By Fred Bogert
Many times over the years I’ve taken on the enjoyable task of organizing groups of youngsters into a choir of voices unified in melody, harmony and dynamics. Most of the time the first meeting starts with some degree of shyness, and sometimes even resistance, that needs to be overcome before we’ll be able to really sing together.
I’ve learned that it can be unproductive to go into this kind of endeavor with a preconceived idea about what songs these kids will sing, and how they’ll sing them. Though this sometimes runs against the grain of the adults’ expectations, I think it’s more important, and more beneficial for the kids, to get a sense of what strengths and limitations the group has as they come together and awaken their voices and attention.
If I’m dealing with a group that hasn’t sung together before (usually including first-timers ), I concentrate on vocal activities that bring the energy and focus out of them intuitively, without having their creativity and passion suppressed by too much detailed instruction. I like to get them singing and keep them singing, starting with simple songs that they can easily participate in. One of my favorites (theirs too!) is Every Little Cell. I invite them to “show me how it goes” as I sing it, first too slow, then too fast, too low, too high, etc. Once we “get it just right” they’re already singing together with me and coming out of their shyness shells.
Now the fun part. We’ll sing it through a couple of times to make sure I’ve got the words right (notice – they’re much happier to show me than to have me show them…). Then, I’ll say “soft”, and we’ll sing it through in a whisper. Then, of course, “loud,” with one boundary – no shouting. This can take a minute, but once they learn to sing out without shouting we’ve made a lot of progress towards awakening the choir within.
Then comes a bit of play-acting. We’ve done soft & loud, now comes fast & slow. I start with “slow” by having them stand up, walk around, and sing like sad zombies, asking them to avoid getting too creepy with their voices. Once they settle into that role I’ll have them sit again as we sing the song faster and faster. I’ll ask for volunteers to see who can really zip along with every words sung. Then, we’ll find the group’s limit and make sure we pronounce every word really well as we sing it. Of course by now the group is quickly coming together on so many levels, achieving much of the entry-level discipline of group singing without noticing the amount of work they’re doing.
Now that we’ve come this far together it’s time for something a bit more challenging – I’ll pick a word or phrase – how about “every little cell” to start – and have them sing that loud, with all the rest sung in tiny voices – as much contrast as possible while still singing, and without losing the meter. I call this “hot words”. Lots of laughter, lots of fun, and as they get better at doing this they become more and more engaged in listening to each other and singing together. I’ll ask them to suggest a word, and have noticed that by this stage in the experience kids are not shy about challenging themselves.
One more contrast I’ll challenge them with is “slurry and sharp”. Slurry is sloppy enunciation without consonants, and sharp is the opposite. I’ll have us sing through this a few times and encourage them to really get tight on the “sharp” one to have the group sound be as clear as it can be. That’s usually the last thing we do before closing with a simple song they know.
At this point, there’s a sense of belonging among these kids that didn’t have to be taught. The same can be said for some of the important requirements of group singing that now reside within them without them feeling put-upon. And the next time we meet, I’ll start the session by lightly singing “Every Little Cell”. They’ll join in naturally, and we’ll change keys, change tempos, go through some dynamics, do “slur & sharp”, dare each other with “hot words”, and in 5 minutes, we’ll be warmed up, listening and singing together, and ready for some great choral adventures.
Oh, those kids!
Fred Bogert has spent the last 45 years in the music business. He has produced, written for and performed on three Grammy-nominated CD’s, as well as appearing as composer, producer and performer with a variety of artists, from John McEuen and David Amram to the Austin Symphony and the Nashville Chamber Orchestra. Fred’s Nashville studios included RCA Studio B and Studio C, where he recorded over three thousand songs for a who’s who of independent artists. His website is fredbogert.com, and his choral scores are available on sheetmusicplus.com. Fred lives in Louisville, KY.