Category Archives: Secular Choir

Hands-On Learning in Choir Rehearsal

By Melody Easter-Clutter, Teacher and Author

When I first began teaching middle school in Indianola, Iowa, I recognized that my students didn’t truly understand the rhythmic concepts in their performance music. They could echo me and learn by rote, but they had difficulty reading rhythms off the page and grasping the “feel” of more complicated patterns. So, I began to experiment with movement and hands-on learning, in an effort to stimulate sight-reading skills and develop rhythmic comprehension in my students. I wanted to keep the activities short enough to incorporate into my regular choral rehearsals, as well as “fun” enough that my students wouldn’t immediately tune out the information. I used everything I could think of—hand motions, body movements, tennis balls, beach balls, composition projects, etc.

My students loved the lessons! Not only did their reading, notating, and composing skills improve, but my enrollment was impacted as well, almost doubling in two years. Teachers often forget the value of learning by moving and creating, something that is very common in elementary school but fades as students age. I found that young men particularly enjoyed the movement-based activities, and they themselves ended up recruiting other young middle school men to join choir. It was such a joy to see my students excited to come to chorus!

These lessons became the basis for my book with Anna Wentlent: Ready, Set, Rhythm! It is comprised of 80 lessons, which develop sequentially through the basic concepts of rhythm. Each lesson is about ten minutes long, and is specifically designed to be inserted into regular general music classes or ensemble rehearsals as a warm-up, “break” in the middle of class, or concluding activity before dismissal. And the timeline is flexible as well. You may choose to work through a lesson a day, every other day, once a week, or on an as-needed basis to practice particularly troublesome rhythms. Each unit concludes with a reproducible student assessment, as well as all necessary supporting documents, such as student grade sheets. Click here for more information!

The International Phonetic Alphabet

Anna WentlentBy Anna Wentlent, Managing Editor of School Choral and Classroom Publications

For developing and mature singers alike, the International Phonetic Alphabet—commonly known by the abbreviation IPA—is invaluable. This standardized system contains a symbol for every vowel and consonant sound, precisely stipulating the way the sound should be formed by the mouth and tongue, voiced or unvoiced. It is a singers’ greatest tool for understanding the sounds of foreign languages.

The uniform and un-biased approach of IPA allows singers to develop a feel for the unique differences between languages. And in doing so, it far surpasses the usual method of spelling words phonetically using English-based sounds (such as “meh-nee” for the word “many”). This method is compromised by the endless dialects and variations of the English language. For example, every English speaker does not pronounce the word “boat” the same way. Further problems arise when trying to represent sounds that don’t exist in English—how does one spell out a French nasal vowel or a trilled R?

Using IPA with your students has many benefits. To begin with, the teaching process will be easier with a standard pronunciation system. The symbol [e] means [e], no matter the language. Having such a system in place will also help with motivation—your students will begin to feel that foreign language pieces are more manageable and approachable without the language barrier. What’s more, you will be endowing them with a valuable tool to take forward into future choral and vocal experiences. What a gift!

Whether you are just now learning the system or looking for a refresher, Alfred’s IPA Made Easy is a straightforward reference for the symbols used in IPA: what they look like and how they are pronounced. Example words for every symbol are included in English, Latin, Italian, German, French, and Spanish. And an online listening lab includes recorded demonstrations of every sound. It’s a clear and concise tool for singing in foreign languages, equally useful in the choir room and the vocal studio.

Thomas Dorsey: The Father of Gospel Music

Precious Lord, Take My HandThomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993)—not to be mistaken with the big band leader Tommy Dorsey—is often referred to as the “father of gospel music.” The son of a minister and a piano teacher, he started his career as a blues pianist in Chicago, working with local jazz groups. He eventually formed his own group, The Wildcats Jazz Band, which played regularly with the great Ma Rainey. During this same time, he also began recording. The way in which he combined blues and jazz rhythms with traditional hymns and spiritual songs resulted in a new “gospel” style. Some historians credit Dorsey with creating the term “gospel music.”

In 1932, Dorsey experienced a life-changing event that resulted in the creation of one of his most popular compositions. While on the road performing, he received a message asking him to come home immediately, as his wife Nettie, pregnant with their first child, had died. Two days later, his newborn son also died. Filled with grief, he penned the lyric “Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on, let me stand.” (He can be seen telling the story in the documentary Say Amen, Somebody.) This would go on to be one of his most famous compositions, along with the gospel standard “Peace in the Valley,” which was written for Mahalia Jackson. After writing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” Dorsey devoted himself almost exclusively to the writing and performing of gospel music.

