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Debbie O’Shea here on the Crescendo Music Education Podcast. It’s such a great place to be. I get to speak to amazing people and today Claire Preston is back.

We were going to do one episode on Claire’s thoughts on delivering music education and creating literacy through the repertoire that you choose for your choir. I’m thinking, wow, this is amazing. We need to hear this. We’re going to talk about advice for choral conductors and people wanting to work with choirs.

This was planned as the second episode. If you did not hear Episode 96 you should go back and have a listen because it gives you the background, her bio, that sort of thing. I thought we could do a second episode, get really into the weeds, give our listeners a whole lot of ideas and advice. Well, it worked. But it worked really well. So well that I’m actually going to cut this episode into two. So this is the second episode of three with Claire, I will cut our conversation in the middle-ish. And then she will be back for a third episode because there are so many gems of wisdom in here. Sit back and enjoy the second episode with Claire Preston.

This podcast is being recorded on the lands of the Turrbal people. I acknowledge them as the traditional owners of the land and pay my respects to elder’s past, present and emerging. They were the first music makers on this land.

About ‘Read the Episode’: Sometimes, we would rather skim visually than listen to a podcast! That’s a great way to learn too!
The transcript of episode 097 of The Crescendo Music Education Podcast is below.

Debbie O’Shea
Here is Episode 97 and on this episode of the Crescendo Music Education Podcast I am welcoming back Claire Preston. Hello, Claire.

Claire Preston
Hey, Debbie. Hey, everybody, good to see you all. Great to be back.

Debbie O’Shea
It is so good. I loved our chat so much. But I know there’s some other things I want to dig into with you. Because you were telling me off air, about delivering music education and creating literacy through the repertoire you use for your choir. Now that sounds to me like a huge topic. How do we even get started talking about that? And if we listen to you talking about this in a choral context? How can we transfer that to our classroom? So there you go. There’s a question that you could write a thesis on.

Claire Preston
Yeah, well, let’s see how we go unpacking it hey and then feel free to interrupt and go off on tangents. Because I’m sure I won’t remember everything I want to say. And I would just say to everybody out there that I feel really humbled to be asked. I’m no expert, I’m a lifelong learner and I don’t feel like I have all the answers. But I feel really humbled to be asked, I tried to put Debbie off, but she’s persistent so here I am.

Claire Preston
I feel really passionate, a lot of schools are set up with co-curricular program and a curriculum program. And I just think, Wait a minute. We’re all teaching music here. We’re all delivering music education. Why is there this divide? Is it because we’re doing it differently? Or one’s more important than the other? Or like, what really is this? You know, a healthy music program is where the three circles overlap or intersect, instrumental lessons, ensemble music making and classroom music, I would like to think that those three things could actually be integrated in all rehearsals or all instrumental lessons or all classroom practice.

So for example, I think that repertoire is the curriculum. And obviously a healthy diet of curriculum is the most important. So we wouldn’t feed our children Maccas every night so we wouldn’t give our kids pop music all the time, or music theater all the time. It’s really important that unless you choose repertoire that is of integrity and depth and breadth, then how do you teach those? What I think are the higher order innate music skills, how do you teach that if your curriculum can’t deliver that? So I have high expectations of curriculum.

Claire Preston
Anyway, so getting back to the actual rehearsal I also think that I’ve worked a lot with adult choirs and a lot of conductors who say, my adults can’t read and then I say Well, why not? Oh they just can’t read? Yes, but they’ve been a member of your choir for ten years. And I would say the same thing about children, students, if a child has been in your choral program for four or five, six years, and the child says, Oh I can’t read music. Why not? So I see that as the responsibility of the educator.

And there’s lots of fun ways to approach music reading, and it doesn’t need to be scary, it doesn’t need to be boring, it doesn’t need to be theoretical, it can be really integrated into the approach, the way you learn the music. Otherwise, if you don’t teach the children to read, then every single time they start learning a new piece of music it’s like Groundhog Day. It’s like we’re just starting from the beginning again.

It’s like every single lesson we’re learning a new piece of music, we start again. So your programs not growing, your programs not developing, you’re not teaching transferable skills, the children are not becoming more confident and literate, you’re just teaching another song, and you’re starting from scratch every single time.

