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Beginning conductors: Advice for first-time Children's choir directors

Thanks to all who have responded. This is such a wonderful group. I had not posted nor read here for quite a while. Such good wisdom. Below are the responses I received, as well as the source identities (when given). Thanks again.


Robert C. Fullerton
fllrtn(a)mindspring.com
Why Wait? Move to EarthLink.

*****
The octave starting at middle C - most voices will easily do all these
notes. A few may have a bit of trouble on the lower, and most will be
able to go higher- usually piddling out around e and f. Depending on
their training, they 'should' all be able to go up into their head voices
up to the high C (16va middle C), but I don't come across many who bother
to teach this.
These kids will no doubt impress you with their ability to learn quickly,
although you may not want to go beyond 2-part music - depends on what
they've learned already, and it sounds like 'not much!' 3-4 part is
rather tricky for this age.
Good luck and I hope they give you a big bonus for your work!
Josh & Nancy Peterson -- Directors of Music
1st United Presbyterian Church -- 1303 Royal Heights Rd.
Belleville, IL 62223 -- (618) 233-0295 -- 233-0490 (fax)
joshandnancy(a)juno.com -- www.firstunitedpres.org
*****
Robert - I'm sorry about this situation for you. But you may find some
surprises! 5th & 6th voices will be fully capable of singing a 2-part
piece. Why don't you do two unison and two harmony selections. One
very easy to learn piece is "Al Shlosha D'Varim" by Allan Naplan, pub.
by Boosey & Hawkes. I would make accompaniment tapes of each part for
them and have them work in sections for a couple of days so they are
familiar with their parts. The SA voicings will be the same as for
your women's choir. Do vocalizations with them just as you would your
mid school. I accompany the Albuquerque Boys Choir and the main thing
you need to do is to reassure the 5th & 6th guys that they can sing as
high or higher than the girls and as their voices change, youwant them
to keep the high notes and simply add the lower ones. I often put
students who have had piano lessons or another instrument on the
harmony or 2nd part. You might also teach them "Dona Nobis Pacem"--as
a unison and then have them do it in about a week and a half or so as a
3-part round. Enlist the help of your best high school students. The
younger kids will adore them and the mentoring is good for the older
students.
It's not as helpless as it sounds! You might even teach them the SA of
the easiest piece your high school is doing and combine all the groups.
It may call for a couple of afterschool rehearsals--but it is
"do"able. Call me at 505 832-5923 if you want me to send you a copy of
Alshlosha today. I might have a couple of other tunes to send you.
Remember: if you're panicked, think of how the abandoned students must
feel.
Good luck!
-Denise Baccadutre
Choral Director
Moriarty Middle and High School
Moriarty, New Mexico
*****
A few ideas:
Unison is your friend! Let the stronger singers help the weaker ones like
this.
Music that is repetitive also helps.
Don't go lower than B below middle C if you can help it. The D an octave
and a third up is a good upper range.
Best of luck!
Ehren Brown
Lebanon Middle School
*****
1) With respect to range- pretend they are all sopranos.
2) With respect to a "respectable" performance... Nobody but you will care about the level of musicianship in the performance. The parents want to see their kids being cute, the principal wants to see kids behave properly, and only you will care if they sound good. Give the people what they want. If you have to take the job long-term, then worry about giving the kids what they need.
A high school teacher who had to do elementary for a while. :)
*****
Ouch.
I direct a Boys Choir with about 25 4th-6th grade boys, and occasionally
work with a Girls Choir of similar size and age. It is a volunteer choir
at church so I tend to emphasize music that is easier to sing/fun to
sing. I also frequently arrange music for them to sing.
That said, I would suggest the following:
- Unison voices for the most part, with perhaps some easy harmony on a refrain
- Use a soloist for part of the music. A soloist will prepare on their own
