Educator Spotlight: Chris Munce
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Educator Spotlight: Chris Munce
March 3, 2022
March is Music in Our Schools Month. In honor of that, we are talking to educators about everything from what their current role is, to how they got their start, and what they think the future of music education looks like. First up is Chris Munce, Choir Director and Host of the Choralosophy Podcast!
Tell us a little about who you are and what you do?
“I’m Chris Munce. I teach choir and direct choirs in a variety of ways. The way I usually explain my job is that I facilitate music opportunities for people and for me that looks like school music grades 9 – 12, church choir, a community organization that runs a professional choir and a summer institute for kids, podcasting, and talking about choir.
For me, I do a lot of jobs for a lot of different organizations but it’s all choir. So, I just kind of wrapped my life around choir and I grew up doing it, too. My mom was a choir director when I was a kid so it’s in the family.”
How did you come to start Choralosophy?
“Three years ago; actually, we’re about to the third anniversary for my show which started in mid-February of 2019 before the weirdness and craziness of the pandemic. I had a church position that was one of my part time positions and the church was struggling with some financial and staffing issues and decided that I was too expensive, so I got cut and I needed something to do. I needed something to do that could potentially become a job, but I also needed something to do just to fill my time.
I’m a high speed, high functioning person so I needed something to pour my energy into and one of my colleagues at school said, “Chris, you talk like all the time. You should just turn on a microphone because you’re already doing it. You’re already talking.” That gave me some encouragement in that early time to just think about the idea and I actually didn’t anticipate at that moment that it would become a thing, but I just did it because I had some extra time.
I called it Choralosophy because I’m a huge philosophy nerd and everything about the way I teach is rooted in a philosophical study, so I thought that was a perfect title. I just turned on the mic one day and had no idea what I was doing and just gradually got better at it.”
How has that experience been over these first 3 years?
“When I try to explain to people what the last three years has been like, it’s really hard to explain it in a way that anyone would understand because it’s such a weird life to live with basically all of your inner thoughts on the internet.
It’s a weird thing for people because when we use social media, we tend to guard the details of our thoughts. We tend to put the short version of what we think, if anything at all, on the internet and the entire business model of a podcaster essentially is to speak in long form conversations in detail about things and so there’s a vulnerability there.
Then of course, the show has grown to the point where it was just me talking into the microphone hoping someone would listen to now where I’m interacting with thousands of people every month who are listening to these long-form conversations, unlike a TikTok star who has a million viewers – those people only interact with content for 60 seconds. It’s almost like I’m making friends across the world with people who really get to know me, and I get to know them with their questions, so it’s been really, really cool but also very vulnerable and kind of scary sometimes.”
Is there anything you’ve learned that was unexpected?
“I have learned some things that were unexpected, and one is that I wasn’t really expecting the outpouring of private support I was going to get throughout the show. In other words, people write in messages or emails, and it kind of goes back to what I said about people being generally nervous to put their opinions on the internet, but people are very open to sending private messages and emails and those types of things. Like, “Hey, thank you so much for that episode you did where you really talked about X, Y, or Z in a way I’ve never heard it talked about before and I felt validated, or I felt like I’m not alone.” Or maybe just some educator concerns or issues that people might have where they’ve never heard someone talk about it, so they didn’t know that they weren’t crazy.
I’ve been surprised at the sheer volume of educators, teachers, and musicians out there who are able to use the podcast format as a way to feel heard and to feel like they’re engaged in professional development especially in the pandemic when they weren’t able to be in community with each other. So, it’s been pretty fascinating.”
How do you balance and manage all your different roles?
“Obviously, school is my main job. It’s my full-time job. It’s where my priority lies. Now, podcasting is great as a side-job because I get to decide when it happens. If I have a couple weekends that are free and I want to bust out four episodes and then be done working for a month, I can do that all in a weekend. I could theoretically get four done because at three years into this, my editing and publishing process has gotten really fast so I can pop things out. Of course, I’ve invested in better computer equipment that churns out my content real quickly so I can formulate that around my school work and I can make it work when it works for my life.
So, part of it is just balancing my calendar so I’m efficient with the time and then with my church work, I do very, very part-time church work. I used to do in-depth church work but now I’m just there on Sunday mornings to help out with the choir. They have other people who help run other parts of the music aspects of the church, but I’m just there to facilitate a choir on Sunday mornings so it’s not that big of a deal as far as time.
