Archive for the ‘part-singing’ Tag

Training my choir (and getting away with it)

Choir at Pelican Primary School is a hot-ticket item – I have more than half the children from the eligible classes taking part each week (about 40 students all together). They are noisy and rowdy, they take a long time to settle down when they first arrive and to maintain focus whenever we ‘transition’ from one activity or song to the next. Most weeks, 1 or 2 children are sent back to their classroom for distracting or unhelpful behaviour.

But they are improving slowly (they are a nice little choir already, but it is their willingness to learn that is improving), and this gives me hope! Last year, for example, we started singing songs in two parts. I divided them into two groups of sopranos and altos, and they have maintained those groups and quite proudly identify themselves with one or the other voice type.

Singing in two parts means that I need to give each group their starting pitches before we begin a song. Last year, I would give these pitches, and both groups would ‘over-sing’ them – getting louder, and whooping their pitches up and down to make each other laugh. “I hate it when you do that,” I told them once, grumpily slumping back in my chair, tired of such end-of-the-day silliness.

But me hating it meant that I also needed to explain to them the purpose of these starting pitches, how they should respond, and why it was counter-productive for them to move the pitches around. Every week, it was an effort to make this part of the pre-song preparation work, but we persevered.

At today’s rehearsal, I gave the pitches for our 2-part South African song, and away we went. I realised later, reflecting on the rehearsal, that they hadn’t done their usual routine. They had taken the pitches, echoed them quietly, and used them to get the song started strongly – the way I want them to. Success!

I used to approach all my teaching at Pelican as ‘teaching by stealth’ (my own term) – creating activities that create environments that mean knowledge and understanding gets absorbed. This works well for the slowest and lower-achieving students, but leaves those with more ability and motivation to learn with fewer challenges than they deserve, and with fewer opportunities to put labels on their knowledge. Now I tend to announce to the older classes, “Information! I’m about to give you information! This is important for your learning so listen!” The more able students need this. They thrive on it. They are dying to know things.

How the choir got its cred

I’ve been working hard to build a positive choir culture at Pelican PS, and so far, it’s paying off. There are a few things at play, to do with building up the status of the choir, being explicit about what they can expect to learn, and why they might choose to do it, but also to do with role models and inspiring them with a sense of what is possible.

First, some background: typically, the choir has been made up of children in younger years. However, when choir started in Term 2 this year, around 40 children from years 2-6 put up their hands to join. I accepted everyone, expecting we’d get a big drop in numbers the following week. That first week things were serious and stern and I drilled them in the expectations of the choir:

  • Choir is fun but it is also hard work
  • It’s like being in a sports team – everyone needs to work together and train together each week.
  • Choir is for anyone who likes to sing and wants to learn to sing well.
  • I can teach you how to sing well and sound good.
  • No-one has to be in it, but if you sign up and then stop coming, you can’t rejoin again until the following year.

Role models

I want the children to learn to sing with their head voice. They don’t do this naturally or easily. I imagine that most of them, until very recently, had never heard other children sing in any way other than shouting. Most of them come from big chaotic families, and they learn quickly to do everything they do in a rushed, excited way, as loudly as possible (otherwise, how would they ever get noticed?).

Head voice makes them feel strange, I suspect. Efforts I’ve made in the past to get them more familiar with how it feels, and how flexible it is, tend to make them get very silly and giggly, very quickly.

This year, however, I have two role models for them. The first was telling them to google ‘PS22 Chorus’ and watch their YouTube video of Firework. (YouTube isn’t allowed in our school, so they had to do this at home). I love the way the PS 22 children sing with such enthusiasm, passion, integrity and musicianship, and I knew my students would find them inspiring. Finding this video and watching it was their first week’s homework.

The second role model comes from within our school. Elliot, in grade five, is a boy I’ve known since he first arrived at the Language School as a refugee from East Africa, aged about 7. He is bright, and quick, and a natural leader. He’s got lots of musical ability and instinct, and last year I recommended he apply for the prestigious national children’s choir. In my recommendation letter, I explained that his head voice was completely under-developed, but that I felt he had a lot of potential and that they should hear him to assess that potential. I also explained that as a child from a non-English-speaking, refugee family, he’d only be able to take part with financial support, and that his class teacher had offered to liaise with the family for any organisational support.

Elliot was accepted by the choir on a scholarship and so far has taken part in two of their 2-week choir camps – one in Sydney and one in Tasmania. Imagine what an experience that is for him! We are all so proud of him.

The great news is that singing well now has considerable status among the students. Elliott talks about his experiences, and has sung solo in front of the school, demonstrating the songs he’s learned in the national choir. His head voice is now strong and clear and true. It’s a fantastic model for the other children to hear and imitate. He has no self-consciousness about his voice at all. He has given currency and credibility to having a great head voice!


I’m determined to find a way to get these children singing in parts. I’m still working out how to do this. I find that children in this cohort (majority East African, refugee backgrounds) respond to multiple lines of music in chaotic ways. I think it often unsettles and confuses them. I don’t really understand why this is. I introduce complementary parts in instrumental and rhythmic pieces with a great deal of care and deliberation. Things can get wild and unfocused very quickly if I don’t. (Read here about my earliest observations of this tendency).

I think that singing in harmony with others is one of the most exciting ensemble experiences you can have. My first tactic has been to introduce simple part songs – rounds, songs with ostinato, partner songs, echo songs – into every choir rehearsal, so that part-singing becomes more familiar.

I’m also drawing repertoire from a wider range. Taking inspiration from Jackie Wiggins, and her reminder that children need to be able to place their music learning in context, and in a musical context, I now bring recordings into choir rehearsals that we listen to in order to learn melodies and parts, a core part of how we learn repertoire. This is a big change for me – in the past I’ve believed that the most effective way for them to learn songs is through listening to my voice. But the children love hearing the recordings. I think it makes them feel that they are learning real songs, songs that exist in the world outside of school, that this is authentic, real-world music.

We are singing some pop songs. So far we’ve spent the most time on La Isla Bonita. The choir’s relationship to the song Firework is a story of its own and something I will cover in a separate post. I’m not sure yet how we will tackle these in performance. Most of the time I try to ensure that we sing them in keys that I can play on guitar. I still can’t see myself letting them give a performance with a backing CD – that would be a big step for me to take!

But we are also singing some other numbers that I love to hear children’s voices sing, such as This Old Hammer (a big hit in Week 1 of choir – they all left the choir session singing it at the top of their voices) and Joshua fought the battle of Jericho.


I’ve printed out lots of copies of the words to each of the songs. This might seem an obvious thing, but in the past, because of the high levels of ESL [English as a Second Language] in the school and the fact that many of the children don’t read well (especially because the choir attracted so many young ones) it seemed more efficient and more inclusive to teach them the words as we went, and get them memorised from the start.

However, I’ve changed my mind. I see how they love to hold the pages in their hands and follow the words carefully. They are incredibly motivated to do this. I’ve realised that they love seeing the words of the songs written down – perhaps they sing along to lots of songs they know and like without being 100% sure of the words. I think it is also a good literacy outcome – the hungry way they devour the words, or read the sheet as best they can is a reading task that they take on willingly and with huge intrinsic motivation.