or with you outside of class, and dramatically cuts down on the amount of
prep time and memorization for the rest of the choir
- As far as range, I would keep most of the singing above " Low A" (just
below Middle C) and below "High C" (the octave above MIddle C). The kids
can generally sing up to the D and E as a choir, and you will have some
individuals that can go well above that, but they get tired singing above
high C, and tend to to start tightening up so it is best to go to the upper
notes only a few times in the song.
- Also, I would suggest finding a piece with words that they might already
know. For example a Christmas song set to a different tune, etc. That
will be that much less for them to memorize.
Good luck!
*****
PARTNER SONGS to the rescue! Can you find a book by Natalie Sleeth? Or
any collection of Partner Songs? If you can't, I'll even send you
mine if you guard it with your LIFE!!! If you aren't opposed to
Sing-alongs, I highly recommend them in this case. Create a medley
using only the first verse of LOTS of carols, and intersperse these
little sets throughout the program. They provide great fill in an
emergency situation, and audiences seem to enjoy them. If you can't do
religious carols, there are all those holiday songs like Rudolph,
Jingle Bells Frosty, etc. (one verse in a medley won't kill you....)
Have no fear -- 5th and 6th graders are pretty amazing -- minds like
steel traps. They won't let you down!
Ruth McKendree Treen
Chatham, Massachusetts
rtreen(a)comcast.net
*****
In my experience (I taught several years of middle school chorus) most 5th 6th grades are still in the unchanged, not quite cambiata (boys) range. It's not a real wide range, I'd say your average HS 2nd Sop. type range, the trick I've found is keeping the singing as light and "heady" as possible. Don't let them (or encourage them) to sound older than they are. I've seen many conductors (especially HS teachers serving as clinitions etc,) push too hard, and expect a sound that is more mature than they're capable of. The result is never pretty, it's strident, "pointy", shrill and ends up with a lot of sore throats. Go for space and warmth and natural resonance. Good breathing exercises and light head voice exercises are a good idea. Also, remember they wont be able to get it from an explanation, you can't just tell them what to do, they won't get it. You'll need to demonstrate it to the best of your ability. You'll be amazed at how well they can reproduce something y!
ou demonstrate. They may find it extremely amusing the first time they hear a grown man singing like that, let them enjoy it then explain why you're doing it, they'll understand. One last bit of advice: keep things moving. Their attention spans are much shorter than HS and they can't take rehearsing things to get the finest nuances just perfect. Don't do any particular section more than a few times in a row (if they don't get it quite right, come back to it tomorrow) and don't spend too much time on any one song. Be especially generous with you praise, even the knuckleheads want to please you. Sorry I'm rambling, I just keep thinking of stuff... let me know if you need anything else or have specific questions.
Good Luck,
Travis
*****
Robert,
That's quite a situation! I've found that 5th and 6th grade choruses are most comfortable singing from the lower soprano range down for girls (anything above a D freaks them out) and the boys are pretty comfortable in the tenor range. Since you've got little time sticking to their comfort zone is probably best. I've also found that the more instrumental support these groups can get, the better. Because of the age group everything is embarrassing.
One thing you can do to help keep your sound the same on concert night is to rehearse everything you want them to do. Rehearse getting on and off stage, bowing, holding their music, standing on risers, not waving to parents, backstage behavior, where they'll sit in the audience or who will be backstage with them, being able to see with stage lights in their eyes... and any other little thing. The more comfortable they are with what's going to happen, the less likely they are to freak out on concert night and not sing or forget everything you've taught them. Basically, walk through the concert as many times as possible before it happens.