Debbie O’Shea
That is so well put. If you ever want an argument for literacy, it’s there isn’t it. You just don’t want to have to start from scratch every single time.

Claire Preston
I’ve seen educators teach by ear and I’ve tried to figure out why they do that and I’m not against it. But why would you do that exclusively is my question. Are you doing your students any favours? Is it because you think they can’t read music? And therefore you don’t attempt it? Is it because you think it’s quicker? Or is it because you just think it’s easier. But if you’re only teaching by ear or by rote, then that’s all you’ll ever do, you’ll never get past that. And every time you pick up a new piece of music and you go to teach it by rote, it’s just same, same same.

So I think it’s good for our students to be able to read. I guess, if you make the same argument for reading, our children come to school and they’ve been learning language by ear, but then we teach them how to read and so they continue copying language that they hear around them, but they’re also learning to read and their readings not as good as their ear and their ear continues.

And then their reading comes up and then eventually the two are sort of almost equal. So I feel the same way about teaching music. In the early stages, it’s just like in the classroom, the early stages, they know their skips and their steps. And that is sufficient language, if you choose a piece of music that is age appropriate and developmentally appropriate, you can talk about it. Is that phrase going up or down? Oh right? Does it sound like a scale? Is it going up by step? Is it going down by step? Are there any skips in there? Are there any leaps in there?

Claire Preston
I talked about form I use same, similar, different. Which is all language that us Kodály teaches use in our classroom but I use it in all my repertoire when I’m teaching. And I might teach theme A because I like to chunk things in separate rehearsals and most sections might have four phrases. And so then we use our fingers for phrase one, phrase two, phrase three, phrase four and which is it A, B, A, C? Is it A, B, A, variance? You know, I use that language. Does the B phrase feel finished? Or is it unclosed? Does phrase four sound finished? Why? Oh, it finishes on the home note Oh, tonic, right. Okay. That’s how we feel like we’ve come home.

And so I use all of this language, because I’ve been given time at school with students in front of me, and I think they deserve more than just learning songs. And I think when it comes to advocacy, if all we’re doing is teaching songs then it’s going to be easy for people to say, Oh, well anybody can do that we don’t need a music specialist for that. But no we’re teaching music, we’re delivering music education and we’re giving them skills that are transferable. So other language, A variant obviously.

Well that phrase was similar but it was a variation. What was the variation? Oh, those notes, there were sort of ornamented or it was like a little turn or why did they add those notes? For interest or colour? How are we going to sing that to make it sound more interesting than A? I talk a lot about What do you think the composer was trying to achieve? What’s the effect of this? What was the purpose? Why do you think the composer chose to do that instead of that, or didn’t repeat it exactly and did it this way?

I talk a lot about word painting and connect the text to the melodic line. Or we talk about the harmony? Oh, wow that chord was so amazing on that word? Is it because maybe it was a storm or something, or it was unsettled? Or didn’t resolve or it’s a beautiful warm chord and the sun’s coming out?

I just think that’s where the meaning is and the music is. And I love to unpack all of that with my choir. I love having the children think, teaching them to think, teaching them to ask, teaching them to listen actively, so that they know what they’re listening for. Because I respect them. They’re intelligent, they’re capable of all of this, you can make it age appropriate.

We talk about the poetry and how has the composer set the poetry? How has the composer chosen to write that melodic contour for that particular phrase? Or how is the chorus different from the verse? Or what’s the tonality? Why are all the Finnish pieces in minor keys? Well because it’s dark most of the year and people are all really languid and so then what vocal colour would we use to communicate that, or why is the first time we hear the chorus in this particular key? And then the next time it’s in this key, what do you hear or feel is different?

Then the children say, Oh, well, it feels more important and it’s gone up by step. And now it’s in a really bright key because they’re sharps and so now it’s more exciting because it’s getting towards the end and this is different. Then inherently they just know when they’re delivering it, what they’re trying to achieve. And they’re not just repeating it again, it’s actually got a whole different meaning because it’s in a different key.

Debbie O’Shea
So part of this is talking about also having, making sure the music is in front of them. Like I know this is a bit of a no brainer, the way we’re talking. But if we go back to the way that we work in really busy primary schools, we’re teaching all of the kids and doing this and doing and the playground duties that they haven’t taken of us even though they should because we’re doing all this choral stuff and you just go, I’m just teaching this and I have no budget to buy the scores, blah, blah, blah.

