Reply To: Retention in Remedial Choir

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In addition to choosing a variety of music, including some pieces that they will find immediately engaging that aren’t outside their musical comfort zone :-), keep the ear training and music literacy activities short and focused. The music they will be able to perform will be at a much higher level than the music that they are able to read, but that’s ok. Even if they are learning most of their music by rote, they are learning vocal technique and phrasing, training their ears through learning to sing in harmony, feeling the beat and how rhythms fit into the beat… these are all important skills for singers to develop regardless of their reading skills. It’s like the equivalent of an adult reading a story aloud to a little child who can’t read yet, or carrying on a conversation with the child without “dumbing down” the vocabulary they use–even if that child wouldn’t yet have the reading skills to be able to read every word that they’re hearing or saying, their listening and speaking vocabulary is being strengthened and developed… so down the road when they ARE beginning to read, they may learn faster, and learn to recognize and use a wider variety of words.

What you can do to work on ear training and literacy is to tie it into the context of the music they’re learning. If you’re teaching new material where you need them to listen to learn their parts, break this up by singing a section of the song, then taking a quick break from this and having them echo rhythm patterns in the same meter as the song, or tonal/melodic patterns in the same tonality (pick one focus for this particular song in this particular rehearsal–if you want the focus for Song #1 to be rhythm, stick to rhythm, and do a tonal focus while working on a different song–and if you use rhythm syllables or solfege with your choir, you can chant/sing the patterns using your syllables). Just do a few patterns, maybe 4 or 5, then, go back to rehearsing the song or having them listen to the phrases you were working on an additional time, and just go back and forth between patterns/song/patterns/song a few more times. You can choose specific patterns that are in the song to help isolate them and give them more practice separate from the song itself, or you can choose patterns which you eventually want them to learn to read (for example, if the music is in major tonality and you want the kids to learn to read do, re, and mi on the staff, use patterns with these pitches in various combinations, even if the music itself contains a wider range of pitches). What this does is 1) it helps the kids develop a strong sense of rhythm within meter and function of pitches within tonality, when they can hear how the patterns they are working on fit into the context of a piece of music, so it tends to improve their pitch and rhythm overall; and 2) it breaks up the rehearsal a little bit so they don’t get musically overloaded (or bored from just listening to and repeating back phrases of music they’re learning over and over) and focus better.

After they’ve had some experience with echoing patterns, you can move on to more challenging activities–you chant or sing a pattern without syllables and they have to perform the pattern back to you with syllables; you chant or sing a pattern, and they have to improvise a pattern that’s different from yours, etc.–and then when they’re pretty facile with syllables, introduce the notation for the patterns they’ve been working on. Eventually, as their skills get more advanced, you can string patterns together and combine rhythm and pitch notation for short sight-singing exercises, and even put words underneath (you could look in a folk song collection or a book of easy rounds/canons for short songs that contain rhythms/pitches they’ve learned, if you want something more musical). Or, if there are short segments (like even a phrase or two) in some of the music they’re working on that they’re able to read rhythm or pitch for, write or project those little segments on the board and have them read those as a sight-singing activity at the beginning of class. I think this kind of thing has more musical meaning to the students, because it actually shows them how the skills are useful (they’re actually learning to read real songs rather than random boring melodies out of a sight-singing book, and if you can tie in the skills to music they’re learning it’s even more meaningful).

Don’t throw too much at them at once if they’ve had little to no experience with reading–if you’re working on reading rhythms, for example, just start out with quarter and paired 8th notes and get really good at reading those, then add an additional rhythm such as half notes (and go through the process again, with having them echo patterns and work on the ear training first before introducing notation). If you’re working on pitch reading, just start with maybe 3 pitches to begin with (maybe do-re-mi or do-mi-so) and then add additional pitches as they are secure with reading the ones they’ve already learned. But separating pitch and rhythm is really important at first, since they are separate skills that need to be addressed–if you try to combine them in notation before the students are secure with one or the other, a lot of kids will get frustrated.

I teach elementary and am able to address a lot of these skills during the students’ general music classes, so I pull them in when possible during chorus. But even so, again, the level of the music they’re able to perform is going to be way above what they’re able to read regardless of their grade level (for example, you might have a song that has some pretty complicated syncopated rhythms that they’re able to learn pretty well by ear but that they’re not ready to learn to read yet), and you want to challenge and engage them musically, so that they stay interested in the class and singing. Although I may do a short sight-reading activity with my select chorus near the beginning of rehearsal after warmups and before working on repertoire (because I have a longer rehearsal time with them and their musical/attention skills tend to be higher than the general group), most of the time I try to sandwich working on ear training/literacy skills in between working on repertoire so that it is more meaningful and ties into the context of the music they’re learning.