Written by: Wendy Rolls, reproduced with permission.
This article is produced in partnership with Together Sing, an annual event with the goal of raising awareness of the value of Music Education and singing together to improve mental health and wellbeing.
Click the image below to learn more about Together Sing:
Do you have a choir with young children? These littlest students are just beginning their singing journey and it is important we give them a safe and happy start. Here are some thoughts I have distilled over the years which hopefully will help create a musical and enjoyable experience for conductor and choir.
- Routines are essential
- Automate as much as possible
- Roll marking can take a LOT of time and derail a rehearsal (although does help you to learn names)
- Get to know as many names as you can as quickly as possible and USE them
- Sing more than you speak BUT…
- If you sing with your students, you won’t really be listening to them
- Speak as little as possible, sing as much as possible BUT…
- Be aware that singing in a child’s range will fatigue your own voice
- Remember: The person doing the speaking / singing is the person doing the learning so allow the children to sing a LOT more than you speak
- Sing as much as possible in M2 (head voice) in the early years.
- Sing as much as possible in M2 (head voice) in the early years. This helps them develop in-tune singing. ‘Gentle’ is a helpful term to promote this. Children can tend to get a bit ‘shouty’ when excited and try to use their M1 (chest voice) exclusively. This can involve/create tension in the voice and makes it harder to sing in tune.
- Young children are very unlikely to have the proprioception (body-awareness) and cognitive (reasoning) ability to process much in the way of technique, especially to project the sound SO…
- Avoid phrases such as sing louder! The healthiest and most effective way to sing louder is to use more airflow which is too complex for young children. When we tell children to sing loudly, they will use muscular tension in the upper chest and neck – no help to singing at all! INSTEAD…
- Tap into emotion to create dynamics – LOUD becomes EXCITING!
Extension – Part-work & other challenges
- Unison singing is the foundation to healthy singing. Develop and practise this as a priority
- Canons and partner songs are the perfect starting point to develop part-singing
- Body percussion and songs with simple actions or props also develop coordination BUT…
- Balance this with songs that promote lyrical singing
- Auslan is the language of the deaf community in Australia. Auslan actions may be incorporated into songs, adding a beautiful layer of communication. There is a bank of signs available at auslan.org.au
- Incorporating local indigenous language into songs is possible by working with your school’s local indigenous elder. It is important to seek permission – Nothing About Us Without Us sums it up well
- Similarly, singing in other languages is an effective, achievable challenge if you choose the right song. Get to know the Language Other Than English (LOTE) teacher if you have one. Find out what language is taught at your school and tap into that
- Having a lesson plan, especially in the early days is vital to success and peace of mind
- If you are new to this, write your rehearsal plan and ask someone else to look over it…
- Routine Routine Routine!
- Have a structure that underpins every rehearsal:
- Breathing & Alignment exercises (keeping these the same each week works best in my personal opinion). These are exercises not entertainment; instead think of them like stretches before playing sport.
- Vocal Exercise(s) – think about what you are aiming for here. I would suggest: ‘making sound freely throughout the whole range of their voice’. Wake up the M2 range and make it normal to change from one register to the other. (Exercises that work on articulation such as tongue twisters are not nearly as useful, despite being popular)
- Part Work – Canons are gold for this. Develop a mixture of both fun and lyrical canons. These micro songs are musically satisfying to sing and beautiful to sing in canon (as a round). The effect can be truly awe-inspiring to singer and listener alike.
*Steps 1-4 need only take five to ten minutes, depending on the age of the group*
- Repertoire – now they’re ready to work on songs. Work on small sections to learn and then put it in context of the whole song. It is essential to work on small sections that are proving challenging BUT this can be immensely frustrating if that’s all you get to sing. Having a sense of the ‘universe’ of the song is highly valuable.
- Perform for ourselves – finish this section by singing one song in its entirety. Stand to sing and if you see a significant member of staff passing, call them in to listen!
