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So… you want to start a choir?

You may have highly trained musical skills or you might have been caught humming on the way to the staffroom! No problem! If you are thinking (or it has been suggested to you!) of setting up a choir in your primary school, where do you start?

Well, in the twenty-seven years that I have been working with primary school choirs I have put together seven tips that, I hope, will be of use to you if you are setting out on this rewarding journey.

First of all, why start a choir in the first place? There are numerous scientific and psychological studies that show music and singing to be very beneficial to the development of the human brain and also for the social and well-being of children. At the same time it can improve confidence and boost the school’s standing within the community.

  1. Decide whether you are going to have a choir that is accessible to every child who wishes to participate or whether you are going to audition. The size of your school will sometimes decide this for you as, in smaller schools, you might want to get a decent sized group to begin with and work to improve the vocal skills of all the children. I would suggest a minimum of about 20 as this can give you a decent volume and the children will feel more comfortable and less exposed. If you are going to audition, I suggest using ‘Happy Birthday’ as most children ‘know’ it already, so there’s no need for any additional preparation, takes little time to sing and is very revealing in that usually it is only the best singers who can pitch the octave jump in the middle correctly! I always tell children who are not successful that they are on my ‘reserve’ list and to keep singing as much as possible in class. It works in the same way as, for example, the football team – all children play as part of their PE lessons during the year but not all are selected for the school team.
  2. Will you have help or go it alone? You may be the only person able to work with your choir and that’s okay, but if there is a pianist/keyboard player available, or another staff member willing to help then I would definitely suggest accepting their offer or doing a bit of persuading! Aside from the musical aspect of accompanying the children, an additional member of staff can help with settling, organising and taking registers. They are invaluable if a child becomes unwell or needs attention as this allows the rehearsal to keep going!
  3. Decide when you want to rehearse. There are often many factors to consider but the main one is whether you want to rehearse during school time or after school. If you have a decent lunch break then, at least, you know you are likely to get a good turnout but you may have other priorities such as marking or preparation. I find that after school works best when there are fewer distractions and more rooms available, but I do use break times and lunchtimes if a performance is approaching. As long as you keep a register of members and parents/carers are made aware of the collection point after rehearsals then this is the option I go for. Sometimes there are clashes with other extra-curricular activities so this is something that you will need to consider very carefully if you want to have a good turnout every week.
  4. Decide the length of your rehearsal. Again this might be dictated by time constraints, but I usually aim for between 30 and 45 minutes with a quick ‘water break’ in the middle. if there is a performance approaching then I do sometimes extend to the hour but I find several shorter rehearsals can produce better and more focused singing if you are able to ft them in.
  5. Establish a routine. I find that the choir children respond well to a routine just as they do for you as a class teacher. Tell them where to put their coats, whether they can keep a bottle of water with them (I sometimes find this distracting – so I plan a few quick ‘water breaks’ during rehearsals) and where to stand. I usually arrange the children in three rows according to height as, I think, this looks good visually and is fairly easy to organise. If I do any two part singing I split vertically so there is a left and right group, but I do sometimes split according to rows if there are three parts!
  6. Always start with a warm up. Trained singers often suggest that your warm up should be about 30 minutes but I find that five or ten minutes is sufficient for the length of rehearsal I do. There are many warm up games you can buy or download. (see Pinterest, outoftheark.com) I often take words or musical phrases from songs to be worked on in a particular rehearsal and develop them as a repeated pattern. The children also like more physical activities like ‘Chewing a toffee’ where they pretend to chew the stickiest toffee to work the facial muscles – it always results in some great expressions and a few laughs!
  7. Choose your repertoire carefully. Make sure that you engage your children from the start. I always make the first song a fun, easy-to-learn song so that they leave that first rehearsal with a sense of achievement. I usually aim to develop a good sense of pitch and ‘singing as one voice’ through unison songs (one part) and then I progress to more demanding ones, extending to two parts or more during the year, depending on the ability. My wife has a small choir in her school and finds that letting the children suggest songs (which they tend to take from the latest chart hits) helps with retention and keeps the motivation and enthusiasm going!