Best of luck!
Stacey Campbell
*****
Robert,
You can do this! That's the first thing to know-- and believe. You really can!
I found myself in a similar situation a year ago when our adult choir director walked out with a Christmas service of lessons and carols scheduled to take place in 4 weeks and a choir that had not started a single Christmas piece! I direct the middle and high school choir but got "called up" to take over the adults.
My advice to you would be to build them up as a team. When a director walks out suddenly, the choir, especially kids, might feel like it's their fault. They might have some feelings of abandonment and generally feel like they got dumped. A big part of stepping in like this is to build up the choir and help them to feel good about it again. That means singing simple things that they enjoy. If you position yourself as part of their team and make it clear that you're all going to work together to prepare, the kids will get on board and work hard.
As for range and repertoire, you've probably got a solid SA group there. If they're experienced, they can probably handle 2 part singing. Even if they've been doing 3 part, I would stick to 2 part and keep things as relaxed as possible. Giving them music that they think they can't do won't help anything. Keep it light and fun, and you'll see a good concert and a good choir emerge!!!
Peace,
Holly Reynolds
Director of Music Ministry
Friendship UMC
*****
Ah, yes, the beauty of 5th grade choir.
Here's what I can bring to the table:
Harmony is not usually successful unless it's in the
form of a round, partner song or canon. I have done
"Hashivenu" with solfege "la, ti do re," etc....and
then the words. Also, the kids want to do silly, fun,
holiday songs. There are some good partner songs in
the series books (I don't know what series you have,
but check into that). I had success with "Shalom
Chaverim" in a round as well.
In general, avoid Sally Albrecht/Linda Spevacek-type
songs that are for "children" because you have a very
limited amount of time and you do not know the ability
level. As I said before, harmony and traditional
2-part does not usually work. Pick some nice unison
songs or rounds.
Hopefully that helps.
Laura Lynch
*****
HI
According to Kenneth Phillips' book "Teaching Kids to Sing" (a really good
resource, by the way) the following are the normal ranges and best
tessituras for 5th and 6th grade students:
5th grade range a-flat - f2 (i.e. a-flat below middle C to top line F)
tessitura d1-d2 (octave on the treble staff)
6th grade range g below middle c to g2 above staff
tessitura: same as grade 5
Try to find literature that will keep the kids singing in head voice as much
as possible, even if it doesn't sound as strong as their chest voice. I'm
sure your skills in teaching high school will help in approaching the
rehearsals logically and briskly.
Have they done 2 or 3-part literature? Are you looking for Christmas
seasonal music or secular music or a combination of Christian, Jewish, and
other texts?
You'll probably get some very helpful suggestions from directors of
children's choirs. If there is a community children's choir in your area you
could probably get some good ideas from that group's conductor.
I hope this helps,
Kirin Nielsen
nielsenk(a)ripon.edu
*****
They are fun to work with! They listen and literally follow instructions
well. In fact, I love to have children's choir with my adult choirs. If
the previous music teacher taught them how to use their head voice
properly, high E and F won't be a problem. Otherwise, watch out for the
"screaming" effect. You will also be amazed how they can grasp the meaning
of their music and how fast they can memorize. You'll be ready by Dec.
11. Pls keep us posted.
Rachel Baxter
rbaxter(a)lajunta.k12.co.us
AV Community Choir
*****
Robert --
In 3-4 weeks I'd go with strictly unison pieces. No need to frustrate you and the kids trying to do harmony. Of course a nice round, such as Lowell Mason's "To Music" wouldn't hurt. Depends on how often you'll see the group.
In terms of range, I would say to keep it on the staff down to middle C. Also keep tessituras around A 440, nothing high for long. You could try spicing up the show with simple riser choreography or Orff instruments but these would take extra time to create and teach the kids. I wish you the best. Please let us know how things go.
