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How to teach harmony to a VERY beginning group

How do you teach harmony to a VERY beginning group? These are middle school children (7th and 8th grade) ages 11-13
on April 3, 2014 4:08am
Begin with unison until they develop a unified tone, then move to rounds and partner songs.
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on April 3, 2014 6:19am
rounds and canons. YouTube has a great Dona Nobis Pacem project, look for it, play it for them have them learn all 3 parts, and then start with two parts at once and gradually move to all 3 parts being sung simultaneously. after they feel confident and accomplished they will want to do more.
on April 3, 2014 7:43am
I'll take a stab at this one...  (after you read my thoughts, you can read my disclaimer at the bottom of the page)
Harmony, as we all know, at it's very basic level is very simply, "I sing 'X', while you sing 'Y'".  And for beginners, it's very much that first rub-your-belly-and-pat-your-head kind of experience.
I believe there are two components, here.
1) Teaching the "concept" of Harmony.
Include the "concept" of harmony in EVERY WARM-UP.  For this age group I'd keep it simple, but do HARMONY EVERY DAY. Get them used to the idea of singing "X" while someone else sings "Y". AND do it a cappella.  Once they know the exercise, let them hear themselves create harmony without on thier own.  
     - Sing rounds.  "Frere Jacquez" ("Are you Sleeping") or "Row, Row, Row Your Boat".  Key: Instant success.  There's nothing to teach, because they already know the tunes, and it gets them used to the idea of singing "X" while someone else sings "Y".
     - Call and response - If you already warmup with "do-re-mi-fa-so-fa-mi-re-do", split the room in half do a call and response exercise.  Key: Instant success.  They already know it. ...and it gets them used to the idea of singing "X" while someone else sings "Y".
     - Sing scale based exercises - in harmony.  Start with one part exercises you already do and make it multi-part.  For example, split the room in half and sing a major scale with half starting at the bottom and half at the top.  (...and keep it fun.  One day it's left vs right, another it's odd birthdates vs even birth dates, another it's boy vs girls, whatever.)
     - Do as much of your harmony exercises as you can a cappella.  We need to allow them to HEAR the harmonies they are creating.  With harmony, it's more about training the ear, I believe.
2) Teaching a specific song's harmonies.
A beginning group learns best by rote, I believe, so it's valuable to let them HEAR the harmonies they are learning.  I often use the same methods to teach difficult parts of songs, as I use in warm-ups.  Teach A. Teach B. Add A and B together.  Teach C, with A and/or B in the background. Add A+B+C together.  Do this with and without accompaniment.  Set the expectation that what they hear should sound good with or without the piano.
I've found it valuable to introduce each section to it's part, in a way that they can hear it predominantly, and teach it as "their melody".  For example, demonstrate the harmony with the melody sung/played softly in the background and allow them to sing it back to you against that same softly sung melody.  If you can't demonstrate it with quality, a part predominate track can be used very effectively.
Here's the disclaimer... I've never taught in the school system.  I direct an adult community men's a cappella chorus (Barbershop Harmony Society), but often deal with new/perspective singers with limited a cappella harmony experience.  But, I do think the methods used to teach beginners are pretty universal regardless of age.  
Interestingly, I find that I use many of the same classroom management skills in my rehearsals with adults.  :)   Feedback is welcome.
on April 3, 2014 7:53am
i agree that rounds and partner songs are a good way to begin.  Also, descants.
on April 3, 2014 8:17am
To teach harmony to a beginning group no matter what the age I begin by being sure that they can sing a simple melody in tune.  Using a song that can be sung as a round is the simplest way to start having them sing harmonies.
After they can sing a "round", I teach a second melody which can eventually be sung simultaneously with the original melody.  Many "partner songs" are available if you need help.
The next step is to find or compose arrangements which are primarily melody (rounds or cannons) with very simple harmonic parts written in short sections.  Often during the chorus which works very well because it usually is the most recognizeable and the chorus is repeated serveral times.  I usually use 2 part or 3 part songs because I can teach everyone each part then have them sing the song trading parts.  This teaches everyone to sing parts avoiding the "I can't sing alto, tenor, etc. because I only sing melody" problem.  Everyone in a choir needs to be able to sing parts.
