It’s Time For us to Part! (or… when to start part singing with your primary school choir!)

Part singing comes in many forms and in this blog post I hope I can draw on my many years of experience to give you some useful ideas to encourage this important musical skill.
This type of singing develops the children’s sense of pitch and their listening skills, helping them to identify and follow specific musical lines within an entire body of sound. If any of your children take vocal or instrumental exams this will definitely help them in the aural tasks as well as making them more rounded musicians. It will also improve listening skills and generate growing confidence in their performance.
Like many of you, I begin each school year with virtually a new choir, as Year 6 children go off to their secondary schools and others leave and new ones join. My main objective at the start it to get a cohesive group whose voices blend well when singing in unison (one part). This gets easier as your choir becomes more established as you will have members who return from previous years with good vocal skills already embedded. In the warm up I use lots of singing games that reinforce a good sense of pitch – such as follow my leader; where the children copy what I song and do and I take extracts of songs we are singing and focus on tricky intervals (melody jumps). I usually let the choir give a public performance singing in unison first (generally around Harvest time) and the success of this gives them the confidence to attempt more challenging repertoire as the year progresses.
To introduce part singing I begin with simple, fun rounds which I use in the warm up (try A & C Black ‘Flying A Round’ book and CD or resources on the internet such as https://www.totalchoirresources.com/getting-ideas/ ). I begin with only two parts until these are well established and then move on to three and sometimes four parts depending on the ability of the choir that year. I sometimes develop these into performance pieces if the children particularly enjoy them, by alternating unison and part singing and sometimes adding a simple drone or ostinato (repeated vocal or rhythmic pattern). I also vary how I split the choir into groups for variety. I will split the choir in half with one group on the left and one on the right or I will split according to lines ( I generally have three lines of children arranged according to height in a semi-circle).
With other songs I may add a second part for just the final note by adding a note a 3rd above and this creates a lovely effect that works particularly well for slower songs or a quiet ending.
Another technique is to have one part humming the melody while a second part sings as normal, and although this isn’t strictly two part singing it can work very well in quieter lullaby-type material. In the Welsh song ‘Suo Gân’, for example, it gives the vocal line a delicate, calm sound.
Next I look for opportunities for some sort of echo (imitation) within a song. Think of the song ‘I Have a Dream’ by ABBA where each line is repeated or ‘When I Grow Up’ from the musical Matilda where the voices repeat the words and the rhythm. I try to find other songs where this technique can be used.
Finally the next step is to develop independent vocal parts. This can be done during choir rehearsals, giving time to each part, but I find that better results are achieved if each part is rehearsed separately at different times. If you have a colleague who has some vocal or musical experience who can help you then it may be possible to spend some time apart during your main rehearsal and then meet to combine the parts.
I hope that this has given you a few ideas to develop part singing in your choir. Remember to start simply until your children grow in confidence and become secure in their pitching. A few added notes here and there and possibly a little bit of echo (imitation) will enhance your performance and really make a difference to the vocal and musical skills that you are developing. Please feel free to get in touch if I can help in any way. Happy singing!

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