Teaching through Choral Rehearsal

Roland Wilson

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, Colonial Middle School for the Creative and Performing Arts. As of the Fall of 2016, he assumed 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 and Canada. Roland’s choirs have also toured internationally in Rome, London and Paris.

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Image credit: Pixabay // FotoshopTofs Image credit: Pixabay // FotoshopTofs

Literacy in the choral music classroom is demonstrated when students are able to read pitch notation, manipulate rhythmic symbols, and execute dynamic and technical markings in the written score. Students are simultaneously singing correct pitches, changing the pitch durations according to the rhythmic structure, carefully raising or lowering the volume, and increasing or decreasing tempo of the notes based on the technical instructions notated in the score.

Music literacy is a complex endeavor within itself, but at the same time Music educators should strive to produce students who are literate ABOUT music. Choir students should not only know the music of the great masters, but should know some information about their lives, their compositional styles, and the historic and cultural events of their time periods. Such inquiry into the composer will only deepen the understanding of their music, and make for more accurate stylistic performances.

Tips for enhancing Music literacy during rehearsal

1. Use solfege continually throughout the rehearsal.

I try my best to infuse solfege in most or all of our singing during class. Of course we use it during warm-ups, but I reference it throughout the rehearsal to help students clean up pitches and sing intervals correctly. Students who don’t know the piano keyboard (and that’s most of them) need a reference point for determining pitches. Curwen “Students who don’t know the piano keyboard need a reference point for determining pitches.”hand signs are perfect for this. When I see patterns in the literature that can be quickly reinforced using solfege, I will have the students sing it and sign it.

Solfege should be used not only for Elementary students, but for Secondary as well. Chromatic signs should be introduced in middle school, and practiced and mastered in high school. Some type of solfege drills should be sung daily. The pitches and pitch relationships should be thoroughly embedded in our singers’ tonal memory by repetition. When needed, they can quickly call upon these memorized skills and breeze through the ‘note learning’ phase of a new piece. Much like learning sight-words, prefixes and suffixes help student master reading words, drilling solfege helps students master pitch notation.

2. Sight-singing should be done daily.

Some type of reading music at sight should be done daily. The sight-reading series adopted by my school district does not pace well with my yearly scope and sequence. Thus, I am always on the lookout for sight-singing materials. There are some online references as well as many books that can be used for this purpose. It is a great idea to gather sight-reading material from many sources. If Christian genre is not verboten by your school and or district, a church hymnal can be an excellent source of SATB sight-reading material. If you are blessed with an extensive choral library, pull material for sight-reading purposes. Don’t be discouraged if it sounds rough; remember that its purpose is to enhance music literacy skills, not for performance. I limit sight-reading to between three and five minutes. Hit it, and move on!

I think it is a good idea to include sight-reading at your concerts. Explain to the audience what sight singing is, and tell them that they will see an example of it live and in practice. Pass out the excerpt and allow the students to show off what they know. This always impresses the parents and assures them that their children are really ‘learning music.’

3. Hold students accountable for knowledge of composers and arrangers in addition to the literature being studied.

At the onset of the study of a new piece of music, I prepare a PowerPoint that addresses the information and skills on which the student will be assessed. One of the very first things discussed is the composer/arranger. The PowerPoint screen features three or four very short bullet points about the composer that I feel are worth remembering. This could include information about his life, contemporary musicians, and significant cultural and historical events surrounding his/her life. Students understand that knowing this information is a part of their assessment.

4. Address literacy in the actual teaching of the piece.

I do this by preparing PowerPoint screens that showcase the rhythmic and tonal patterns occurring in the piece. I do this section by section. Looking at the soprano line in the score, I will place the pitches on a staff without the rhythms. Once students know where do is, they begin singing using solfege and hand signs, one beat per note. I repeat this process with the alto, tenor, and bass sections. These solfege drills are not a part of the daily warm-up, but are done subsequent to that. The more students work with solfege, mentally and vocally manipulating the pitches, the more fluent they will be at reading music notation. You will also find that choirs who are strong in solfege have fewer intonation problems.

I also prepare screens that address the rhythmic patterns without the pitches. Students will clap, chant, tap, etc the rhythmic patterns found throughout the pieces in study. Tricky rhythms should be drilled daily for mastery. Below is a sample screen for rhythmic drill. Use these tonal and rhythmic drills over the duration of the study of the piece - do not expect student to master them after just one reading. Undergird their musical understanding by returning to these screens over and over. This helps solidify the music in their memory.

5. Assess pitch and rhythm reading on a regular basis.

Sight-singing assessments should be performed regularly. I typically use a compilation of the sign-singing exercises used over the previous two weeks. Students select a blind number, and they perform the sight-singing exercises assigned to that number. If you have access to a program that creates sight-singing exercises, you can create new excerpts for the exam that are based on the keys, intervals, and rhythms that the students have been focusing on over the past two weeks. Even though “I typically use a compilation of the sign-singing exercises used over the previous two weeks.”the students are being assessed on how well they perform on their first reading of the exercise, the content of the sight-reading should contain familiar content with which the students have been working - similar keys, rhythms, and intervals.

I also perform rhythmic assessment every two weeks. I begin my classes with a rhythmic drill based on the Orff process. Students perform body percussions with rhythmic patterns found in their currently assigned literature, or teacher-designed rhythmic patterns that address the choir’s needs. Rhythmic drills are the students’ ‘bell work.’ This is their assignment as soon as they enter the choir room. It is a little ‘noisy’ with so many rhythms going at the same time, but the class is easily begun when the teacher counts off 1, 2, ready, go. Students are instantly engaged in music-making, establishing a sense of ensemble and establishing the ‘signal’ that rehearsal has officially begun. As the rhythmic drills become progressively more complex, the teacher is able to gage growth in rhythmic development during the bi-monthly assessments.

In summary, students will become more proficient in music literacy as they are exposed to drill and repetition on a regular basis. There is no shortcut here. These skills must become embedded in the students’ memory banks in order to be accessed at needed times. References to and use of solfege mnemonics and hand signs throughout the rehearsal are essential to singers’ mastery of their tonal language and music reading expertise. During the average rehearsal, I spend about 30-40% of the time drilling literacy skills using the rhythmic and tonal exercises described above. While the choir is rehearsing the literature, I endeavor to cross reference solfege (pitch) and rhythmic reading as students are learning their assigned pieces. Just as with word literacy, the more one immerses himself in the language, the more skilled he is at understanding, manipulating, and decoding it.

What tactics do you use to engage learners with Music? Let us know below.

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