Working with Beginners of All Ages in the Choral Classroom
By NAfME Member Regina Carlow
Epic Dream or Recurring Nightmare?
At the end of the summer, without fail, just before school begins, I have a recurring dream that always starts in the same way. I’m in a choir room preparing for rehearsal and am overwhelmed by choir members of all ages entering in droves.
The room quickly fills to capacity, and it is clear to me that they represent the many different groups I’ve worked with over the years: high-school-aged singers; elementary and middle school groups; various church choirs; university choirs; singers in hospice; and members of my LGBT community choir. Oh, and none of them can read music, and half of them have never sung before!
As they swarm the room with clear excitement about the first rehearsal, I wonder: How in the world am I going to be able to teach to so many different levels and needs in the same choir at the same time?
Begin with Warmth
Beginning choirs of all ages need to be successful in the first few minutes of rehearsal. They need to sound good as a group, and individual members need to know they are part of something important. This is challenging at best and, often, borders on the impossible when dealing with new and/or reluctant singers, changing voices, or a myriad of other factors that greet teachers on the first day of choir. In an instant, we need to teach students to use their voices, navigate learning music, and somehow—in spite of all of that—sound like they belong together.
Despite our intentions, beginners often become frustrated and leave choir before their skills develop. We need to find a way to demystify the process of singing. 3B4JOY, a sister-trio explains singing in harmony as a natural and effortless act:
How to Sing Basic Harmony by 3B4Joy
Singers as Artists and Storytellers
It is vital to look at how beginning experiences in choral singing are structured. Students need to be engaged as artists and storytellers who know what they’re singing about and why it matters.
- So how do we make our students feel welcome in those first few moments in the classroom?
- How do we nurture artistry in the earliest stages of coming together as a choir?
- How do we plan for reflective discourse in the beginning choral classroom?
- What motivation techniques can we use to empower students to become decision makers in the classroom?
- How can we break down our techniques and teaching practices to make our choral classrooms more accessible to any child who wishes to sing?
- How can we instill in our beginning choirs a belief and hope that singing together can change the world?
Collaborating with Your Choir
There are numerous studies that cite the importance of one-on-one interaction, peer networking, and student leadership positions as successful strategies in working with beginning choral students, but our standard practice in choral music is based on a more rigid interaction. A “sage on the stage” offers cues and interpretation but little instruction or technique.
We need to be more collaborator-in-chief and less maestro; listening more, talking less; being open and nurturing to serve the needs of the group and finding new ways to bring our beginning singers to artistry.
Here are a few tips for working with beginners:
- Start warm-ups in a key that fits all the voices in the room.
- If you don’t know the vocal ranges of a group, it’s safe to bet on the keys of E, F, and G, and voices can sing either octave.
- Remember, it’s a warm-up; building all voices is essential.
- Be mindful of the ranges of your singers, and select repertoire that suits their voices and interests.
- Allow changing voices to switch octaves mindfully.
- Acknowledge that all voices change and grow even in one rehearsal.
- Keep track of your singers ranges as they change and grow – visuals help you and them remember where they started and where they’re going.
- Add variety to the start of rehearsal with movement games and rhythm challenges.
Regina Carlow will present her session, “Beginning Choral Singers Need WARMTH: Welcoming, Artistry, Reflection, Motivation, Technique and Hope,” on Monday, November 13, 8:00 AM.
Classroom photos courtesy of Regina Carlow.
About the author:
NAfME member Regina Carlow is Professor of Music, Regent’s Lecturer and Associate Dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of New Mexico. She is the founding director of the UNM Children’s Choir, a 100 voice non-auditioned children’s choir and the conductor of Dolce Suono, the beginning choir at the University of New Mexico. She teaches Choral Methods, Diversity in Music Education and Graduate Research. She’s the author of Connecting Children’s Literature and Music and Hearing Others’ Voices: The Musical Lives of Immigrant Girls Who Sing in High School Choir. Regina is the founder of the NM Kodaly Institute and teaches solfa and musicianship at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, Kodály Program. She’s a frequent honor choir conductor throughout the US.
Regina Carlow presented on her topic, “Beginning Choral Singers Need WARMTH: Welcoming, Artistry, Reflection, Motivation, Technique and Hope,” at the 2017 NAfME National Conference last November in Dallas, TX. Register today for the 2018 NAfME National Conference!
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