- Closing song – this is an optional extra that I love. Finish the rehearsal with a little song to mark a gentle, thoughtful end to your time together. It can be one of their favourite canons or, if you are in a religious school, a little blessing song. You can establish the habit of everyone holding everything they came in with (hat, folder, water bottle) before they stand and sing. This way they can literally walk out singing.
- Remember we DON’T have to work overtime at being ‘fun’ in choir. The enjoyment and satisfaction that comes from making beautiful music is truly a reward in itself, no matter the age of the singer. They feel the difference!
- As soon as you can after the rehearsal, reflect on what went well as well as what didn’t
- Jotting your thoughts down, much as you might not feel like it, is highly valuable. Reading over them later in the year can help you realise that you really are making progress!
- Make notes to help you plan next week’s rehearsal
- Plan next week’s rehearsal as soon as you can while it’s fresh in your mind and you remember what you want to focus on
- Having a routine structure means planning won’t take long and leaves you able to think creatively about important features
- Aim to jot down your thoughts before racing off to your next class – it’s a discipline worth developing
- Choice of repertoire is absolutely key
- Choice of repertoire is incredibly time-consuming
- It’s good to have a variety of songs on the go
- A Rule of Thumb might be:
- Lyrical song to develop a free, healthy tone, probably unison
- Song to develop part-work – with partner song or canon components
- Actions song for fun and engagement of body
- Choirs need to ‘eat their vegetables’ because you can’t build a choir on ‘ice-cream’ alone, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have some ‘ice-cream’ songs from time to time
- Ickle Ockle Blue Bottle
- Pease Porridge Hot
- Starlight Starbright
- Sally Go Round the Sun (can do in concentric circles, jumping and turning on ‘jump’)
- Bye Bye Baby / Bye’m Bye (=Stars Shinin’)
- All The Pretty Little Horses (Hush a Bye)
- Father Bless Us As We Go (I’ve used this to end a rehearsal as a little closing ritual) and Father I Adore You – both beautiful, simple canons you can use if in a church school
- Blue Bells Cockle Shells
- Derry Ding Dong Dason
- First You Make Your Fingers Click
- To Stop the Train
- Round and Round the World is Turning
Song Suggestions – Some Oldies but Goodies That Come to Mind
- Donkey Riding – arr. Mark O’Leary
- Al Shlosha D’Varim – Hebrew poem (truth, justice, peace) partner phrases – Allan Naplan
- How Beautiful is the Rain! – Mary Lynn Lightfoot
- It’s Raining – Stephen Leek (taps into It’s Raining, It’s Pouring)
- Inventions and Machines – D. Geoffrey Bell (has cute percussion)
- The Moon – Andy Beck (anything by Andy Beck is worth looking at)
Song Sources and Resources
- Start a Spreadsheet of songs you use!! This will be SO useful in years to come. I wish I’d done that years ago…
- Folk songs – collections are freely available in books such as the Voiceworks series (OUP) and websites such as kodaly.hnu.edu
- Australian contemporary choral composers have lots of suitable material, including some freebies on their websites.
- Young Voices of Melbourne also has a great collection of arrangements including many by Mark O’Leary
- JWPepper website – can browse with recordings and sheet music
- SingScore website – can browse similarly through music by Australian composers
- Sing! books published by the ABC from 1975 to 2014 are a great collections of songs from a wide range of sources. The school music department might have some; alternatively, keep an eye on Gumtree or music teacher Facebook groups for people retiring. Take care over your choice of key, because songs are often set in keys that suit adults and therefore too low for children
- Choraltime series – in Year level groupings, these have a lovely selection and melody line pages are reproducible. Year 1 & 2 book has Truly Scrumptious and Puff the Magic Dragon. Year 3 & 4 has Hushabye Mountain, Bare Necessities, Red Red Robin, Magic, and Snowgum (which is gorgeous)
- Choral Catalogue – see what songs the school owns
- Past performances – see if you can get a copy of old school concert programs
- Facebook groups can be hugely valuable – try starting with the Kodály QLD Discussion Board
- YouTube – search songs using song name + arranger + parts (eg: The Moon Andy Beck SA) and you are likely to find videos (both good and bad) of that arrangement
- Talk to Classroom Music teachers – they are likely to have songs the students love which can be arranged as choral pieces in collaboration between conductor and singer; as well as song resources already on the music bookshelves
Starting the Rehearsal
- Have a routine for when students enter the room (it’s worth saying this again)
- If you are rehearsing before school, you will want to mark the roll early (and from a duty of care perspective, this is important) but this has the potential to derail your rehearsal if it’s too time-consuming.