In addition to writing over 400 songs, Dorsey started a publishing company, Dorsey House of Music, and was a founder and president of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. He died in 1993 at the age of 93.

An SSAA arrangement of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” by J. Reese Norris is newly available from Lawson-Gould.

Selecting Repertoire for Middle School Boys

Lon BeeryBy Lon Beery, Educator and Composer

Perhaps the most challenging issue facing middle school choral directors is finding appropriate repertoire for their choirs. No doubt the adolescent male voice change impacts middle school choruses more significantly than at any other level. Although many authorities have come up with specific ranges and labels, I find it more useful to think of voice ranges in practical terms as they relate to repertoire: what pieces and voicings will fit the variety of voice types found in the average middle school choir?

I like to think of adolescent male voices in terms of tessituras: high, middle and low. High voices include those boys who have voices that are unchanged or in the first stages of change. The A below middle C to the A above is a comfortable tessitura for most of these guys. I personally call them Tenor 1, even though they are actually more like altos. (I used to call them “cambiatas,” but over time, some of them came to think of that as a negative designation. Calling them a tenor took care of that, even though I know they are not really tenors!) There are also middle voice guys who are more comfortable around middle C, usually from the F or G below to the D or Eb right above. This is the range often referred to as Part III in three-part mixed pieces. I call these guys Tenor 2. Finally, there are those boys who have voices that have dropped lower, from around the Bb an octave below middle C to the A or Bb just below middle C. These are the Baritones.

There are also a few guys with voices that have changed quickly and have a hard time matching pitch, except for a few notes at the very bottom of the bass clef. Privately, I jokingly call them my “subterranean basses!” It is certainly difficult to consider these guys when selecting repertoire. They need individual attention and lots of encouragement! They often become great singers later, once their voices have stabilized.

When it comes to repertoire, one needs to make sure that there are parts for each of these broad categories. Unchanged voices can often sing the soprano part. However, I personally prefer to combine them with the beginning changed voices on the alto part. In my sixth grade mixed chorus, I often use specifically chosen two-part music in which the range of part II is generally A to A. With the voice change, two-part music with equal ranges just doesn’t work any longer.

But in most middle school mixed choirs, two-part music generally does not provide enough parts for the variety of voice parts present. One generally needs three or four parts. The higher guys can often still sing the alto part. And the beginning changed voices can comfortably sing the lowest part in most three-part mixed pieces. Too often, however, the new baritones get slighted in three-part mixed music. Fortunately, in the last several years, more and more of these voicings include optional baritone parts. This is the music I recommend most often for middle school mixed choruses.

I have also found it beneficial to actually separate the boys and girls at the middle school level. This allows the boys to go through the voice change without the potential embarrassment of singing in front of the girls. It also emphasizes that singing is a “guy thing.” As is the case with mixed chorus repertoire, one must be careful to select repertoire that has vocal parts for guys in all stages of vocal maturation. Personally, I believe that carefully selected TTB music is the best solution, using the ranges listed above. It is also helpful to combine grade levels for middle school male choruses. Each grade level has significant strengths and weaknesses. Sixth grade choruses will have more high voices and fewer low. In contrast, eighth grade choruses will generally have more low voices and fewer high. Combining grade levels together helps to achieve a more satisfying choral balance. With my current school schedule, I cannot rehearse them together, but when I put them together everything works out just fine.

In addition to vocal changes, these students are facing many other emotional and developmental transformations. And this will impact the type of text that speaks to them. Indeed, there is no age that presents as many challenges for choral directors as middle school. Finding repertoire that fits these students is a challenge, but it is the primary key to leading them to success and a desire to continue to sing for a lifetime.

Holiday Traditions

candlesWhether you observe Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, December means coming together with friends and family to celebrate. That can mean big church services and concerts, musical programs and plays at school, or simply time spent with loved ones at home. Read on as Alfred Music’s favorite choral composers reflect on their own holiday traditions.

Ruth Morris Gray

For most of my adult life, my husband, our three kids, and I have celebrated Christmas week in the mountains with my family and then at the beach with my husband’s family. Packing is always an adventure! In the same suitcase, we load snow clothes, boots, and jackets alongside shorts, bathing suits, and flip-flops. Only in Southern California! Some of my favorite Christmas memories include gingerbread house contests (boys against girls), sledding down a snowy road in a canoe, and our yearly picture of the cousins crammed together on the sofa. Now the kids are all grown-up, and they absolutely can’t fit on that sofa anymore!

