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The most efficient way to place voices

Good evening all; maybe this more specific query will generate some good info...
The back story: I just inherited a successful middle school choral program; today I finally got into my building and started feeling things out.  While I haven't seen my class rosters, I'm told to expect very high enrollment: a minimum of 30-40 singers for the smallest choir, and as many as 100+ for the largest one.  My room's a little small to accommodate that large of a group, but I have some solutions for this, and besides, it's a nice problem to have.
Here's where I am currently: with so many students, none of which I have ever met, and will not until the first day, what's the most efficient way to get them into their respective sections?  Vocalizing that many students on a one-on-one basis doesn't seem practical is I want to get some momentum going early on.  I also don't want to assume that "they'll already know" because they might have forgotten, or they might not care, or they just want to stand next to their friends.
I want to have plans for SA, SSA, SAB, and maybe even SATB (and/or its cambiata equivalent) if the voices permit, so does anyone know of some good "bulk" methods to get them placed quickly?  I'll have the luxury of fine-tuning the placements in the first coupe of weeks; I just want to get them into comfortable sections early on as efficiently as possible.
Thanks for your thoughtful replies!
Replies (3): Threaded | Chronological
on August 19, 2011 6:52am
Dan -- I've known a lot of successful middle school directors who assign girls' voices into, say "red" and "gold" sections, then have the "red" section sing soprano on some pieces and alto on others, so all the girls get practice at singing harmony and developing their upper register.  That would be really fast for a first day, then it just leaves the boys to assign.  You can teach the whole group a simple song that starts low and contains a wide upward leap (back in the day, some directors used "Way Down upon the Swanee River" but I'm sure there would be others), and have the whole group sing it while standing in a single line or circle.  You go down the line and listen -- if you pick the right key, maybe Eb, the baritones will only be able to sing "Way down upon the swa-" and the tenor/cambiatas will only be able to reach "-nee river" -- you can assign by tapping them on the shoulder as everyone keeps singing.  Once you've identified the baritones, you can raise the key of the song to separate the unchanged boy sop/altos from the tenors.
Best wishes,
Clayton Parr
DePaul University, Chicago
on August 20, 2011 6:07am
America (My Country Tis of Thee...) works well for this.  If you start in F, most of the singers should be able to sing it (the high not will be C).  If you take it up to A, the highest note will be A, so those who are comfortable with it can then be designated as "higher" and those who can't, as lower. You can either let them self select ("Does it feel comfortable for you to sing this?") or you can do as Clayton described, and walk down the rows tapping people you hear straining and tight, or unable to hit the notes. Of course, a lot of their ability to do it or not may have more to do with the fact that they don't know how  to sing the high notes, but it is a starting point until you can get to know them better individually. 
Good luck!
on August 20, 2011 7:27am
I also use "America".  We learn the song together, adding in breath marks, phrasing, dynamics, etc., and practice it numerous times.  I then have all of the students stand on the risers and have mixed groups (6-8 boys/girls) sing it together.  This gives me an opportunity to hear them a little more individually.  I move them around (sometimes randomly) so they don't always know exactly how I'm trying to divide them, until I end up with what I think are the sopranos, altos, and "guys".  Then I use a warm-up that spans more than an octave and have small groups (4-6) of guys sing it together.  This helps me hear whether they are baritones or tenor/unchanged.  I also have the girls sing it in groups of 8-10 to make sure I haven't misplaced a soprano in the alto section or vice versa.
The next day, I will have sticky notes on the risers with their names on, showing their new assigned position.  (It takes a few minutes during a free period or after/before school, but it alleviates the "mess" of trying to do it during class and having everyone say, "where was I supposed to be?")  Then, in the next couple of weeks I might do some fine-tuning on placement as I hear them sing together and hear how voices mesh.
Hope this helps - best of luck!!!
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