on my research, I maintain that incorporating feminist values into the choral rehearsal can transform singers and conductors into engaged individuals whose wholehearted energies spill over into the collective music-making process. Most importantly, feminist pedagogy can be a catalyst for encouraging and empowering women as holistic individuals, leaders, and musicians.


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(1.) For more information regarding the three waves of feminism and its historical influence on music education, see Lamb, Dolloff, and Howe (2002).

(2.) Educator and philosopher Paulo Freire originally introduced the banker-teacher model analogy.

(3.) In addition, each singer read the data analysis and participated in a follow-up interview to give feedback. Follow-up interviews totaled 4 hours.

(4.) For interview questions, see Wolfe, 2015, Appendix G.

(5.) Valuing knowledge that originates from various personal experiences reiterates results of the research study by Belenky et al. (1986).