Craig
*****
Robert,
All love and prayers to you...
"Discretion is the better part of valor."
My Middle School band director came straight to us from the Marines. I cannot count how many times he said that to us.
Cancel the concert. You will do more harm than good if you don't. It would be much better to schedule a mid-winter (Late January/early
February) concert to enable you and the students to focus on doing some good work together.
Kids are too sophisticated to put out junk. You will lose them for a generation if you don't cut bait on the December concert now. It's not
worth it.
I would love to confer with you further if it would be of help regarding ranges, etc.
Twenty years of loving voices of all ages...
Carol G. Wooten
Director of Music and Creative Arts, Epworth UMC
Conductor, Triangle Youth Music Chorus/Arts Ministry, Inc.
Durham/Chapel Hill, NC U.S.A.
cgwooten(a)mindspring.com OR carol.wooten(a)mindspring.com
*****
Although I have taught 6th graders, I do not have many suggestions to offer.
However, I can tell you that the boys will generally not be able to sing
lower than G below middle C, and regardless what they say, they can sing
just as high as the girls.
*****
Sounds like you're in quite a jam! What I can tell you is to hang in there... everything will work out. It might not be the best concert you will ever put on, but you will get through it, and might even be surprised at what you do accomplish.
I've been teaching middle school chorus for four years. This is what I've come to expect from the students:
1.) Average vocal range: middle C to 2nd D above middle C. This is their best range. Some students can swing it lower or higher, depending on their previous vocal experiences (in my case, not much from the lower school). Most of the boys voices haven't changed yet, but you may have a few that are starting to change, or who don't know how to sing in the head voice. This is very challenging.
2.) Repertoire: Keep it simple and fun. Better to do a one part or unison song well, then "barely get through" a two part song. Since you only have them for a short amount of time, do yourself a favor and make it as simple as possible. If you do songs with more than one part, try to find something with a call and response type of arrangement, or mostly unison with a few harmonic passages. Many people will tell you partner songs are the way to go, but I find that students who have never sung two melodies at the same time have a very hard time with it. I can also tell you that close harmonies (3rds) are often confusing the students as well, unless you have much time to work on it.
3.) Attention/discipline/etc. My choruses often had 70 students, and this was a lot to manage. I had to balance fun with discipline in my rehearsals. They knew when I meant business, but I also tried to keep it light so that we all had a good time. The students at this age cannot focus as long as your upper level. Work on your passages and move on. Keep a fast pace with your rehearsal to keep them engaged, but also remember it's going to take them a lot longer to learn things. This is why I choose easier pieces. It may take them a while to learn a melodic line.
Personal note: Don't underestimate the talent of these kids. I love teaching my fifth grade chorus, because they are still at that age in which they will do practically anything for you. They have enthusiasm that every choral director dreams of. Vocally they will be much weaker than your high school students, and tend to work best in numbers (the greater the number, the more secure they feel). However, they are so much fun that you may give up your high school chorus!
Good luck!
Matty Farrell
*****
Robert:
The voices are not so different from HS voices as you might seem - they
are all still young voices, after all, and need good vocal technique -
correct posture, good breathing, no strain or tension in the voice, and
a lot of encouragement to get into the head voice. The younger set does
like more game like warm ups, though - the Voice Building exersizes of
Frauke Haasemen are great for this age group. There is a ton of good
books out now about young voices - check into anything by Henry Leck
(he's got a great video), Doreen Rao, etc.

