A Model for TESOL Leaders: A Virtual Choir

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

Before the start of a business English class for adult learners in Japan, the students and I were looking at the Virtual Choir 2.0 first presented by composer Eric Whitacre in a 2011 Ted Talk titled A Virtual Choir 2,000 Voices Strong. Although I had watched the TED Talk before, I was focused in this viewing on listening to a leader describing a successful project. As such, I thought that perhaps the TED Talk could be a useful model for ESP project leaders.

In the transcript of the TED Talk, Whitacre describes his vision of the virtual choir.

And I had this idea: if I could get 50 people to all do this same thing, sing their parts—soprano, alto, tenor and bass—wherever they were in the world, post their videos to YouTube, we could cut it all together and create a virtual choir.

The next step in the creation process was communicating to achieve the vision.

I sent out this call to singers. And I made free the download of the music to a piece that I had written in the year 2000 called “Lux Aurumque,” which means “light and gold.” And lo and behold, people started uploading their videos.

In addition to the singers who were submitting their videos, Whitacre began receiving other offers of help to achieve what had become a shared vision.

And from the crowd emerged this young man, Scott Haines. And he said, “Listen, this is the project I’ve been looking for my whole life. I’d like to be the person to edit this all together.” I said, “Thank you, Scott. I’m so glad that you found me.” And Scott aggregated all of the videos. He scrubbed the audio. He made sure that everything lined up.

The Virtual Choir 1.0 was a success! You can see a part of it in the TED Talk. The success led to the creation of Virtual Choir 2.0. However, the vision for a Virtual Choir 2.0 was driven by the singers.

And the video [of Virtual Choir 1.0] went viral. We had a million hits in the first month and got a lot of attention for it. And because of that, then a lot of singers started saying, “All right, what’s Virtual Choir 2.0?”

Whitacre then contributed to creating the vision for Virtual Choir 2.0 and communicated to achieve the vision.

And so I decided for Virtual Choir 2.0 that I would choose . . . “Sleep,” which is another work that I wrote in the year 2000 — poetry by my dear friend Charles Anthony Silvestri. And again, I posted a conductor video, and we started accepting submissions.

The goal was to have over 900 voices, but Whitacre received more than 2,000 videos from 58 different countries.  You can see the first showing of the then unfinished Virtual Choir 2.0 in the same TED Talk.

From another perspective, the Virtual Choir 2.0 could be a model for TESOL International Association. The spheres of singers represent the individual groups (like the ESPIS), and the conductor represents the TESOL Board of Directors. As the singers (and musicians), we need room to interpret the music; i.e., we need room to create, while at the same time keeping an eye on the conductor. (See this TED Talk titled Lead Like the Great Conductors, which shows the different levels of control of the conductor.) In order to understand the “musical score and lyrics” with which TESOL leaders should be familiar, take the Leadership Development Certificate Program. It is free for TESOL members!

In comparison with the creation of the virtual choirs above, consider the creation of an ESP program. In Effective Practices in Workplace Language Training, the authors write

The process of establishing a relationship with a client, conducting needs assessments, designing and developing a training program, and evaluating outcomes is highly iterative. Provider and client often refine their understanding of needs as training, and the formative evaluation that accompanies it, proceeds. In other words, the process of setting up and sustaining a workplace language training program is not linear, but overlapping and ongoing. (p. xi)

In view of such iteration, we could say that the creation of the vision (i,e., the training) and how to achieve the vision (i.e., the delivery of the training) continue to be co-constructed (i.e., negotiated) by the various stakeholders over time.

It is the ongoing creation of an ESP program that appeals to me as an ESP practitioner. This creative aspect of program development brings to mind another TED Talk by the band OK Go titled How To Find a Wonderful Idea.

And when we’re done with that project, people will ask us again how we thought of that idea, and we’ll be stumped, because from our perspective, it doesn’t feel like we thought of it at all, it just feels like we found it.

This seems to be what happens to me while teaching in the classroom, developing programs, or writing. I see how very different pieces can fit together to make something wonderful. In this case, the key is to have a lot of pieces to play with and to have fun experimenting with relationships.

All the best,


Friedenberg, J., Kennedy, D., Lomperis, A., Martin, W., & Westerfield, K., with contributions from van Naerssen, M. (2003). Effective practices in workplace language training: Guidelines for providers of workplace English language training services. Alexandria, VA: TESOL.

About Kevin Knight

Kevin Knight
Kevin Knight (PhD in Linguistics, MBA, MPIA) is an associate professor in the Department of International Communication (International Business Career major) and has also been working in the Career Education Center of Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. In the TESOL ESP Interest Section (ESPIS), he has served as chair and English in occupational settings (EOS) representative, and he is currently the ESPIS community manager. He was also a member of the Governance Review Task Force (GRTF) appointed by the board of directors. In addition, he has been a TESOL blogger in the area of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). He has more than 30 years of professional experience working for private, public, and academic sector institutions including Sony and the Japan Patent Office. His doctoral research on leadership communication (i.e., discourse) as a basis for leadership development was under the supervision of Emeritus Professor Christopher Candlin and Dr. Alan Jones.
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2 Responses to A Model for TESOL Leaders: A Virtual Choir

  1. Tarana Patel says:

    Hi Kevin, I really enjoyed this analogy of the Virtual Choir for the TESOL Community and for ESP’ers. That TED Talk is one of my favorites. The paragraph you cite from “Effective Practices in Workplace Language Training” speaks directly to my experience so far. As I launch the first iteration of a mobile game App for conversation skills practice in India, I realize that my work has only begun. My audiences will teach me more and there are more ideas out there that will find me… or I’ll find them. Thanks again for an insightful piece.

  2. Joe McVeigh Joe McVeigh says:

    Kevin — I love the Virtual Choir and the idea of using it as an analogy for teaching and for the TESOL Association is brilliant. I’m an avid choral musician and I have often compared notes with other singing TESOLers about the similarities between conducting a choir and conducting a good class. I think there are many! But thanks for making this connection between the Virtual Choir and TESOL. A great idea!

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