Of course, with the community group, that’s also customizable because I run that organization, so it tends to just slide into whatever parts of my school year aren’t crazy busy. It’s like the analogy where busy people have to put the big rocks in the jar first, then put in the pebbles so they sink down. After that, you pour the sand in and then you think the jar is full, but you can still pour some water in. Prioritizing my time is how I do it all and stay sane.”
Have you learned things through conversations you’ve had on the podcast that you’ve applied to your own choir?
“All the time. In fact, I always tell people, as the host of the show, I get free one-on-one professional development every single week with super smart people and educators from all over the world. I get these ideas and these ways to think about things and tricks to try in the classroom and quite frequently, it’s become kind of a joke where I come into the classroom after doing a podcast and the kids kind of roll their eyes when I talk about, “Oh, I learned a thing.”
And they’re like, “On a podcast last night?”
I’m like, “Yeah, I learned a thing and we’re going to try this new thing.”
And they’re like, “Ugh ok.”
But most of the time they’re things that are going to benefit my kids and my classroom when we come in with these new tricks and new things to try so it’s really, really good.”
How has choir changed over the past couple years in ways beyond the obvious things like masks and social distancing?
“Choir is now choir in an obstacle course.
That’s really what choir has become in the last two years for a lot of people and it depends on where you are in the country. I would say we have definitely not had it the strictest in the Kansas City area, but we are not free and open either. We’re kind of in the middle of what some places have dealt with in terms of COVID restrictions like when to wear a mask, when not to wear a mask, when there has to be distance, how much distance, and those types of things.
The way I’ve tried to keep kids understanding is that at least we get to be here. I know people that still aren’t even in school and we get to be here. Yes, we have to put these things on our face. Yes, we have to spread out around the room, but we get to be together, and we get to make music together live and in-person and that’s huge.
So, it’s become a lot of pep talking with kids because kids are really struggling mentally and emotionally right now and have been for the last year and a half. This has hit them mentally and emotionally harder than I think a lot of adults even realize because they either don’t want to know, or they just don’t ask.
Of course, as the choir teacher, we are often the one in the building that these kids come and talk to because we’re the ones that have known them for four years, or even two or three years and their math teacher has only known them for a year.
The other thing is that in moments of choir that now feel a little bit more normal as certain restrictions have gone away, there is the residual issue of kids that have been in online school or pulled out of school for a while, getting them to feel like they have the motivation to come back to normal levels of business. That’s a challenge, too, but I’ll give an optimistic final answer to your question. The critical things about choir, the things that make choir choir for all of us that did it when we were kids, that part hasn’t changed. That’s still there. We’re a community, we’re together, we’re making music, and that’s what it’s always been. Like I said, we’re doing it in an obstacle course.”
What does the future of choir look like?
On the flip side of what I said earlier where motivation is a struggle for kids that are feeling like there’s constantly this weight on their shoulders from the pandemic, I have noticed a maturity in young kids in particular. My elderly church choir came back after a year and a half of not singing and they’re like kids again. They come in so excited to be able to sing because something they’re loved their whole life was taken away and they appreciate it in a different way and the kids with their maturity are different than pre-pandemic. Yes, they’re down in the dumps sometimes, but if you really talk to them about how we should appreciate what we have, they’re more receptive to that and they get it. The collective trauma we all had – with trauma we all share a common pain – has led to some really great conversations.
So, for the future of choral music, if we’re smart, we build on that in order to rebuild the musical skills that maybe we’re behind on. We use that togetherness to motivate people to build on those things to make a bigger and better choir world than we’ve ever had.
What does music education mean to you?
“I have answers to this that are different than what is probably the typical answer. Because of what I do now, I’ve been forced to talk through this with so many people that my answer is different than what it was two years ago.
Here’s how I would answer that. Music education to me is a simultaneous pursuit of excellence and community and they are interdependent in my mind. In other words, the community grows as the musical product becomes more excellent and the musical product becomes more excellent as the community grows. I don’t mean grows in terms of numbers. It’s not all about how many people you have in your choir, but as the community grows in its connection, in its sense of reliance upon each other, in its maturity, and maybe in recruiting more people. If that’s all connected to the collective pursuit of excellent music making, then those things fuel each other.
What we’re teaching as a result in music education is that excellent, awesome, amazing, wonderful accomplishments are possible especially when we work together. Trying to separate those two ideas out to me is impossible. They have to both happen together.”
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