By Brody MacDonald
Each new school year brings with it a special set of challenges. For starters, a new mix of students means a new group dynamic in every ensemble. I often say that training a choir is like fostering a puppy and then sending it off to adoption after nine months. At first, you and the puppy have to get used to each other. Then, after many long months of housebreaking and obedience training, the puppy becomes a wonderful, full-grown dog. Just when everything is getting in a great groove, it’s over. Time to send the dog along to a new adventure, and start over again in the fall. In this article I will share with you some tips and tricks that could save you time, as well as make your rehearsals more manageable – a survival guide, if you will.
New Names and Faces
The first daunting task of the year is learning names. I see at least 100 new faces in my classes every year and I’m horrible with names. What saved me was modifying my folder setup. All my students use a half-inch black binder with clear insert cover. They’re cheap, easy to find, and easy to customize. I create a spreadsheet that contains every student’s name and folder number. I start numbers at one and go through to the end of the program. Each choir does not start on their own version of #1. My first period choir goes 1-44 and then 2nd period goes 45-90, and so on, up to the end (206, in my case). Using the “mail merge” function in my word processor, I generate a one-page insert that has the student’s choir, name, and folder number in a large, readable font. The insert goes into the front of the binder.
By using a unique number, not only is there no possibility of confusion of numbers between groups, but it becomes a breeze to do attendance even if you have a big concert featuring all your choirs. Just number off (more on this later). By using a full sheet of paper with large print, you’ll always be able to see your students’ names on the binder covers as they stand in front of you holding their binders open. If you want to really accelerate the process of learning names, take a digital picture of each singer while they hold up their folder (cover facing out), then scroll through the pictures whenever you have a free moment.
Beginning the Class
Another task to tackle is ensuring that each rehearsal gets off to a quality start. For years I struggled with my desire to begin promptly at the bell (and I mean singing one second after the bell), which was challenged by the fact that students only have three minutes to traverse the building between classes. Here’s an idea I borrowed from our orchestra director that has saved my sanity: each rehearsal begins with a short writing assignment.
My orchestra director buddy photocopies and assembles “workbooks” that are essentially numbered pages of blank staff paper – one page per week for the whole school year. There are five staves on each page and some room for notes at the bottom. Each day when the students enter the room, they have a writing assignment that can fit on one staff. That assignment is posted on the chalk/white/smart board for all to see, and a timer is set (3-5 minutes). As students enter the room, they know to get out the workbook and begin. The assignments can be as simple as “write 10 treble clefs in a row” or “write four measures of rhythms using half and quarter notes and rests” all the way up to “compose a melody in ¾ time, key of BH, using at least one accidental.”
I have taken this idea and modified it. On top of the folder carts I have giant stacks of staff paper and index cards. Students are to take what they need, so they always have some of each in their binder. Some days I have the students do a musical literacy assignment on the staff paper (which stays in their folder until folder check), but some days I have them do a short bit of written feedback on an index card (to turn in). Index card assignments can include such things as, “You are listening to Movement 1 of John Rutter’s ‘Gloria.’ As you listen, please write your thoughts on the piece,” “Please write down one thing you enjoyed about choir this week and one question you hope I’ll answer tomorrow,” or “Please write down a log of your practice time from this weekend.” You can even use the index cards for quick quizzes. Index cards are so easy to manage, and use very little paper for these short assignments.
This writing task gives the class something purposeful to do while you handle tardy blanks, answer questions, collect fundraising envelopes, and so on. Now that you have everyone in the room and squared away, it’s time to take attendance.
Taking attendance is a daily routine that can be set up to be much easier and/or more fun than just calling names and waiting for “here” like some game of Marco Polo.
- Numbering: Every student gets a number. Start class and have everyone number off. The secretary (or you) catches those not present and logs those numbers into the records. Fast and easy. Make sure everyone in the program has a unique number (women’s chorus 1-56, concert choir 57-105, and so on), so your whole program can easily check attendance before a concert or on a field trip.
- Pull your tag: Every student has a tag (or poker chip, whatever) that is attached by Velcro to a board that shows your seating chart. Singers pull their tags off the board on the way into rehearsal and drop them in a bucket. You (or your secretary) can easily see at a glance who is absent by checking the remaining tags on the board. Count heads in the room to safeguard against students pulling tags for truant friends.
- Metronome: Set a metronome to 80 BPM. You call last names and the students shout “here” on the beats: “Anderson” – “HERE!” – “Baker” – “HERE!” – “Calland” – “HERE!” and so on. Every day you can get through the roster without someone missing their mark, speed up 10 clicks. Eventually the choir will be able to go faster than you can read names, so you’ll settle into a comfortable, quick tempo around 180.
Injecting Energy into Rehearsal
After a writing assignment and attendance, it’s time to start rehearsal. No matter what your preferred warm-ups or rehearsal techniques, sometimes choirs lose focus (especially in the younger ages). Here are a few tricks I use when I need to inject some energy into a lifeless rehearsal or to pull focus back to the director when attention wanders.
- The ball: Get a soft foam ball, or perhaps a tennis ball. Toss it into the air and instruct the class to clap when you catch it. You can also toss it back and forth into the choir. When students have to visually track the ball and time out their claps, they are narrowing their focus and unifying their purpose. When you feel the focus of rehearsal waning, just reach over and pick up the ball. A couple tosses later, the choir will be with you again.
- Clap when I clap: “Clap when I clap” is essentially “The ball” without the ball. It brings focus to the rehearsal without any vocal cues from you, the director.
