A Band Director’s Guide to Teaching Chorus, Part 2
By NAfME Member Tom Sabatino
Article Originally Posted on JW Pepper Blog
Are you a band director yet you find yourself teaching chorus? In Part 1: Preparing Your Singers I discussed setting up and managing the choral room, breathing and warm-ups, and reading music. Now you’re ready for
Part 2: Choosing Music
When deciding which music to choose, consider the following questions:
What are the demographics of the choir for which you are selecting music?
- Age of the choir?
Elementary, middle school, high school, etc.
- How many in the class?
Similar to selecting music for band, the total number of voices in the chorus can help determine the complexity of the pieces you choose.
- How many sopranos, altos, tenors, basses?
This is very important when determining the voicings you choose – SATB, SAB, three-part mixed, SA, etc. Play to the choir’s strengths. If it is predominantly sopranos and altos with a few basses and tenors, SAB and three-part mixed might be the way to start. But don’t underestimate the value and artistic potential of a unison or two-part piece for choirs at any level. There can be great beauty in simplicity.
- Skill level?
If this is a new job, research a few prior years’ concert programs and recordings to gauge what was previously programmed (and how well the choir performed those selections).
What’s the choral library like?
- Lots to choose from?
Take some time to peruse the titles. Old concert programs can reveal a lot about the history of a music program, from frequency of titles selected to styles of music performed. At least for now, you’ll want to stick with what returning students and the choral program in general is most comfortable singing. The goal here is to provide a positive musical experience for all involved. It doesn’t have to be note-heavy, flashy, difficult or gimmicky to succeed. Oftentimes less is more. Simple can be successful.
- Small or no library?
There are plenty of online resources including J.W. Pepper which offers Editors’ Choice recommendations and Basic Library repertoire as well as significant search bar options.
I suggest you start with a simple unison piece to hear what kind of vocal sound your choir can produce. One of the most flexible and easy-to-learn patriotic songs is America. A folk tune such as The Water Is Wide has a familiar easy-to-learn melody that can ensure immediate success. Consider a two- or three-part mixed arrangement, especially if the choir is small. Pop tunes can be fun to sing, particularly at the beginning of the year, creating enthusiasm for singing. However, take care to choose quality, age-appropriate lyrics and arrangements that fit the vocal ranges and needs of your group. And make sure the rhythms are not too difficult in the pop arrangements. With pop tunes, young singers will rely more on the recordings they’ve stored in their heads rather than reading the music in front of them. Also consider these secular easy to medium-easy options.
Rehearsing the Music
This is an area that can take on a multitude of flavors. Depending on your situation – the level you are teaching and the experience of the program before your leadership – there may well be procedures in place that you can adopt for now and adapt later as your program evolves. Rehearsing a band can involve reading through passages as a group, having individual sections play certain parts, cleaning up rhythms, setting balances, addressing expression marks, note correction, and occasionally talking about the composer’s intent, the subtext of the music, and overall phrasing. In a choral rehearsal, at least initially, much of the time is spent getting the choir to simply read the notes and text correctly before any music making can be achieved. But once it is learned, you can speak to the same types of musical components as the band rehearsal – but with one added, often mystifying dimension: the text.
Choirs can and should sing in English, but also Latin and other languages. Typically, you will find multicultural pieces in Swahili, Hebrew, Spanish and other languages, along with classic or contemporary pieces in French, German and Russian. Many of the newer publications contain pronunciation guides while some older imprints may not. Text is a layer unique to choral music that should not be ignored. It is essential in conveying a meaningful interpretation of the music that students almost always enjoy talking about, if given the opportunity. Once again, choose carefully. The text must be appropriate to the grade level that is singing. Make sure your students and audiences will appreciate what can be learned from singing the music you’ve chosen. And with the standards for music education, you should be able to justify why particular music is chosen using language that speaks to the purpose and intention of the lesson.
Unfortunately, some schools have taken issue with sacred text in favor of only secular. If your administration is open to the conversation, sacred text provides wonderful opportunities to explore music of great masters of composition, as long as it is presented in a nonreligious framework. Present what is comfortable and nonconfrontational at this point. Again, the goal is to create a positive musical experience for everyone involved.
There is so much more to explore on this topic – please look for posts in the near future addressing practical approaches to teaching across music disciplines.
In case you missed Part 1 of A Band Director’s Guide to Teaching Chorus – here’s a link.
For more information on selecting repertoire, we’ve also written these posts on the topic:
- Choosing Festival Repertoire
- Repertoire – Choosing Quality Choral Music, Part 1
- Repertoire – Choosing Quality Choral Music, Part 2
- Repertoire – Choosing Quality Choral Music, Conclusion
About the author:
NAfME member Tom Sabatino currently works as Manager of Choral Product Sales, choral clinician and voice-over actor for J.W. Pepper, the world’s largest sheet music retailer. Prior to working with Pepper, Tom taught general, instrumental, and vocal music in Delaware public schools for 31 years. He also directed the University of Delaware choir Schola Cantorum, was a tenor with the Christ Church Christiana Hundred Choir, and was Director of Music for St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Wilmington, Delaware. He was active in the Delaware Music Educators Association where he served as President and All-State Chorus Chair, and ACDA where he served as chair for High School Standards and Repertoire. Tom holds active memberships in NAfME and ACDA and is a freelance voice actor and narrator through audible.com.
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