Going into 3rd year of HS Chorus, still not getting it

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    I am an instrumentalist high school teacher who has one Chorus class. My past two years have not been very successful (though last year was better than the first year!) and this year I really want to turn it around.

    In past years, my issues included impossibly disruptive students and disrespect (mostly coming from one “mean-girl” clique that I managed to break up this year), lack of effort (“why do I have to learn to read music if I already know how to sing?”), kids kvetching about the repertoire (because the rep is inaccessible because they passively refused to learn to read music), and just the general sense that Chorus should be fun, easy, and we should sing Wiz Khalifa songs (actual quote – he’s a rapper, do his songs even have singing?!)

    (I don’t want to sound defeatist or negative, but this has been an IMMENSELY challenging class).

    This year I’ll have mostly newbies, probably sophomores, so I’m starting from a blank slate.

    I almost don’t know what to ask – my plan is this year to:
    1) Give note identification and sight-singing quizzes every week for the first semester (to weed out the kids who think the class will be an easy A)
    2) Focus on sight-singing and basic tone production to the exclusion of everything else at first

    Does that sound like a sensible beginning?

    I’m also going to start the year with an honest little talking-to where I’ll explain that my instrumental ensembles have been sounding better and better, and I don’t want Chorus to be my underachievers anymore. This means I expect them to work as hard as any other music students in the school, and then I’ll lay out what Chorus is (fun, wonderful singing, camaraderie, achievement, being exposes to new music) and not (zero effort, only singing pop songs you already know, etc.)

    Any advice? I know other band teachers have made the switch to Chorus, but I’ve been having a very tough time of it.



    I’ve had the most success by starting with singing and “backing into” reading; it makes more sense to my students in that order, and it’s the “natural” way we all learned to read when we were children. This group needs to be won over first. Start this year by teaching them a song by rote (try something rhythmic and repetitive which will resemble their pop music, such as Oye by Jim Papoulis, or several other songs of his, or some world music that has a good “groove” – something you can get excited about, and that is fairly easy to learn). Here is where you focus on tone production and making them sound good (be sure you know enough about the voice and how it actually works.) As you teach the song by rote (I know, but I was really converted to this because of how it helps their ear training!), start teaching/referring to parts of it in solfege syllables (“you can sing that – it’s just do-sol-do” as you sing it to them). Once they see how “easy” it is to learn new music when they really know the scale (and keep telling them it is easy!), you can go to notation. Next I put them in small groups, give them an easy song, and ask them to write in solfege syllables. Then they “teach” everyone what they “discovered” the melody was by using solfege (I usually use hymns, but you might do some folksongs or well-known pop tunes with the words left out). Save the quizzes for later in the semester when they have some confidence that they can do well, and offer them as “challenges.” Put singing first and foremost, and use reading as a tool to get to more singing. Good luck!


    I agree with fuscol791. I am a band director who also does choir, and I feel that you simply need to go to where they are in terms of the music and their reading ability. I am a full supporter of teaching literacy to choir, and invest a lot of time in my own class to it. I don’t know if I would go at it by calling them “underachievers.” The fact is that you may have been the first person to ask them to learn how to read, and that’s not their fault. Spend some time solfeging AWAY from the music so that when you start to put written stuff in front of them, they see the relevance. I spend a lot of time with Kodalyi hand signs, and my kids have become much more comfortable with finding their way around the scale.

    As for the behavior, I think you have the right approach to attack that head on from day one. Just remember, that kids sign up for chorus to get away from sitting down and taking quizzes, so make sure it is engaging and that everything you are doing they find relevance in. This will in turn solve a lot of the behavior problems as well.

    Good luck!


    Do you mind sharing how your Chorus has gone thus far? What ideas did you implement and what was their success? As someone who will be teaching this upcoming year, I would greatly appreciate an idea of what may or may not work.


    There are many good points listed above – cultivate a taste for excellent musical performance by finding dynamic recordings of interesting literature from excellent artists. You tube can be helpful. Find someone else in your area with a choir and get the two schools together for an exchange.
    Also – consider inviting someone from the nearest college or university to come and clinic your choir – this will give you new perspective and new tools.
    Best of luck!

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