The famous saying goes – ‘The longest journey begins with a single step’ and you just need to get going and enjoy the many delightful (and sometimes frustrating!) aspects of the journey ahead. Have fun and remember that you will be inspiring children to develop a love of singing and music and maybe you’ll make a few lifelong memories along the way!

 

Prepare your Primary School Choir for Christmas!

bryn-coch-choir-christmasChristmas in July? Well that’s par for the course in the world of primary teaching! Preparation is everything if you want to fit Christmas into an already hectic curriculum! I usually start to think about Christmas in the summer holiday and my family get a bit disturbed hearing the strains of various Christmas songs wafting through the house when the sun is shining (hopefully!), there are umpteen lawn mowers going and there are no more choc-ices in the freezer!

When I start to put a programme together I like to combine traditional with modern on a roughly 50-50 basis to make sure that the children are stretched musically and that they become more familiar with traditional carols, which many children these days seem not to be aware of. I like to include some unusual songs that perhaps other choirs might not attempt – for instance, ‘When Christmas Comes to Town’ from the film Polar Express and ‘Once Upon a Christmas Song’ by Geraldine McQueen aka Peter Kay which went down a treat one year. My school choir also goes out and about in the community to entertain various groups of people so I tend to make sure there are always one or two ‘sing-a-long’ songs, which go down well.
My experience has taught me to start with a song that grabs the listeners’ attention and this is particularly important when performing outside. I remember starting one performance with ‘Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow’ just as a snow machine whirred into action (something we weren’t aware of at the time!) – it really helped to create the atmosphere! The backing track I used had a very good introduction which also made a difference and brought more people to listen.
If you have a pianist to accompany your choir then you are lucky and it’s great when your choir is performing in a school hall or concert venue. However, using a piano outside school can become more problematic. I have taken keyboards with me in the past but these days I prefer the reliability of a CD player/PA system and backing tracks. Although there is less flexibility in the performance itself, I find that the reduced stress more than makes up for it, and primary children generally rehearse to a set pattern of performance which gives them greater confidence.
So, how do I create my ‘playlist’? Well, I begin by searching the plethora of Christmas songs, both audio tracks and sheet music to determine those songs that are within the most suitable vocal range for the children. This can be very time consuming as there are many styles and often many keys that one song can have. I either write my own songs (all of the Primary Songs Christmas songs are in a suitable vocal range!) or arrange my own versions of the songs I want if I can’t find any in suitable keys. This becomes slightly easier with sound editing programs like ‘Audacity’ (free to download) where the key can be changed up or down a tone or two without losing too much quality. There are karaoke versions of many Christmas songs but I try and make sure that they have a definite ending rather than a fade out, as I don’t like to use these in performances. I also might edit a song if it’s too long and I have even added a key change or removed one if I thought it would be more appropriate for the children!
When I am happy with the song selection I save the playlist in a program like ‘Power2Go’, where I can easily access it and change the order if necessary and then I am ready to go!
Christmas is a great time of year for music and singing in primary schools and it can really bring a school together in a shared experience that no other curriculum subject can achieve. So I hope you enjoy your Christmas preparations if they are part of your school and please feel free to leave a comment or message if you think this has been useful or if I may be able to help you in any way.

5 ways to get more boys singing in your choir!

boys-singing

Motivating boys to sing has always been something of a challenge  for music teachers and you often see more girls than boys in primary school choirs. As a primary teacher running a school choir, I have tried a number of schemes to encourage boys to participate and generally find that the following points help to redress the gender balance. I do audition for the choir as I believe a high standard of singing adds prestige, especially when taking part in community concerts and events. However, you may wish to adopt a less formal approach to your choir and run it more like a singing ‘club’ – this could be a whole blog post in itself!