- You might be able to delegate the job to someone else (like your accompanist) but this denies you the opportunity to practise student names – and remember, names are power!
- Marking early can encourage students to be on time but at a young age, it’s usually the parents who determine what time they arrive. With secondary students on the other hand, this can be effective, especially if there is something dependent on attendance, such as a Pocket. Secondary students may mark themselves off. A clever colleague of mine changes the pen colour when rehearsal starts, so it’s very easy to see who is on time or late.
- If students straggle in over a period of time, you can waste a lot of time going back to adjust the roll-marking
- You can make a game out of any necessary routine, including marking the roll. This could include asking a student to time how long the roll-marking takes (they need a watch with a second hand and be able to tell the time!).
- Having a set seating plan means that everyone knows where they are meant to be, and who they are next to. This also means that they can tell you who is missing and saves time when allocating parts because it’s the same each week. Be careful though that administering the seating plan doesn’t take up a lot of time.
- Student helpers – some schools have a lovely tradition of older students coming to help at rehearsal with the younger students. This helps to build leadership and they are a great help.
- Action copying – young children respond readily to visuals. If the teacher starts a simple pattern such as tapping shoulders twice and head twice, many will get the idea to copy. As the teacher’s pattern changes, more and more students will join in copying. This can then morph into actions which indicate to be quiet, to sit or to copy you. The power in this is making the action silently. The more sound there is, the more aurally overwhelming it can be. Increasing the volume of our instructions risks damage to our own voices and is ultimately counter-productive. The more background noise there is, the louder the children making the noise will become (it’s the Lombard reflex) plus for some students it becomes aurally overwhelming. Silent cues are gold.
- Here, There and Everywhere (I observed Debbie O’Shea using this game, taught to her by Mark Puddy). It is a simple energiser game with simple commands. Students need to listen and respond to the one word directions given by the teacher. The pitch and prosody of the instructions helps to convey the meaning and joy of the game.
- Here – walk towards the teacher
- There – walk away (need to set parameters of how fast and how far to walk).
- Where? – they stop, look at the teacher for next instruction. If the Teacher says:
- Everywhere, they spin around with their arms out.
- Angels means they hold their arms up and make a ‘heavenly angel’ sound! (perfect for singing)
- Neurodivergent singers – It is important to think about which elements of a choir rehearsal might be overwhelming or overstimulating for neurodivergent students. Seeking advice from the learning support team is a wise and inclusive move.
- Rehearsal flow – planning needs to incorporate a balance of activity vs concentration. Too much action and the students will lose focus and not learn to sing. Too much focussed concentration and the students will become mentally fatigued and disengage. Having clear expectations about focus time will allow you to quickly click into quiet and attentive singing, if students have confidence that they won’t be doing it for a prolonged period.
Having a ready supply of action singing games means that, when you sense you are beginning to lose them, you can launch into singing one, boosting energy and keep the rehearsal dynamic and positive. For example: My Bonny Lives Over the Ocean (stand and sit on words beginning with ‘B’ then add replacing words beginning with an ‘O’ with a clap) and Lean Forward, Lean Backwards (actions follow lyrics)
About the Author
Wendy Rolls has partnered with Together Sing to share this article. It is shared here with permission.
Wendy enjoys working with singers of all ages as a teacher, conductor and performer. She has extensive choral & classroom music experience. Wendy has a wide-ranging background including MMusSt (Vocal Pedagogy), BVSc, BEd, and Kodály Certificate. Her current PhD research is exploring the development of adolescent female singers through voice change. www.wendy.rolls.id.au
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