Russell Robinson

I grew up as a “preacher’s kid,” so religious traditions were very important. Christmas Day was one of them. My two older brothers and I would get up early. Dad would insist on a shave and a shower for himself as we anxiously awaited opening presents and seeing what “Santa” had brought us. Before any gifts were opened, Dad would read the Christmas story: Luke Chapter 2, Verses 1–20. Then we would have prayer so that we all knew the “reason for the season.” I have carried on that tradition. Before any presents are opened, we always read the Christmas story and have prayer. We miss Dad who passed away in 2012 and Mom who passed away in 2004, but these traditions keep them alive in our hearts.

Greg Gilpin

Traditions are a bit scarce in my family, though there are things we try to do on the holiday. My mom always cooks her homemade chicken and noodles and it never seems like Thanksgiving or Christmas without them. I’ve yet to learn how to make them myself! We usually decorate for Christmas on Thanksgiving evening and almost always see a movie on Christmas Day in the afternoon. These are the little things that have become our traditions—simple, but meaningful to us.

Douglas E. Wagner

Our family Christmas traditions always begin with a drive up to Chicago to take in the sensational Christmas Around the World celebration at the Museum of Science and Industry. It’s a festive, multi-sensory mix of decorated trees and exhibits reflecting 50+ countries and cultures, seasonal performances, and even falling snow in the great hall every 30 minutes. This year’s journey was made extra special as our granddaughter joined our daughter, my wife, and I on her first trip. Needless to say, she also now owns the spirit that we have embraced and loved for decades at one of the happiest places on earth at Christmastime.

Dave and Jean Perry

One tradition that we enjoy in Sierra Vista, Arizona is our annual Candlelight Concert. Each year, the community women’s chorus joins with the community college choir for this seasonal concert. The musical performances are interspersed with poems and short readings, serious and humorous, from America and the British Isles. A local church, festooned with greenery, garlands, ornaments, and lights, serves as our venue. The audience becomes part of the concert with sing-alongs of familiar carols accompanied by a brass quintet and organ. The concert draws to a close when the choirs join together to surround the audience and sing John Rutter’s “Candlelight Carol.” At this time a single candle is lit, the lights are dimmed, and the flame of each chorister’s candle is passed on to the next, filling the darkened sanctuary with many flickering lights. The choir members then recess outside and sing traditional carols to send the concertgoers out into the cold winter night.

’Twas the Month Before Christmas

Andy BeckBy Andy Beck, Director of Choral Designs, Classroom, and Vocal Publications

’Twas the month before Christmas, a busy time at school,
But so far I’d managed to maintain my cool.

With extra rehearsals, and concerts, and such,
I started to think, “Have I scheduled too much?

Nursing homes, rotaries, gigs at the mall—
I honestly hope we can handle them all!

There are costumes to alter, and props still to get,
And that’s not to mention, we still need a set.”

Now, being optimistic, I knew we’d get done,
But started to doubt it would be any fun.

It was a typical Friday, at 10:54
(My ten-minute planning, I wish I had more),

With lists all around me, and feeling quite stressed,
I sat down to get some “to-do” things addressed.

When out on the stage, I heard such a clatter,
I sprang from my desk to see what was the matter.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a large group of kids from my choir that year.

They weren’t on the risers, just gathered around,
And my instinct at first was to say, “Quiet down.”

But then, when I realized what they’d come here for,
I wasn’t so eager to scold anymore …

Without my instruction, or cues, or a thing,
Suddenly, all of them started to sing.

The altos were flatting, the sopranos were, too.
The very best boys were at home with the flu.

The tempo was dragging, the dynamics were worse,
And most had forgotten the words to the verse.

But despite all the errors, the wrong notes, and flaws,
This beautiful moment, it gave me a pause.

As every last student sang deep from the heart,
I saw very clearly that I’d done my part.

For what could be better than teaching the joy
And the power of music to each girl and boy?

Listening more gave my spirits a lift,
And I’ll always remember this meaningful gift.

Though I was the teacher, my students taught me,
Which may be the best Christmas gift there can be!

Words of Worth

vanessa_christianBy Vanessa Christian, Associate Editor

For centuries composers have looked to great authors and poets for inspirational texts. Writers of the Baroque era often set stories of the Bible to music for their oratorios and operas. The tradition continued through later eras: Schubert had Goethe, Debussy had Baudelaire, Bernstein had Voltaire, and on and on.