So I’m just teaching this, it’s really important, even if all you can afford is like one. Let’s get the music in front, the scores in front of the kids. It is really, really, really important I believe, to have those scores. I’m very lucky because I work at a school where I have Kath Ruhle as my choral conductor. I take one choir, I tell them they’re the most important choir. Yeah, of course, they are. They’re the great ones and twos.

Claire Preston
It’s where it all starts.

Debbie O’Shea
Aren’t they the most important?

Claire Preston
They are. Do you know what all of the Australian composers whose music I’ve been teaching over the last five years, they are all incredibly kind. When I say to them, This is my plan, I’m not photocopying your music, I’m going to project just the vocal line on the TV. So I’m fortunate that I have a TV in all of my teaching rooms and some of them are mounted to the wall.

Now I like that because that means that the children are looking up and I project just the vocal line and I don’t have to put it into Sibelius, I used to have to do that. I used to spend hours putting scores into Sibelius, but with the kindness of ePrints and PDFs from composers now, Australian composers and ePrints, I can extract just the melody line.

And that means that with my special teacher pointer, I can literally point, I can enlarge it on the TV screen, and I can point and they can track it, anyway so they’re reading is basically what I’m trying to say. Then we can unpack it and because I’m tracking it for them, there’s no issues around them holding a scrunched up piece of music and they’re looking down and then they’re not focused and they’re not engaged and they’re getting lost. None of that.

Claire Preston
So the types of ways I teach something is I might sing the first phrase or I might sing the first four phrases and then we might discuss bits and pieces about it. Or I might say things, we just play games, I might say, Can you follow the music while I sing? And then when I stop, can you tell me what the last word was I sang, so then I know they’re tracking, or I might leave out some words, can you put your hand up if I leave out a word. Or I might be silly, and I might replace a word and they think that’s hysterical. And I might put a silly word in there and Oh hands are up or when I stopped this time, can you tell me the next word that I was about to sing?

Actually, you can ask them any question really? Honestly, you could ask them anything. The point is that they’re tracking, they’re literally following it. Sometimes you might just read through the poetry before you begin and always read the poetry in rhythm. Or you might ask them how many words start with a particular letter, how many words start with S? Or tell me the last word of each sentence or show me where the rhyming words are. I mean, anything, the main thing is you’re actually teaching them to read, and they just think it’s a big fun game. So it’s really simple. It’s incredibly simple. And I just love projecting things on the TV, because I can enlarge it and I can track it for them.

Debbie O’Shea
And the more literate they are the more you can add to that fun game. Because that sounds very like the score detective type games, and you can just go, Who can tell me the first word that’s on an E.

Claire Preston

Debbie O’Shea
So you can link it more and more to the music literacy, the more the children know.

Claire Preston

Debbie O’Shea
What note does the second phrase start on?

Claire Preston

Debbie O’shea
The beat of the bar is the first rest. So like you said, they’re just games.

Claire Preston
They’re just games. And you know how many treble clef ‘s are there? What’s the time see, we’re learning Jack and Poi at the moment. Oh, look it goes from 3,4 and then 2, 4 then back to 3,4. Right. And then you can talk about the contour, the shape. Oh, are all the notes all going up, now they’re all going down. Oh, there’s this little twist at end, yep, right. And are all those notes next door? Oh, yeah, they’re all next door notes. Oh, but wait a minute, who can tell me which words, where there’s a skip.

And so it’s just all games but honestly they love it and their capacity for it is great. In that process, where you’re unpacking all of this, they’re hearing those melodies over and over and over. And then boom first time they sing it, it’s right, because they’ve heard it lots. So then you don’t rush in to them reproducing it and it might be wrong and then you find yourself undoing stuff.

So you keep modelling it, they keep hearing it, you’re unpacking it, you’re discussing it. Finding the words, they’re finding the dynamic markings, they’re finding whatever you want, but by this stage, you’ve been singing it for a good solid 5 or 10 minutes. They’ve heard it, and then I’ll bet money that the first time you ask them to sing it, it’ll be pretty much right.

Debbie O’Shea
That’s very, very sneaky, effective preparation.