If your choir members can't sing high enough or low enough to sing all the parts, you need to work on their vocal production to give them the 3+ octave range that every singer needs.
My conducting/teaching career began over 50 years ago and continues today.  The more I teach and conduct the more I realize that the KISS method "keep it simple 'singer'" should be a teachers "go to" method.
One final note:  Make sure the songs are musically lovely.  Beautiful melodys, simple but interesting rhythms and begin with basic harmonies.  Fun words can help keep the choir's interest.  Don't try to do to much to soon.  A song done beautifully in 2 part harmony (or even unison) is much more pleasing to an audience (and the choir) than a 3 or 4 part song that is not sung well.
on April 3, 2014 8:19am
I've had the greatest success with partner songs.  Children tend to "plug their ears" when they sing rounds, but when they have their own song going along with others they realize the harmony and are truly delighted by results.  There are many published books of partner songs out there but, with a little time and ingenuity, you can create your own.  Follow the chord structure and create rhythmic interest by filling in the rests and sustained notes in the original melody parts.  You'd be surprised how quickly you can engage middle school students with a countermelody to an old public-domain chestnut like "Do Lord."
on April 3, 2014 8:33am
Mary Goetze-- long time children's choir director and Indiana University professor--has many song arrangements and publications on introducing harmony.  See West Music's catalog.
Nick Page, in Sing and Shine On, describes his method of introducing spontaneous, experimental harmonizing which is not necessarily tied to music reading or a particular song arrangement.
on April 3, 2014 9:23am
Here's my sequence.
1) They sing one part unaccompanied, and unassisted by you
2) They sing one part, and you sing the other. Reverse. (For rounds, they start, you come in second. Then reverse. The second entrance is usually harder for beginning part singers.)
3) Each group sings its own part, unassisted.
4) Put both parts together.
5) Cheer and celebrate.
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on April 3, 2014 11:56am
My previous response was cut short, so let me continue with some methods that have worked for me (K-6, adapted for grade level).
First, pitch matching.  I turn off the lights and ask students to close their eyes while listening to my held note on "oo", in order to minimize distractions and maximize listening and inner hearing.  Then they match my pitch.  Second, echo singing with Corwen hand signs--I sing and sign "so-mi", they copy, etc.  Third, divide class or choir down the middle and each half holds a different pitch.  Start with "so-----" for the left side of the class and "so-mi" for the right.  Train them to follow and copy your hand signs, and you use left hand for the students on your left, and right hand for those on your right.  In other words, you sing "so" then everyone sings "so" with you signing "so" with both hands.  When everyone is matching pitch, move your right hand to the "mi" position, for the singers on your right.  You may have to look at those students, give a nod and sing "mi" in their direction.  Switch parts.  Move to different notes alternately, and always using hand signs.  When they can do that, try three different held notes.
   Regarding rounds, don't think of them only as beginner exercises to have fun with and cast off.  Make a round into a performance piece.  First, teach it by rote, echo style, and make sure they can sing it together in unison.  Then arrange it and expand it.  For example:  All sing in unison a couple of times; then as a standard two part round; then all hold the final note while a soloist sings it once through; soloist sings again, and the choir or second soloist comes in as the second round part; first soloist repeats the final phrase whle fading away and meanwhile the choir starts the song again without hesitation; this time however, one half of the choir repeats the first phrase over and over while the other half sings the phrases in sequence; when phrase 1 comes around again, this second half of choir now becomes the lead voice, and the other half becomes the following voice singing again as a standard two part round.  At any time, one section of the choir can repeat any meaningful phrase (meaning the highest phrase, the phrase with the most important words, phrase with a certain melodic shape, etc.) while the other section sings through.  For an ending, one section can hold the final note (OR the final note of any other phrase that harmonizes well) while the other sings through to the end.  One section can hold a note while the other repeats the final phrase (OR--try ending on one of the other phrases) and fades away.  Or, end by having both sections repeat different phrases, fading away or ending on held notes.
