By Sandra Thornton
So, you’ve landed a job as a choral conductor. Congratulations! As you look around the rehearsal room, gazing at your new charges, it dawns on you that these are not the seventeen year old high school students you were always convinced that you’d be teaching Josquin motets and Moses Hogan Spirituals to. Nope. These kids aren’t seventeen. They’re seven. As in, years old. Well, lucky for you, you have about fifteen seconds before they start climbing the walls, so what do you do with them? Most importantly, how do you make music with them? Here are a few things to keep in mind as you embark on a journey of making music with your youngest singers.
1. This is First Experience in a Musical Setting
First things first, remember that for many children in beginning ensembles, this is their first time making music in a group. Everything that we as choral musicians take for granted is brand new to them. It is natural for us as adults, upon entering a rehearsal space for the first time, to collect whatever music needed for the rehearsal, find our pencil, and gravitate to our general voice part section. But these concepts are totally foreign to our youngest singers. All of these procedures need to be taught. The general rule is this:
No Procedures = No Music
If you don’t decide well before that first rehearsal how you want it to go, it won’t. Keep in mind that everything, even the non-musical things, that your young singers experience in your rehearsal will need to be guided by you. How do they enter your space? How do they get their music? How do they hold their music? Will you have folders? What are the bathroom procedures (you will definitely want to address that within the first rehearsal)? How do you want them to answer and ask questions throughout the rehearsal? What are the procedures for exiting the rehearsal?
Setting the atmosphere, typically, happens on the first day and is reinforced throughout each subsequent rehearsal. Making music is the main reason for being together, so much of the reinforcement of procedures and expectations can be done while rehearsing. The transitions between activities are good times to integrate small chunks of procedural information. Establishing procedures and expectations helps to pace each rehearsal to come and engages the students from the start.
2. Kids Have Shorter Attention Spans
Remember when you were in college and your choir director would spend ten minutes on five measures of music? By the end of that ten minutes, those five measures would probably sound pretty amazing; rich and musically nuanced. However, using that same method of learning with young singers would turn your rehearsal space into a madhouse. That, or they’d be lulled into an early nap time. With older singers, it’s easier to focus on the details of a piece of music. With younger singers, that type of detail work can still take place, but it has to be done in a different structure because their attention spans are shorter than adults’.
When working with beginning choirs, the younger the singer, the shorter the attention span, which is a concept that many directors can find a bit daunting. Time needs to be structured in such a way that singers are successful in accomplishing the goals of the rehearsal while still remaining engaged in the learning process. Our youngest singers typically have an attention span of around eight minutes on a given subject, which is not a lot of time. Activities need to be well thought out and swiftly paced, while including varied approaches so that all of the different types of learning styles are included. Therefore, varying the stimulus quickly and often is key.
Additionally, not all singers are going to learn in the same way. Learning activities that encompass many different methodologies, such as Orff-Schulwerk, Kodaly, Dalcroze, etc., need to be incorporated into the lesson so that each child can be reached in his/her own learning style. Structuring lessons around Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, developed by Howard Gardner in his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, is also helpful in ensuring success for all singers. According to Gardner, there are seven distinct types of intelligences:
Most students will possess qualities of a combination these multiple intelligences to varying degrees, so it is important to use multiple methods of teaching the same concept in order to promote maximum retention. For example, in introducing ideas like “crescendo” and “decrescendo,” a few activities can be done in quick succession in order to both introduce and allow the singers to experience the concept:
- As younger singers gain more success through the idea of “sound before symbol,” a simple rote melody song, such as the first phrase of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, that includes a crescendo in the first sub-phrase (“Twinkle, twinkle, little star…”) and a decrescendo in the second sub-phrase (“How I wonder what you are…”) would allow them to experience these dynamic concepts first before delving into what they are and how they are produced.
- Singers can locate the two symbols in a piece of music and describe what they look like. Most of the time, younger singers will describe a crescendo as something that goes from small to big, which describes the sound moving from small/quiet to big/loud. Older singers may describe them in the mathematical terms of “greater than” or “less than” signs, which also works in music.
- Allow the students to move in a way that shows how crescendo and decrescendo function. This can be done using phrases in the choir music or in the original “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” song. A simple sweeping of the hand up or down to show a crescendo/decrescendo or an actual movement of the body from a seated position to a standing position and vice versa would also allow the singers to physically show these musical concepts. Additionally, any time a concept can be put into the body through some sort of physical movement helps with retention of the concept.
Activities should take around 5-8 minutes and, with swift pacing and quick transitions, even the youngest singers should be able to assimilate these concepts into their musical vocabulary.
As with any age, review is key, and the more the singers interact with the concept, the more they will be able to locate them and implement them in other pieces of music.
3. Movement in Rehearsal is Crucial
Because they are still so young and new to organized singing, movement is crucial during rehearsals of beginning singers. Any time that they can get out of their seats and move helps find a direction for their energy and allows them to be an active participant in the rehearsal.
Specified motions can be used in each warm up activity; alternating between sitting, standing, and stretching. Walking/stomping/patting/clapping/tapping to the steady beat should be employed on a regular basis, and singers should be encouraged to move their arms/hands/heads/legs/feet in a way that shows how the music moves. The positive outcome is twofold: the singers start to feel free to incorporate those movements into their sound, which frees up a lot of vocal tension that comes from having to hold the body rigidly while singing, and the music becomes an organic experience that incorporates both voices and their bodies.
Additionally, moving also helps to improve their attention spans. More and more, students at increasingly earlier grades are being expected to go longer periods in school sitting still and being quiet. By the time they get out of school for the day, they are full of the pent up energy that is inherent to being a child. They need an outlet to healthily be able to expend that energy and they need to be able to move! If given an opportunity to move, children are able to work out all of that nervous energy that gets in the way of their focus abilities. It creates a situation where they are actually able to focus for larger periods of time because they have been given the opportunity to free up their bodies.
All in all, the developing choir of younger singers is one of the most rewarding ensembles to work with due largely to the fact that every musical experience that we provide for them is new and exciting. It is our training ensembles that have some of the biggest potential for vocal growth and, as choir directors, we have an amazing opportunity to open up a brand new world for these singers; a world where they can feel accepted, supported, valued and talented. By teaching our developing singers the fundamentals of what being in a choir is all about and how to be a successful contributor, these singers become our strongest assets, both in their training ensembles and down the line in the more advanced ensembles. If given the tools and materials to be successful, these young singers will grow into the singers that populate our advanced choirs, eventually becoming adults that continue to value singing and are supporters of the arts in our communities.
Sandra Thornton is the Assistant Artistic Director of the Cincinnati Children’s Choir (CCC), Ensemble-in-Residence at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music Preparatory Department. Thornton also serves as the Director of Traditional Music at Epiphany United Methodist Church in Loveland, Ohio. Additionally, she is a professional singer with the Cincinnati Vocal Arts Ensemble, under the direction of Craig Hella Johnson. Thornton currently serves ACDA as the Central Division Youth Music Repertoire and Resources Chair.