- Sustained ‘ooh’: If you want to get your choir back on track after a break, or if there’s too much talking in the room, just begin singing an “ooh” on a single pitch. Motion for those nearest you to join in. Hold the ooh and visually scan the room as more and more students join in. Once they are all with you, cut them off and return to the task at hand.
- Rhythmic hissing: When I need to cut through a sea of chatter, I use rhythm hissing. I loudly hiss two quarter notes and a half note. Students are told to repeat. Then I hold out my hand to imply a fermata on the last hiss. I wait until everyone in the room has joined the hiss, cut them off, and then make my announcements.
- If you can hear me, clap once: I save this one for when the room is very noisy. I don’t have to use it very often during rehearsal, but instead for those times before a concert when there’s an exceptional amount of people to pull together. In a normal tone I say, “If you can hear me, clap once.” A few people near me clap. “If you can hear me, clap twice.” More people are on alert and the clap spreads. “If you can hear me, clap three times.” By this time, everyone is paying attention.
Flipping the Choir Class
We all wish we had more time in each rehearsal – more time to sing, more time to reinforce concepts, and so on. I have found that “flipping the classroom” can help in this regard. “Flipping the classroom” refers to reversing the standard method of instruction. In a typical scenario, the teacher lectures during class then students do homework after school. Flipping means that the student watches/reads material at home, then the teacher guides the application of that knowledge during class. The upshot of flipping is that it leaves more time to do things during class. Here are some resources you can use to help “flip” your choirs.
This free website has many great lessons and training tools. It covers all the basics of music literacy, and even has two different iOS apps. Before introducing a theory topic (for example, how dots and ties work), assign your choir to read the lesson first on musictheory.net. The next day, you can then begin immediately applying that knowledge in class, discussing the material, and doing relevant activities.
This website has some free content, but really shines with a subscription. The Practice Room has multiple levels of rhythmic reading, sight-reading, two-part reading, four-part hymns, and interval training. It also has dictation drills of various types. You can choose to filter the exercises by difficulty, time signature, and/or key signature. Each exercise is shown on the screen along widgets labeled, “play starting pitch,” “steady beat,” and “hear the answer.” With this website, you can assign short readings for the choir to practice at home, then read in class the next day. It is empowering for students to see how quickly they can improve their own abilities through time spent outside the rehearsal.
The Choral Public Domain Library is a fantastic resource. Older material that is in the public domain is available here for free. Many generous people upload editions of public domain material, sometimes in different keys and alternate voicings, and many with MIDI tracks for rehearsal. For example, Palestrina’s “Sicut Cervus” is available in the keys F, G, AH, and A, and in voicings for TTBB, ATTB, and SATB. There are PDF files as well as Encore, Finale, LilyPond, and MIDI files. With just a little searching, you should be able to find music that fits your ensemble (for free – don’t forget “free”) and has a MIDI/Finale/Encore file for you to generate learning tracks. Some people think learning tracks are a “cheat,” and that they take the emphasis away from reading music. I say it’s just the opposite. If I have music, I can “flip” my choir: my students have the ability to learn parts outside rehearsal, and I can then assign that task as homework and spend more time in rehearsal on reading, technique, and so on.
Let’s face it – sometimes you just need a piece of music right now. Maybe you under or overestimated your group’s abilities, or just need something else to fit into a programming hole you have not yet filled. You need music now and you don’t want to pay $30 for rush shipping. In this situation, e-printing is a miracle! Most music vendors have access to e-print options, but my favorite is CadenzaOne.com. They have full-page previews of every page of every piece, making it super-easy to find something that works in any scenario.
The Warm Fuzzy Folder
We’ve discussed how to start class, ways to streamline attendance-taking, how to inject energy/focus into rehearsal, and some resources for flipping your classroom to increase efficiency. I hope some of these tips serve you well. As we conclude, I will leave you with a survival tip someone gave me years ago. It has served me throughout my teaching, and I have even used it already this year: The Warm Fuzzy Folder.
Get a file folder (or a box, anything you prefer that can hold at least letter-sized paper) and label it “Warm Fuzzies.” Every teacher gets those rare notes from current or former students, from parents, or from colleagues. The notes that say “You made a difference,” “I think you’re great,” or simply “Thanks for all you do.” Whenever you get a “warm fuzzy,” drop it in the file. There will come a time when you have an exceptionally frustrating rehearsal, a bad day, or a rough concert. When you feel down, as we all do from time to time, pull out the Warm Fuzzies folder. Leaf through some of the evidence that your work is good, does help, and does make a difference. Remind yourself why you teach: not to please everyone or to be popular, but to help those students grow. Best of luck this year!
Brody McDonald is the director of choirs at Kettering Fairmont High School. Under his leadership, his curricular choirs have consistently earned the highest ratings at state level contest and have been featured at numerous conventions. He is at the forefront of the a cappella movement, serving as a founding member and the vice president of the A Cappella Education Association.
McDonald’s a cappella ensemble, Eleventh Hour, was the first high school group ever to compete on NBC’s The Sing-Off. He is also the author of A Cappella Pop: A Complete Guide to Contemporary A Cappella Singing. Brody has recently joined the faculty at Wright State University as director of A Cappella Studies. McDonald has partnered with Deke Sharon to launch Camp A Cappella, a summer camp designed to immerse singers in the contemporary a cappella style, which will take place June 23-28, 2015 at Wright State University. For more information, visit www.campacappella.com and www.brodymcdonald.com.