Effective Lesson Planning for the Secondary Choral Director

Chopping Up the Score:

Effective Lesson Planning for the Secondary Choral Director

By NAfME Member Roland Wilson


The Understanding by Design (UbD) framework (also known as backward planning) includes processes and methods that are fundamental to the choral ensemble educator. We have often heard the phrase “beginning with the end in mind.” Every choir director worth his salt commonly engages in this practice. From the moment the conductor picks up a score, he engages in cursory theory and form analysis, contemplates requisite vocal pedagogy, and mentally lays out a time frame for the learning of the piece. He then quickly considers the singers who will be standing in front of him, their proclivities for achievement, and the amount and type of instructional investment that will have to be made. Within a few moments of this very complex mental exercise, the piece is accepted into or rejected from the seasonal repertoire.

One perk of music education is that we have the opportunity, as well as the responsibility to steer our students toward needed learning that is framed by curriculum, but not constricted by compulsory yearly testing. We can literally choose where to take our students chorally and what methods we will employ to get there. The UbD framework provides scholarly language and practice to the ‘begin with the end in mind’ tradition that we employ.


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The UbD Framework

The key elements of the Understanding by Design (UbD) learning model (Jay McTighe and Grant Wigginson) include:

  1. Identify Desired Results (Begin with the end sound in mind)
  2. Determine Acceptable Evidence(s) (What benchmarks are desirable along the way)
  3. Create the Learning Plans (Structure rehearsals and learning experiences to reach the final goal(s)).


Applying UbD to rehearsal preparation

  1. Establish goals for the literature

As the instructional expert in your choral studio, you decide what terminal goal(s) should be identified for the piece in question. If the piece is thought of as an instructional unit, what should the students take away as a result of this unit study? Some possible terminal goals for the study of the piece “Hallelujah,   Amen” by G. F. Handel might include:

  • understanding of characteristics of Baroque vocal music
  • identifying three types of musical texture
  • how musical texture assists the composer with expressive intent
  • recognizing main themes and sub themes of the piece
  • tonic and dominant chord structure and how Handel used them throughout the piece
  • acquaintance with The Oratorio—Judas Maccabaeus


  1. Construct understandings

One hallmark of the UbD design is the development of enduring understandings for the unit. Cognitive development is more concrete if KUDs (what students know, understand, and can do) are embedded in a continuum of choral music concepts, rather than engaging the choir in isolated learning events and skills. Example–Our choir will understand how to modify our vocal production to effectively demonstrate Baroque tone, dynamics, and character.


  1. Writing essential questions

Essential questions are the fuel that powers the engine for effective study of a piece of music. These questions must be tailored to fit the specific instructional needs of YOUR choir. Two samples below are:

What are the main themes and motives in “Hallelujah, Amen,” and what must the choir do to show understanding of the themes and how they are used compositionally in the piece?

What is Baroque rhythmic intensity and why is it vital to this piece?


  1. Developing your KUDs.

What will students KNOW, UNDERSTAND, and be able to DO as a result of this unit (“Hallelujah, Amen”) study? These should be listed separately under specific categories of know, understand, and do someplace in the unit plans. Some examples are below:

Students will KNOW…

  1. Three types of musical texture
  2. Tonic and dominant chord structure and how Handel transitioned from tonic to dominant episodes throughout the piece.

Students will UNDERSTAND…

  1. That vocal tone must be modified to fit specific stylistic demands according to historic period
  2. Baroque vocal performances call for restraint in dynamics, while at the same time exuding rhythmic energy under the surface

Students will BE ABLE TO…

  1. Accurately perform Handel’s “Hallelujah, Amen” with         proper rhythmic, dynamic, and tone production for the historic period
  2. Identify tonic and dominant notes, chords, and episodes in a piece of choral music.


Extracting vital musical elements

As the expert instructor and adjudicator in the choral studio, the conductor decides which musical elements need to be highlighted to fit the specific needs his students. This, of course, varies from year to year, as well as from ensemble to ensemble. Choirs who need work on syncopation would benefit from rhythmic study of “Hallelujah, Amen.” Ensembles who have mastered these rhythms, but still need work on pitch accuracy, would be better served by focusing on the tonic/dominant relationships within the piece. It is incumbent upon us, the choral directors, to use quality literature to carefully fashion the types of learning experiences our young singers need.


June 24 - Roland Wilson Hallelujah Amen Warm up
Image courtesy of Roland Wilson


Distilling the music into meaningful learning

This can be done in several ways that will not waste our valuable time as music educators. For example, rather than looking for sight-singing and warm-up material in isolation, distill these excerpts from the actual piece in question. Samples for sight-reading and warm-up from “Hallelujah, Amen” are shown below. The sight-reading excerpt is from mm. 18-22, and the warm-up excerpt is from the final 5 measures of the piece.


June 24 - Roland Wilson Hallelujah Amen Sight-Reading
Image courtesy of Roland Wilson


Transparency in assessment

With use of the UbD design, students will know from the onset of unit study precisely how they will be assessed. They are aware of, and should be able to articulate what they will be required to KNOW, UNDERSTAND, and DO as a result of studying this literature. Referring to the essential questions and enduring understanding(s) cited at the beginning of the study will help students stay closely linked to requ ired learnings of the unit. Objective-and standards-based learning tasks are regularly pointed out during rehearsal and performance preparation.


A good practice is to give a written pre-test at the beginning of the unit and the same assessment as a post-test. This will demonstrate how students have progressed during the study of the music. Vocal exams, if desired, should only be given after instruction, unless sight-reading skills are being assessed in conjunction with the study of the piece. If desired, the final performance of the piece at a concert or contest can serve as the final assessment of student learning.


About the author:

choral director

NAfME member Roland Wilson is currently employed by the Shelby County School system in Tennessee as a secondary choir director and music instructor. He has served as choir director at numerous secondary schools across the district, including A. Maceo Walker Middle, Raleigh-Egypt Middle, and most recently, at Colonial Middle School for the Creative and Performing Arts. Beginning Fall 2016, he will take over the reins of the Memphis Central High School Choral Program. Choirs under his leadership have consistently garnered exemplary concert and sight-reading festival ratings, and have performed on stages across the United States, including Hawaii, as well as appearing internationally in Rome, Italy, London, England, and Paris, France. During his tenure with Shelby County Schools he served on the GLADiS committee for the development, piloting, and review of fine arts teachers’ professional growth portfolios. He has also worked intimately with the state committee to adapt and align the National Core Arts Standards to Tennessee Vocal and Choral music education curriculums. As of June 1, 2016 Roland assumed the presidency of the West Tennessee Vocal Music Educators’ Association. Roland holds the Bachelor of Music Education degree from Southern University, Baton Rouge, LA, and the Master of Music degree from Kent State University, Kent, OH.


Roland Wilson presented on his topic “Chopping Up the Score: Effective Lesson Planning for the Secondary Choral Director” at the 2016 NAfME National Conference in Dallas, Texas. Register today for the 2019 NAfME National Conference taking place in Orlando, Florida! 


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Brendan McAloon, Marketing and Events Coordinator, June 24, 2016. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org).