Composers of today frequently find themselves setting the words of Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Louis Stevenson, just to name a few. But what is it about classic poetry that marries itself so readily with musical composition? Most likely, they are the same elements that create a popular song:

  • Using stressed syllables and cadences, poets create a rhythmic structure to support their words. Since both poets and musicians rely on a catchy rhythm, starting with an existing poem provides a natural framework for an added melody and harmonies.
  • Poets use imagery that composers can bring out in musical ways, such as an icy river rushing through the accompaniment, or hushed prairie winds lingering in the voices.
  • When a poem impacts its reader, it elicits an emotional response, possibly by being extremely relatable or telling a beautiful story. The meaningful words are enhanced and built upon by a skilled composer.

These elements combine to make the union of poetry and music a natural, timeless tradition.

Building Community Support During the Holidays

Anna WentlentBy Anna Wentlent, Managing Editor of
School Choral and Classroom Publications

Your room is organized, classes have started, and now you’re looking ahead to the first concert of the school year. For most teachers, that concert will be in December, a month of holidays, stress, performances, stress, and PR opportunities! Over the course of the month, you will encounter administrators, other teachers, new students, parents, and community members. Take advantage of this opportunity to showcase your program! Here are a few suggestions for building school and community support during the upcoming holiday season:

  • Invite a community ensemble to participate in your December concert. They could perform in the lobby beforehand, between school groups while the stage set-up is being adjusted, or even in a joint performance with your students.
  • Ask audience members to join in a sing-along at the end of your concert (a Christmas carol, the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah, or similar well-known work).
  • Visit a local nursing home to sing carols or perform selections from your upcoming concert.
  • Invite members of the community to speak to your choirs and classes about the holiday traditions of their culture and/or religion.
  • Plan an “impromptu” flash mob performance by your high school jazz, a cappella, or show choir in the hallway or cafeteria.
  • Organize a weekend caroling event (stay at a set location, such as a square or park, or go door-to-door if you’re feeling ambitious). Choose familiar carols in simple arrangements to avoid extra preparation time.
  • Take a few select students to perform at the local elementary school. Many elementary schools have a “morning program”—the perfect opportunity for a short performance of one or two holiday songs.
  • Invite senior citizens to attend your final dress rehearsal for free. Carry the event one step further by following the performance with coffee and cookies in the cafeteria.
  • Stop by a meeting of the booster club, PTO, or school board to wish the members a happy holiday season in song with your small ensemble.
  • Create a concert display or handout that explains the many ways in which a student can be involved in your school music program. Oftentimes, students are unaware of the opportunities available to inexperienced musicians. And even if they are in the know, they may fail to communicate those options to their parents.
  • Ask a student to write and submit an article to local newspapers and blogs about the upcoming December performances at your school.

Have another idea? Share it below in the comments section!

Holiday Celebrations for All: Creating a Balanced Concert Program

Sally K. AlbrechtBy Sally K. Albrecht
Composer, Conductor, Clinician

With holiday concerts just around the corner, many choral directors just like you are making their final selections. As you review your choices, make sure you have covered many different styles, emotions, and types of celebrations. Know who makes up your audience and tailor your selections accordingly.

Do you travel with your choirs or small ensembles to sing at local retirement homes or hospitals? If so, consider including a familiar holiday song, carol, and/or sing-along. Try to alternate: a familiar with an original, a Christmas carol with a winter song, a spiritual with a novelty or multicultural number, etc.

Consider planning “sets” of music lasting around 15-20 minutes each, comprised of five to six contrasting chorals in a variety of styles and keys. Here are a few suggestions:

41815 – Sing We Now of Christmas – French Carol/arr. Mark Hayes
41670 – The Nutcracker . . . In About Three Minutes – Tchaikovsky/arr. Mark Weston
41721 – Winter Sings Her Song – David Waggoner
41892 – The Little Drummer Boy – arr. Philip Kern (a cappella)
41689 – A Wreath of Carols – Medley/arr. Andy Beck
41665 – The Little Cradle Rocked – Spiritual/arr. Jay Althouse

41677 – Tell Me, Tell Me! (A Christmas Spiritual) – Sally K. Albrecht, Jay Althouse
41639 – Carol of the Snow – Ukrainian Folk Song/arr. Ruth Morris Gray
41684 – Merry Christmas Madrigal – Mary Ryan, Donald Moore (a cappella)
41686 – A Hanukkah Wish (with “Maoz Tzur”) – Andy Beck
40056 – Ding Dong! Merrily on High – French Carol/arr. Gary E. Parks
41740 – Jolly Old Saint Nick! – Traditional Carol/arr. Alan Billingsley

