By Odell Zeigler, IV
“It doesn’t matter whether you are pursuing success in business, sports, the arts, or life in general: the bridge between wishing and accomplishing is discipline.” – Harvey Mackay
I believe the above quote can serve as our epigraph for this blog and our overall commitment to fostering and developing music literacy skills within our respective programs. Many of you are on one side of the bridge, setting music literacy goals (wishes), and strategizing how to cross over to accomplishing.
As I have participated in music education resource forums, looked through my emails, and conversed with choral leaders, I have encountered a recurring question about developing music literacy skills for beginning chorus students while preparing students for performances.
I want to share a brief sketch of the music literacy layout for my beginning singers and how I balance music literacy and performance preparation. This is not intended to serve as a prescription to my approach, but rather a personal system that has worked for me. I hope it can serve you as well!
One question you might ask yourself is How do I get my students’ music literacy skills up while preparing them for performances throughout the year? My response: do not succumb to putting performance preparation above music literacy skill building. There must be balance, consistency, and discipline throughout the year so that neither one suffers. However, there is a way to develop music literacy skills and have great musical performances.
Here are a few reflective questions to begin with:
- How will I assess the musical aptitude of “each” student in my beginning chorus?
- How do I teach music literacy to students who might not have appropriate beginner high school-level music skills? How do I program for a beginner chorus group?
- Who can help me in the process?
First, every school year in my beginner chorus groups, I begin with a four-part pretest that assesses students on rhythm and pitch. In the first part, I have students label pitches (solfège) and rhythms (beat counts) on paper. In the second part, students perform pitches and rhythms. For the third part, they sing a major scale (with hand signs if they can). Lastly, I have students sing from my hands (do-re, fa-re, do-mi, do-mi-so, do-la, la-do, etc.). All of this occurs before vocalizing my students or anything else. I MUST know exactly what their music literacy skill levels are. The pretest immediately informs me how to plan and deal with the inverse relationship between performance preparation and music literacy skill building.
Notably, for students’ music literacy skills to grow, the teacher must commit to teaching those skills. I am not trying to stir the pot, but want to share my belief that literacy advances music education. I am heartbroken at times to see how we have veered away from musical literacy as an “end goal.” I see this more in the general music level where movement and singing games are prominently displayed; however, this seems to slowly be making its way into the choral space.
Following are a few assessments you will see in my beginning chorus as they relate to music literacy. This is not an exhaustive list:
- Weekly assessments of students independently singing a major scale with Curwen hand signs. (Students must have good intonation with rhythmic flow, and correct hand signs.)
- Weekly assessments of students clapping and speaking rhythms independently. (Students must perform with a metronome.)
- Students are required to sing from my hands independently. (Correct students if they are sliding up to the pitch or down to the pitch, and fix intonation issues ALWAYS.)
- Slow introduction to intervals. (Melody flashcards, I start with sol-mi, add la, so on.)
- Informal assessment of students following a score. (Ask students to identify and “touch” various places in the score, measure number, system, beat, pitch, etc.)
On another note, we must always remain realistic about programming and picking music for beginner groups. I’m sure you’ve heard of programming for the group in front of you instead of the group in your head. I know this may be tough after watching honor chorus groups locally, nationally, and so on. This can be a challenge for the new teacher, who may have recently graduated and is still engaged with the music from their fabulous college choir. Most would recommend picking unison pieces where students can be successful. I agree, but suggest that there are also some easy two-part pieces you can choose from.
The issue with balancing music literacy skill building and performance preparation are that we may select repertoire that is too hard and then don’t develop music literacy skills. Instead, we are rote teaching and brushing over music literacy skills.
Here are a few reflective questions: How are you teaching music literacy in your chorus classroom? How are you preparing your students for the skill you will teach? How are you presenting that skill? If they are not yet ready, do you need a bridge lesson before you present the skill? Are you scaffolding? Are you chunking information? Are you practicing previous concepts before introducing something new?
The balancing act of this inverse relationship becomes achievable and doable with excellent lesson planning and solid pedagogy.
Finally, the big question is Who can help me in the process? This is the easiest part of the process. I encourage you to reach out to local college directors and other choral colleagues to help and support you. I saved my favorite helpmates for last, and those are the retirees! Yes, the retirees! Each year I bring in about three or four retirees, not because I think they are bored with nothing to do or because they are living their “beach” lives, but because they are still passionate about music education and they are usually excited to come in and work with you and your program. They also love working with beginner groups. There is something about retirees’ passion for beginning choir groups that I haven’t yet figured out. So please reach out to them!
In this balancing act between teaching literacy and performance, you must have a solid plan for each class. What does your lesson planning look like for the beginning chorus? I know class times are allotted differently across districts, but you have to figure out what portion of the lesson will be committed to music literacy and how you will informally assess music literacy skills during rehearsals. Yes, there needs to be a music literacy segment for your lesson! I know you may incorporate music literacy by asking questions while teaching a piece, but it’s not the same. If you want to see improved music literacy skills, then a commitment must be made, and time must be dedicated each class to that purpose.
A sketch of my beginning chorus class (90 minutes):
- Welcome (Social-Emotional check ins)
- Phonation: Techniques-gentle
- Technique: vowels shape, soft palate, getting sound in the mask
- Intonation: Choir tuning (major chord)
- Tonal patterns
- Sight reading: Sight Reading Factory for intermediate and advanced groups!
- Music Literacy
- Rhythmic component: flashcards
- Pitch component: melody flashcard
- Labeling component: rhythm and pitches
- Repertoire: Two part or unison
Note: You can skip number 4 if you have a beginner chorus group. I do not use Sight Reading Factory for my beginner chorus groups or have them sight read from a sight reading book until the first week in March.
Here are a few of my repertoire suggestions for beginning chorus groups for your winter program:
- “Velvet Shoes,” by Randall Thompson
- “Season of Peace (Dona Nobis Pacem),” by Sally K. Albrecht and Jay Althouse
- “In Winter, So Many Stars,” by John Purifoy
- “Two Holiday Carols,” arr. Noah Reese
In closing, the inverse relationship of balancing performance preparation with building literacy skills is achievable once we have committed ourselves to the music literacy component. We must remain consistent and committed and teach discipline. Personally, I commit myself to the work of teaching music literacy every week. I receive affirmation from this work when I see my returning students and how their reading levels have soared.
In September, I could jumped into Sight Reading Factory, where students saw a sight reading excerpt in three parts. They knew the key signature; time signature; and the sopranos, altos, and baritones all knew their starting pitches. I gave them 45 seconds to review. They looked it over, spoke the solfège in rhythm, and sang it through. They had a few hiccups, but they made it through.This nearly brought tears to my eyes!
“The moment we remove music notation from our classrooms, we can longer call it music education!”
Odell Zeigler, IV, is choral director at Booker T. Washington High School (Academy of Visual & Performing Arts) in Norfolk, Virginia. An active clinician and public speaker, Odell has presented music education workshops across the country and published in a variety of publications. He holds a B.A. (music & psychology) from North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, an M.M.Ed. from the University of Rhode Island, and an M.Ed (Educational Leadership with a Principal Certification Endorsement) from Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.