In our post two weeks ago, we looked at how a short seven minute (or so) warm-up process can, very quickly, prepare a children’s choir for successful learning–so if you missed that one, please go check it out, because it sets up for success in the rest of rehearsal.
So following the warm-up process, how do we move into music-making?
I have found, at least, that shifting immediately from a solid, well-aligned, vocally healthy warming-up process into a “please sit down and take out your hymnal/music/booklet” kind of activity is like dropping a lead balloon onto the energy in the room. The very process of sitting and taking out a book physically deconstructs the healthy body alignment you’ve just achieved, and just as important, it separates the process of singing “songs” from that of just singing and making beautiful sound. (Again–we do this all the time with our adults as well; this kind of transitional activity might be worth considering there too!)
Instead: our first activity after the warm-up is always a review of something we know and have memorized, such as a song or hymn or piece of service music for the nearest Sunday they are scheduled to sing (and if there’s nothing for the coming Sunday that they can sing memorized, that heralds a host of other problems, which I’ll address in some future post that might hypothetically be called “Strategic repertoire planning for children’s choirs”). Perhaps it’s the “Glory to God,” or the refrain to the Communion song, or the responsorial psalm…something they can sing from the same body placement and mental space in which they did their warming up, vocalizing, and ear training work.
Our next activity (maybe only 3-4 minutes later) is to learn something brief and new, by ear, still from the posture of a) warming up and b) singing familiar strong music we already know and love. If the responsorial psalm refrain is new, try that–heck, if the people in the pews are supposed to be able to sing it back on one hearing, we should expect our singing kids to do it too, right? Depending on the length of the text, I’ll often speak the text out loud to them and have them echo it back–and almost every time I need to ask them to do it twice, because almost every time the first speak-through is in sing-song-y semi-mumbled school-kid drawl–you know the one, the voice they use to say “Good MORRRR-ning, Faaaather Peeeeeeter….” That isn’t the voice we want. This is where we challenge them to find the strong syllables, the important words, and to speak the sentence as though we were an actor onstage, with strength and confidence.
From here, assuming the piece of music is well-constructed and the composer has been attentive to text flow when setting the melody (and if not, why would you be singing it anyway, right?), transferring this intelligent reading of the text to an intelligent singing should be fairly simple, as you invite them to sing the phrase after you. (Note: do not accompany them at this point; let it be all about the voices, without the often-leaned-upon crutch of the keyboard instrument. Let them hear and learn and own what they are singing as their own solid and supportive unit.) And in some cases, this reading/meaning process can also be transferred to helping your singers learn to apply expressive musical concepts as well.
For example: Here is the psalm response for this past Sunday, November 4, 2018, Year B, taken from the Lyric Psalter collection:
Notice how the text repeats three times, each time at a slightly higher pitch. After the first or second sing-through, when the notes and words are there but the overall “flavor” is still a little lifeless, you might ask your singers, “Why do you think the composer had us repeat the first phrase three times? Wasn’t once enough?” Try to elicit, in some organized “don’t lose the room’s energy” 20-second space of time, some variant of “because we really really love the Lord a lot!–how can we ever say it enough?” Have them sing it again, this time stressing “love” just a little more each time, so that it builds to the final statement.
Here is an opportunity to introduce a new–or not new, to those who have learned the term in their own school music classes or lessons–musical term, “crescendo.” Explain what it means (or ask for hands and let a student tell the group), and ask them to sing the line again, this time building a crescendo up to the third time they sing the word “love,” and then letting the music get a little softer (“diminuendo”) to the end. Then ask them to try the same thing again, with even more crescendo, and even more real feeling from their hearts…
This took four paragraphs and a graphic to describe something that in reality might take 4 minutes of actual rehearsal time: you spoke the text with them twice, and they have sung it a total of 4 or 5 times. During these minutes they have learned something about text stress, how to handle text repetition, phrasing, thinking about the meaning of the words they sing, and one or two musical terms. They have also learned the responsorial psalm refrain, and can sing it solidly and without accompaniment.
(Note: you could also have chosen, back in the ear-training solfège part of your warm-up, to incorporate this melody in your back-and-forth echo exercises, and even to teach it straight-up without telling them what you were teaching–just take the little cells of melody and do them with the singers, with hand signs, as your ear-training for the day.)
Do the math: We are now 15 minutes into our rehearsal time. We have warmed up and sung two of the pieces we are responsible for learning for Sunday. Not bad, right?
Now you will probably need to let them sit down, squirm a little, and move into singing from written materials–maybe throwing in a little quick stretch-and-shake-out break (by quick I mean 15 seconds max) before finally letting them sit and relax for just long enough to pick up their hymnals or song sheets or what-have-you, and open to the page you call out.
This is where your options open up a lot more, and you can get down to work on whatever you think will be most challenging for your group in this rehearsal–because the process that got you here has set you and your singers up for success. Are you trying to accustom younger singers to the way a hymnal’s verses are stacked under the musical lines? Help prepare them for a new opening song or hymn to be used during the Advent season, one with lots of more complicated words in the verses than they are accustomed to? Perhaps your first “memorized” piece after the warmup was the refrain to a song they know really well, but for which they are a little dicey on the verses. Maybe it’s time to introduce a short piece in a new language (anything from “Sizohamba” to “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen”–“Lo, how a rose” in its original German) Change tasks frequently, change posture frequently, and as soon as they seem to be disengaging, switch something up to get them back with you. And wherever possible, try to be rehearsing music several Sundays ahead of when you will need it, because it’s much easier to work with this age group 4 times for 7 minutes on a song than to keep them focused for 15 minutes twice, or nearly half an hour only once. Keep moving.
Always save one higher-energy piece for the end of rehearsal–something joyful, something familiar, even a little boisterous, to wake them back up and send them back to their families and worlds happy they’ve been there.
Again–all this is what I do, and what works for me–please, please jump into the comments and share your thoughts and strategies with the rest of us!
(Next post: We’ll take a look at teaching early part singing and learning to sing in harmony.)