   Don't be afraid to select one or two good rounds and sing them all year.  I may go many weeks without singing our "performance" version, but still use the round--once or twice through, unison or round--as part of our warmup.  Then, for a few weeks, we'll sing various "performance" versions.  Keep it fun and keep variety, but let them learn the piece deeply and with periodic new challenges.  Throughout, you are using the round to teach phrasing, vowel sounds, dynamics, etc., AND teaching them to watch you (no music).  Use your two hands separately for each half of the choir, and teach them to follow your signals:  1, 2, 3, or 4 fingers on right or left hand indicates which phrase each part is singing; hands down means "softer"; stationary hand up means "hold last note of this phrase"; and crossed first and second fingers is American Sign Language for "R" and means "repeat this phrase until I indicate otherwise".   These rounds can also be concert pieces and are an easy way to add length to a program.
I like short, melodic, 4 phrase rounds with a slow or moderate tempo and a message, like Peace Round, Ah Poor Bird, and London's Burning.   And use these--briefly--to get students thinking about the larger curriculum.  For example, these three rounds can tie in with, respectively:  conflicts that are going on in the world (or on the playground), and our yearning for peace; challenges in our lives and how we handle them; and the Great Fire of 1666, fire safety, and public service.  Interesting how those are all related....  
on April 4, 2014 8:49am
Hi Chase,
All of the suggestions that have been posted here are excellent, and I hope I can add some things that have worked for me.  I'm not sure if this will work in your situation, but I would try to work on sight-singing in unison first.  Check out Carol Krueger's book Progressive Sight Singing published by Oxford University Press.  Here's a link to her book:  I would move from unison a capella sight singing into two part sight-singing.  Also, I had my choir warm singing 1,2,3,4,5,4,3,2,1 (major scale pentachord).  All the singers ascended together, but the sopranos would hold 5 on the way down, altos would hold 3, and the baritones would hold 1.  Try to find songs with independent lines rather than block homophonic triadic harmony.  This is the hardest kind of harmony to hold for inexperienced singers.  I learned that in a workshop with Carol - see if you can meet her at one of her workshops, she's awesome!  At these workshops, she also has a list of songs that have mainly stepwise parts which make them easy to sight-sing.  Check out Come to Me, O My Love by Robert Allen Petker and Play for Me a Simple Melody arr. Kirby Shaw.  I know they're not the newest songs, but they work.  Oye by Jim Papoulis is pretty good too because of the repetition involved.  Good luck, and don't give up!
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on April 4, 2014 12:48pm
Hey - I forgot a good piece - Sahayta by Ben Allaway.  I had my guys sing the S2 part down an octave as appropriate for ranges on the repeating 3 part section.  
on April 4, 2014 2:52pm
Ruth Dwyer of the Indiannapolis Children's Chorus advocates the following sequence:
2. Ostinato
3. Descants
4. Suspended Pitches
5. Canon/Round
6.  Canonic Entrance
7. Partner Songs
8. Homophonic Harmony
She has a series published by Colla Voce that categorizes songs in each of these categories, many of which are suitable for your age group.   Starting with repetative ostinati is a great way to get them started in particular. 
Good luck!
on April 5, 2014 9:10pm
Pinging off of Mark's suggestion to work on sightreading....I have seen exponential growth in my students' ability to sing in harmony this year, because I introduced them to solfege.  I started the year off teaching them the hand signs and doing little fun exercises that helped them learn the order and the muscle memory of how the pitches relate to each other. Then I started giving them "Mad Minutes"--little worksheets with an 8-bar sight-singing exercise, where they have to fill in the note names and the solfege syllables.  They do those as bellwork, and then I start the class by having them sing the exercise together.  Their sightsinging ability has leapt, and so has their ability to sing in harmony.  I can't recommend highly enough that you start them out with solfege if you haven't already done so.
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