41778 – Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! – Mary Donnelly, George L. O. Strid
41579 – Hear the Bells – Dave Perry, Jean Perry
41662 – Angels in the Snow – Sally K. Albrecht, Jay Althouse
41768 – Cartoon Christmas – Medley/arr. Andy Beck
41736 – A Still, Silent Night – Austrian Carols/arr. Sally K. Albrecht
41660 – Shoulda Been a North Pole Elf – Andy Beck, Brian Fisher

40060 – Star Carol – Cathryn Parks, Gary Parks
41857 – Christmas Star (from Home Alone 2) – arr. Tom Fettke, Thomas Grassi
41672 – The Nutcracker . . . In About Three Minutes – Tchaikovsky/arr. Mark Weston
41775 – Sending You a Little Christmas – arr. Jay Althouse
41764 – Carols from the British Isles – Medley/arr. Douglas E. Wagner
41658 – Light a Candle – Andy Beck (opt. VideoTrax)

41797 – At Christmas Time – Clara B. Heath, Greg Gilpin
39875 – A Doo-Wop Christmas (With You) – Kirby Shaw (a cappella)
39802 – Carol of the Star – Donald Moore
41783 – Grown-Up Christmas List – arr. Mark Hayes
41647 – Bethlehem Spiritual – Donald Moore (a cappella)
41664 – Jingle Bells (Sort Of) – James Pierpont/arr. Jay Althouse

(Please note that many of these selections are available in multiple voicings.)

Hand out mittens and scarves or even small strings of jingle bells to your audience members to wear or use on a sing-along. If you need to extend your performance time, ask several students to prepare solo/duets or feature small ensembles on well-known holiday favorites. I’ve made use of Joy! A Carol Collection (arr. Jay Althouse) at several holiday events. It includes bright and fresh a cappella arrangements of 20 different carols. Singing along certainly gets everyone in the holiday spirit!

12 Tips for the First Week of School

By the Alfred Music Choral and Classroom Editors

It’s that perfect time of year—last year’s school year is in the books, summer vacations are upon us, and September is waiting with promises of new music and fresh opportunities. Whether you’re returning to an established program or stepping into your classroom for the first time, start off on the right foot with these 12 tips for the first week of school, as recommended by the Alfred Choral and Classroom editors.

Learn your students’ names. Consider greeting each student at the door as they enter. For an especially large group, use nametags until you have every one learned. Students will be responsive and respectful when addressed by name.

Jump right into the music. Kick off your year with a fun song that can come together in just one or two rehearsals. Instant success will give students the confidence they need for more challenging repertoire. And opening the year with a “student favorite” will motivate them for the year ahead.

Provide a good model. If you desire rehearsals that start on time, start teaching on timeIf you value beautiful tone quality, demonstrate beautiful tone quality. If you enjoy positive and uplifting rehearsals, lead positive and uplifting rehearsals. Students will mirror what they observe.

Establish the rules. “Welcome to choir. We will start every rehearsal on time. Please throw away your gum as you enter the room. I expect you to have a pencil in your folder at all times. And thank you for not talking when I’m working with another section.”

Set the bar high. Why save the best stuff for performances only? Make the most of every rehearsal and class period by demanding quality at all times. Students will always rise to the challenge, and soon the highest of expectations will be met—and even surpassed!

Add music theory and history to your curriculum. This will raise student interest and provide both the context and background for them to gain a deeper understanding of the music they are learning. Inevitably, this will shine through, enhancing their performances during the year.

Get to know the support staff. Your school secretary will be so helpful when it’s time to print programs. Custodians will spend plenty of time setting up and taking down the choral risers. And many off-site performances will be made possible thanks to the head of transportation.

Schedule everything you can. Teachers, parents, and students are busier than ever. Take the time to put together a master calendar of all concerts, festivals, and other activities for the year that you are aware of, and then pass it along to everyone who needs to know.

Communicate with parents. Obtain students’ and parents’ e-mail addresses and telephone numbers. Organize the e-mail addresses in a folder on your computer so that you can immediately and effectively communicate details about your program.

Set up a substitute book. Absences are bound to occur during the school year, whether due to illness (yours or a relative’s) or a conference. Having a substitute book prepared will give you peace of mind and the knowledge that your sub has been provided with lesson plans that they can easily implement.

Reflect. Take some time at the end of the first week (or every week) to review each class/group, assess their progress, and affirm that you are heading in the right direction.

Remember that you aren’t perfect. We all have days when what we have planned for the classroom simply doesn’t work, and that’s ok! Learn from those  mistakes and continue to believe in yourself and your students. Celebrate the small victories along the way!