Fostering Independent Musicians in the Choral Classroom
By NAfME Member Karla McClain
My favorite sound in the whole world is when my entire choir is independently practicing sight reading. The buzz of young singers figuring out what the music on the page or on the board actually sounds like never gets old for me. It takes time and patience, and a lot of persistence, but it is so worth it to have students who are literate musicians.
Since I created the webinar “Fostering Independent Musicians in the Choral Classroom,” I changed districts and sight reading curricula, but I still utilize the same principals. I use solfege, (but numbers work as well if you prefer), singing different scale patterns every week or so. This helps students get different patterns in their ears. Think of it like study sight words—these patterns, whether steps or skips, are the vocabulary of music. We also play poison pattern almost every day. I will use patterns we are working in sight reading, or pick a pattern from a piece of repertoire. This aural work is important for singers as well. To change things up, sometimes we do poison rhythms, or I will sing the pattern on a neutral syllable.
Bonus: Games are fun! Even my 8th graders love poison pattern and beg to play it. We also play Solfege Bingo and use manipulatives to decode—all those elementary games that the little ones love also work beautifully with this age group, and are a fun way to help students work on all of these important skills.
We work on sight reading examples daily. Sometimes it is just rhythm work, and as students go through the year, we sight read in more than one part. I used to use Patterns of Sound (Emily Crocker, Joyce Eilers—Hal Leonard), but I really didn’t love how it stayed in the same keys for such a long time. I also wanted a more comprehensive resource that included more theory for students.
I had heard about Dale Duncan’s S-Cubed method (available on Teacher Pay Teachers), and after I tried a sample lesson I was hooked. It really helps teach theory, as well as sight reading, and pushes the students way further than I had ever gotten using other method books I had used. I set up a weekly PowerPoint using my solfege patterns, and then the slides from his curriculum. By the end of year one, my students were sight reading in two parts using steps and skips of DMS and RFL. By the end of year two, my students were sight reading in three parts using leaps, and they could also use chromatics in unison sight reading. The rhythms used were more advanced than other methods as well. It really has given my students a great foundation, and they are able to read more advanced repertoire.
One thing that Dale Duncan uses (that I have used for many years) is having students chaos before they read. I know the true goal is audiation, however, for middle school students, I find that when I have them sing it in their heads, many don’t do anything but stare at the page. I can hear students when they chaos quietly, and it gives me opportunities to monitor and address mistakes. They are always more successful. I find that when I give them a checklist that includes this step, they are more successful in their assessments as well.
The new Core Arts Standards address other ways to foster independence related to responding to music, and I talk more about this, as well as music literacy, in my NAfME Academy webinar, “Fostering Independent Musicians in the Choral Classroom.”
About the author:
NAfME member Karla McClain is a National Board Certified Teacher in Early Adolescent/Young Adulthood Music, and teaches at Irving A. Robbins Middle School and East Farms School in Farmington, Connecticut. This is her 19th year of teaching choral and general music. In addition, she directs the Canticum Choir of the Connecticut Children’s Chorus at the Hartt School of Music, Community Division. Karla is also a long-time staff member of Laurel Music Camp in New Hartford, Connecticut. She has a passion for using music technology and world music to engage students.
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