Claire Preston
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. That’s it. That’s exactly what it is. Yeah.

Debbie O’Shea
People in the situation when they’re in primary schools and they’re frantically doing that huge bit of work and then trying to squeeze in choir. Like, I know, that was me. And I’m in a privileged position now where I have Kath doing four of our choirs, and I just do one. But it’s often the last thing that you think about, because I don’t have to write reports on choir, so the the pressures of the curriculum delivery, etc. This is just me musing on things you’re saying, if we thought more about choir being a music education lesson,

Claire Preston
Correct. That’s exactly how I think of choir, as a music lesson. And the music is a means to an end. The repertoire is the vehicle for me to deliver music education, and the repertoire is a vehicle for my students to become more literate. And that’s why when the process is strong and deep, the performance just takes care of itself.

Debbie O’Shea
I like that. That makes so much sense. So how do you choose this repertoire? Now I know part of the answer already, because you’ve said, lifelong learner. And honestly, lifelong learner here, like high five. You go to rehearsals, you watch other people’s rehearsals, you go to concerts, how do you find the repertoire and what sort of filters do you apply?

Claire Preston
The text is really important. The text is number one. This is how we’re different from an orchestra or any instrumentalist. So the text has to be age appropriate. It has to be engaging, they have to be able to understand it, I never do anything that has an inappropriate message.

And songs that I would choose for all boys compared to all girls, compared to co-ed might be slightly different. But the text is always number one and the message is always number one. The length of the phrases is probably number two. So with young singers, I wouldn’t ever choose something where the phrase was too long for them to sustain. Otherwise you’re not setting them up for success.

So the intervals within the vocal line need to be achievable for their age. And they need to be intervals that they can navigate without difficulty, because really we’re trying to develop a healthy vocal technique and so we want the repertoire to be achievable. We don’t want to have them singing music that is beyond them vocally. And then we’re spending our rehearsals trying to fix things that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t have chosen that piece of music.

Sometimes, some music is too rhythmically demanding for young children. So we have to be really careful with the rhythmic content. All of our Australian writers get that right. I think they’re fabulous. But sometimes some of the American Hal Leonard publications you’ve got to be really, really careful. Sometimes if it’s a bit too much of a pop song or music theatre, that rhythm is really syncopated. And you you’re just not setting up your kids for success when they’re little. The tessiture or the range, the vocal range is so important, where it sits in their voice. And I would encourage people don’t be afraid to change the key of something.

I’ve just started teaching a piece that I love that a colleague recommended to me, but I just thought it was a little bit too low. And so I wrote to the composer and I said, Look, I’m not sure if you wrote this, specifically for a group, if it was commissioned, if there was a reason it was in this key, maybe it was a flat key and you liked those colours. Are you okay with me popping it up and No problem he said, I’ll send it to you in the new key.

And I’m thrilled because it’s sitting in the range that I want. I mean there are some sweet spots in the children’s range depending on the age. For a year three child it’s a different sweet spot, for a year four it’s different again, for five, sixes. And so I want to be developing, I want to be achieving that beautiful spin and ring that really free open resonant sound. And that happens in their sweet spot. So I want the tessiture to be sitting in that sweet range. If it’s not, then you’re never going to achieve the colours and the vocal tone and the freedom that you can.

And it’s very easy to choose repertoire that sits too low for our children. So that’s just a little be careful there, otherwise, if it’s too low they’re just going to grunt and when the teacher asks for more sound, they’re just going to push and they’re just going to become shouty. And then boom, they’re not in their singing voice anymore. Because they try hard and they want to give more and then boom, they can’t achieve that beautiful singing head voice that you want to be developing, always developing, bringing the voice down, never up.

Debbie O’Shea
Thank you for joining me for this podcast.


I appreciate you and all of my colleagues, and hope this episode has been enjoyable and useful. Don’t forget, you’ll find the show notes on I’d love a share, rate or review to help other music educators find this podcast. All I can be as the best version of me. All you can do is be the best you. Until next time, bye.

Just for Laughs

As we know laughter relieves stress don’t lose sight of the funny side of life.

I bet you didn’t know that I have a fear of speed bumps, but I’m slowly getting over it.

Links Mentioned in the Episode:

📕 Books 

🎙️ Episode 96: Connecting with Music

Where to find me:

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