I have used the following points over the years to help improve the gender balance, but please feel free to comment and add your own.

1 PLAN CHOIR TIME
Perhaps the obvious one is to try and find a time slot for choir rehearsals that doesn’t conflict with other extra-curricular clubs or take away too much play time. Many boys participate in sport (as do many girls) and I have found that unfortunately, with a few exception, most boys will tend to choose sport over choir. It may be worth meeting with colleagues to plan a timetable for extra-curricular clubs that reduces this conflict of interests. Children enjoy a good run around (except when it’s wet!) and I feel it is a shame to deprive them of this when they have been working hard in class, so I try not to use play times for rehearsals unless absolutely necessary.

2 CHOOSE YOUR SONGS CAREFULLY
The material you choose to work on with your choir is extremely important in order to keep up the interest and retain children throughout the year. I look for current, popular songs that fit within the vocal range (roughly B below Middle C to C/D above) and I also write my own as, after twenty-seven years experience, I think I have more of an idea as to the sort of music children enjoy singing! Not surprisingly, some popular songs are actually quite difficult to teach as well as sing, so it is really important that the vocal range is suitable and the rhythm is not too complicated. Boys, in particular, find it a bit embarrassing if they find that the pitch is too high, and they can sometimes be put off by this, so it is worth considering carefully. I am lucky in that I have a colleague who plays the piano for choir but I like to use backing tracks as well, as this can really lift a performance and provide a great instrumental and rhythmic accompaniment. However, some backing tracks are not suited to the appropriate vocal range and can cause some difficulty. There are programs such as Audacity (free to download) which can alter the pitch but usually altering more than a few semitones can result in distorted playback – not good for performances! Songs on the Primary Songs website that I have found boys particularly like are: Gladiators! Rockin’ Romans and When You’re a Kid in World War 2.

3 PUT BOYS TOGETHER
If possible I always try to put boys together when I decide where everyone is going to stand. I usually have three to four rows according to height, putting the tallest of each row in the middle and tapering off to the sides. I try to keep the children together in a block rather than spread them out as this improves both the sound and gives them more confidence. I tend to use height as a rough guide because I like to put boys either in twos or threes within a row rather than have them on their own. This has the advantage of creating new friendships and giving them more of a sense of belonging and greater confidence.

4 RAP AND BEAT BOXING
Many boys consider Rap and Beat boxing to be ‘cool’ and therefore if you can encourage this and utilize it in your choir it really encourages boys to participate. I discovered recently that we had a Year 6 boy who was amazing at beat boxing who was hidden under the radar. Incorporating talent like that into your choir could really improve your recruitment of boys. I have also thought about changing the name of the choir to make it more attractive to boys. I know that ‘rock choirs’ are very popular with adults at the moment so perhaps calling your choir by a more interesting name could be beneficial.

5 MALE SINGING ROLE MODELS
The majority of teachers in primary schools are female and therefore it is so important to provide good male role models for singing. You might have male staff members who enjoy singing or who sing or play in a band so perhaps you could persuade them to perform in an assembly or concert with your choir. Living in Wales we have a strong choral tradition  which includes Male Voice Choirs, and my school choir has joined with trained singers on a number of occasions for charity concerts, giving the children a chance to hear, talk and work with them. I would definitely encourage this if you have a vocal group in your community that you can establish a link with. In addition, it is worth contacting your local secondary school as it might be possible to invite former pupils, or boys who sing and perform, to come to your school. It could be something informal such as letting them come to perform during a choir rehearsal or perhaps helping to generate interest with a session for the whole school. If you have the technology, why not show examples of male singers during assembly time or during class. There are plenty of great videos on YouTube, covering a wide range of musical styles, that could be used for discussion and really inspire boys.

I hope I have given you a few ideas to think about if you are trying to recruit more boys into your choir. Please feel free to share any of your own thoughts and ideas so that we can continue to develop great singing in our schools.