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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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!
- 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!