They can sing comfortably up to high G and even higher, depending on the
voice. Keep them out of singing consistently in chest voice, and teach
them how to blend. Good luck!
Joy Hirokawa
Bel Canto Children's Chorus

--
on November 9, 2005 10:00pm
Robert,
I've just begun a fulltime church music director position in a large church. I'm responsible for adult choir, handbells, orchestra, and children's choir and bells. I have a BA in music, majoring in vocal performance. I don't have a music ed degree, however. So, the children's music scared me for a bit. But I began children's choir rehearsals last Sunday and they went well. For repertoire to start with, I simply opened to the back of our United Methodist hymnal and the topical index. Some hymnals have a list of hymns that are listed as appropriate for "children's choir." I didn't agree with the editors on all of the selections, but most were fine. One great thing about hymns is that you can sing them in so many different ways. Ask parents of instrumentalists if they think the child might be able to play the melody along with the piano, etc. Using movement with text can also help with memorization. Of course, 5th and 6th graders will refuse to do interpretive motions that are perceived as "corny." Another idea is to see if there are any ASL experts at the school or church and ask them to teach the kids the ASL signs to a song's refrain. Just some ideas. Good luck with your group!
on June 28, 2007 10:00pm
Hello all. First-time poster.

I live in Toronto and am an Orthodox Jew. I am eagerly anticipating, for the first time ever (yes, safely assume I know absolutely nothing about choral directing; TOTAL newbie here!), organizing and conducting a girls' choir of probably fewer than 12 voices, for a brief and informal a capella (see below) performance to a small audience (fewer than 100 women, in a very small synagogue hall) on a late Sabbath afternoon in June of 2008.

I have already planned my intended repertoire. Most of the songs will be established tunes to established Jewish prayers.

What I need are:

- Diagrams of choral hand signals (NOT the eight sol-fa notes plus five flats and five sharps, but) -- the directions for tempo, pitch, volume, etc.;

- How to go about the preliminary auditioning of the girls before the autumn/winter beginning of rehearsal sessions -- make a graph with each girl's technical info per sheet, eg, range (by noting on the sheet her lowest and highest usable pitches as determined by matching to electronic keyboard), idiosyncracies (breathy, nasal, honky, thinning above certain pitch), etc.?

- How to politely and tactfully reject substandard candidates who may very well expect from previous years to be included (I would be the new person taking over from two years ago; there was no performance this year (a few weeks ago) for reasons I have yet to find out from the organizers of the "Se'udah Sh'lishit" serving as the occasion for the women's get-together, the annual Ladies' Auxiliary function). Do I include such candidates but privately instruct them to only pretend to sing?

- How to get around the problem, during the performance, of providing the girls with their starting pitches (yes, plural because of harmony) in view of both a) the Jewish law against allowing Jewish men (who will be present in the small hall on the other side of a non-soundproofed room divider wall) to hear women's (but not under-12 girls') singing voices, and b) total lack of instruments as guide, because of their being forbidden on Saturday? (Should I closely approach the group and quietly sing the three beginning notes for the melody, lower harmony, and higher harmony parts? Note here that it is my intent to scatter/pepper the ranges/"parts" evenly among each other rather than cut them up into three distinct square or rectangular floor/bench/chair "floor areas".)

Any and all tips and suggestions will be much appreciated, and gratefully accepted and acknowledged.

Thank you in advance for any help any of your members can provide.

P.S.: As long as we're on the subject of teaching and learning songs, I have been going crazy for decades trying to find the title, artist, and lyrics to a song my class learned in third grade. It is reminiscent, in even 4/4 tempo throughout and chord structure, of "In an English Country Garden". The melody has stayed with me all these years, but unfortunately the only lyrics I can remember are those to the last two lines: "'Hark!' said the tree, 'I hear a robin sing. / I must wake up, for it must be spring!'"

I would appreciate, at least as much as my main request, any clue any member can provide to the rest of the words, the title and the artist!

P.P.S.: Would any of you happen to know the complete (unlike the four to six verses, all differing from each other, that I was able to find over the 'Net), and correctly spelled (including accents) version of the Hungarian Jewish folk song "Szol a Kakas Mar"? (This one is so that I can double-check, before publication, my seven-verse singable English version before proceeding to do singable Hebrew, Yiddish (better than the one I found), and perhaps even French versions.)

Thank you,
Hedy Weiss
Toronto
on August 12, 2008 10:00pm
P.S.: Is the reason I have yet to receive a response that I did not include my e-mail address?

Oh, dear. I hope not. Here it is:

chayaweiss@hotmail.com

Thanks.
on August 12, 2008 10:00pm
Updates: Still looking for advice on both hand signals and technical "weeding out", as I may be asked to organize the choral performance for June 2009.

Still looking for the lyrics, author and title of the tree song.

Still looking for "Szol a Kakas Mar" even though I now have NINE verses tentatively ready for publication, in a) the original Hungarian; b) English; c) Hebrew; d) Yiddish; and e) French.

Thanks in advance for any and all assistance. Please remember I have never yet directed a choir.
on August 29, 2008 10:00pm
pls is it possible for me to learn conducting technics on line