Blog Menu

Empowering Students to Explore Texts Through Group and Self Reflection

By Marla Butke | January 3, 2018

Empowering Students to Explore Texts Through Group and Self Reflection

Deconstructing poetry set to music is an integral part of an authentic choral performance. When the poet is Maya Angelou, the substance of the words holds significant meaning. However, the words have less significance for the choral performance if the text is not analyzed, personalized, or valued by the singers. This article describes the text interpretation process that Otterbein’s Women’s Chorale underwent as they prepared to perform three of the four pieces from the new song cycle, Like Dust I Rise, by Mark Hayes. The texts of the pieces, “On the Pulse of Morning,” “Caged Bird,” and “Equality” by Angelou, called for analysis, reflection, and connection. The choral students found profound meaning in the words, therefore, contributing to a truly authentic performance.

The Process

We began the text exploration process with the voice of Maya Angelou. I played a recording of Ms. Angelou reading the poetry of “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. Hearing her voice helped the women to listen with intent. Ms. Angelou’s voice demands attention, with her expressive punctuation of significant words. This served as an inspirational beginning of the journey in making meaningful music.

During the rehearsal process, much attention was given to the enunciation of the words, emphasizing that the text must be clearly understood by the audience. But more importantly, the time spent on dissecting each word brought the text to the forefront of the learning process.  Various articulations of the text were emphasized to bring out emotional responses as well as make the music more interesting.

Every rehearsal was prompted with the emphasis on personalizing the text by the students.

  • What key words/phrases are meaningful to you?
  • What message does the text serve for our society?
  • Why is the text especially timely in today’s world?
  • What action words motivate your singing?

One of the singer’s stated, “Each piece is personalized for each one of us, tailored to our own struggles and stories."

(The Otterbein Women's Chorale.)

One rehearsal was devoted to the analysis of the text, whereby the ensemble was divided into three groups, one group per piece of music. This occurred after we had been working on the music for several weeks. I provided several interpretations of the texts to stimulate thought and conversation. The commentary written below was a result of that rehearsal.

“On the Pulse of Morning”

The women commented on the amount of action/command words in the text. The words call for action. A discussion of who is the “I” followed.  Is it God, the earth, a spiritual presence? We discussed how “I” needs to be interpreted by the individual as whomever she wants it to be.

Significant Interpretations:

  • Live in the moment and appreciate the little things in life.
  • Just saying “good morning” to another person could mean so much.
  • Love your family It’s never too late to do the right thing.
  • Be courageous.
  • Do not live in fear.

"Caged Bird"

The students believed that the caged bird represented minorities (race, culture, gender) and the free bird stood for the privileged, white Americans. The caged bird is held back but wants freedom. The placement of this piece in the middle of the song cycle is seen as an introspective memoir.

Significant Interpretations:

  • Keep your eyes open to those around you.
  • Being free allows opportunity.
  • All people want, need, and deserve freedom.
  • We hear people crying and we need to help them


The students specifically related this text to the history of women and how historically we have been unequal. The repetition of the word, “equality,” presents the call for equality for women (and all those marginalized) in a demanding way. It is time to open our eyes that equality still is not a part of our culture.

Significant Interpretations:

  • The beauty of the harmonies in this piece are representative of how beautiful equality is and how we need to live together in harmony.
  • The exciting music is representative of a rally for all who are marginalized.
  • Equality is the equivalency of being free.
  • Inequality causes many emotions – sadness, anger, and despair.
  • We need to continue to use our voices and actions for positive change.

The performance itself showed a commitment and passion for this music and text through their voices and their facial expressions. Not only was it an inspirational and musically satisfying performance, it was also evident that the audience was connected as noted through the applause and the comments afterwards. Comments included “what a powerful performance,” “the students were so engaged in the music,” and “they shared the message so brilliantly.”

The debriefing of the performance involved the women discussing their thoughts concerning the performance. While some of the discussion was focused on musical aspects which were mostly positive, the discussion of feelingful responses was profound. The women knew that they had beautifully sung poetry that mattered. One student’s comments convey what choral teachers hope to have their students experience:

“I truly felt blessed to have sung with this group. I felt the music inside and it was so touching. It was hard to fight back the tears.”

Highlights of the Process

  • Start with an inspirational reading of the text.
  • Ask the students to constantly reflect on the text whenever working on the music.
  • Carefully dissect the pronunciation as to make sure the text will be understood by the audience and calls for meticulous attention for the students.
  • Allow students time in small groups to dissect the meaning of the text.
  • Inspire the students to focus on individual meaning of the text immediately before the performance.
  • Discuss the performance afterwards in terms of both music success and the influence of the text on the performance

Choral directors know the importance of selecting the highest quality repertoire for their ensembles. There are many factors in choosing appropriate and meaningful music. This song cycle by Mark Hayes demonstrates outstanding composition, including beautifully crafted melodies with interesting harmonies, and variety in rhythmic elements and diversity in styles. The marriage of music and text is exceptional in this song cycle. We know that teaching just the mechanics of music is not enough to make the music come to life for both the singer and the audience. Our job as choral directors is not to just select quality music, but to seek out texts that can cause change, and to allow our students to be empowered to cause that change.

Learn more about the song cycle "Like Dust I Rise," set to the poetry of Maya Angelou.


Like Dust I Rise

Alfred Music Director of Choral Publications Andy Beck talks about "Like Dust I Rise: A Choral Song Cycle."

Learn More

Marla Butke

Marla Butke, Ph.D., directs the Women's Chorale at Otterbein University and teaches Choral Methods at Capital University. She has previously taught at Ashland University, Xavier University, The Ohio State University, and Ohio Wesleyan University. Her book, co-authored by Dr. David Frego, Meaningful Movement: A Music Teacher's Guide to Dalcroze Eurhythmics, was recently released.

View Author Page 

Want More? Don't miss a beat!

We’re passionate about providing music educators with teaching solutions. Sign up to get inspiration delivered to your inbox!

By joining our email list, you agree to Alfred Music's Privacy Policy.

Join Our Community

Join a community of music enthusiasts with a passion for music education.


Stay Updated

Want to get the latest updates and special offers from Alfred Music?

Join Our Email List


We use cookies to analyze site usage, enhance site usability, and assist in our marketing efforts. By continuing to use this site, you agree to our Cookies Policy, Privacy Policy, and Terms & Conditions.

I Accept