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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

How to Teach Beginning Harmony

I'm continuing my series on teaching part-singing today with my method for getting students singing in harmony for the first time. If you missed them, be sure to catch up on my previous posts in this series on teaching canons and partner songs (linked at the end of this post)- those two steps absolutely need to be mastered before you start working on singing in harmony! Here are the steps I take to help students be successful with this new challenge.

1. When to start

The exact age when students will be ready to sing in harmony will vary. The key is to make sure that they are comfortable singing canons and partner songs independently before attempting this step! Usually that happens around 5th or 6th grade. That's not to say that younger students can't sing in harmony, especially if they are in a choir where they can spend focused time working on their singing and on specific pieces for a longer chunk of time, so if your students are ready for it earlier, I say go for it!

2. Picking a song

With beginning 2-part harmony, I try to pick songs that have more contrary motion than parallel (meaning one melodic line is moving up while the other is moving down, instead of both parts going up and down together). This makes it a lot easier for students to hear the difference in their parts, and it makes it a lot easier to help both parts along as the conductor/teacher (more on that later). Another thing I usually do is to choose a song that only has short sections in harmony. Singing in 2-part harmony for the first time is definitely not easy, so doing it in short spurts is a good way to get students' feet wet without completely overwhelming them. There are a lot of great choral pieces written for beginning 2-part choirs that will mostly have the 2 parts echoing each other or singing partner melodies, with an occasional harmony part thrown in.

3. Divide and conquer

When I first started teaching, I always started off teaching the harmony part first and the melody second. I reasoned that the harmony part was harder, so if students on that part heard that part first they would be more likely to be able to stay on that part than if they learned the melody first, even if they were just listening to the other part learn their notes. But over the years I've discovered that that method doesn't always work out- sometimes the end result is better when I start with the melody part first!

My tactic now is to teach both parts simultaneously, but going back and forth between parts every few lines. Not only does this help students learn their parts better, but it's a better technique for behavior management and engagement because students spend shorter chunks of time waiting to practice their part. Basically I have part 1 learn 1-2 lines, then part 2 learn their notes for the same 1-2 lines, then part 1 learns the next 1-2 lines, then part 2, then I have part 1 sing the first and second set of lines in a row, then part 2, then continue on in the same fashion until each part can sing the entire section independently (without the other part singing with them).

Obviously if the harmony section is very short (less than a couple of phrases), then I only need to go back and forth once. Still at this point, I don't have the parts sing together. If, for example, part 1 and 2 sing together until the last phrase when they split into harmony, I'll have each part learn their notes separately from the beginning of the section (I'll just point out to the 2nd part that learns it that they have the same notes as the other part in this line). I've found that they are able to hear their part when they get to the split much more easily this way.

One important element when students are learning their parts separately is to show the melodic line with your conducting as you model/teach them their parts. Often I use solfege hand signs, and I'll even have the students do them with me as they initially learn their parts, but I'll continue doing the hand signs every time they sing. If the hand signs are too cumbersome, I'll just motion with my hand to show the notes going up or down.

**A quick note about assigning students to a singing part: I've found it best to keep the strong singers evenly split between the 2 parts, regardless of which part has more harmony or melody lines, or which part is more vocally challenging. You need strong singers who can confidently sing their notes on each part to avoid having one part drowned out by the other.

4. Putting it together: lend your voice

Once the students can sing their own parts confidently without your help, it's time to put the 2 parts together! If students are elementary age, I've found playing their notes on the piano is little to no help to them at this stage- they are too focused on the voices around them to hear the timbre of the piano over the voices and be able to match those pitches. The strategy that works best for me is to sing along with whichever part is struggling more while you conduct the other part. This is where the conducting/motions/hand signs come in handy! Using your hands to show the same motions you did when they were initially learning the part will help the part you aren't singing with remember their notes.

5. Independence

Once they start to get the hang of singing with both parts together, the next step is to get them singing without you! I start pulling away from singing along by singing just the first few notes, and then once both parts are singing without me, I'll use 1 hand to show the hand signs/motions for each part (and yes, I do practice this ahead of time if it's a tricky line to show with both hands at once).

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it's important to make sure students have mastered canons and partner songs before moving into harmony. Read about my teaching strategies for each of those steps by clicking on the pictures below:

I've hope you've found this series on teaching part-singing helpful! I'd love to hear about your favorite tips and strategies for teaching part-singing. What are your favorite beginning harmony songs? Leave a comment below!

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  1. Elizabeth,
    I am simply thankful for your posts, sharing your great ideas, and love of music!
    I remember your Recorder workshop here in South Korea I think it was at KIS. It was fall 2012 or spring 2013.. All the best to you!

    1. Thanks so much Nona, it's great to hear from you! I enjoyed my time in South Korea so much and enjoyed all of the wonderful music teachers I was able to meet and work with, including you! :) I'm glad you are enjoying the posts- I truly enjoy writing them and I love hearing that others find them useful :) Have a wonderful end to the school year!

  2. Elizabeth,

    Just preparing for the new year and came across your site looking for songs with harmonies. Do you have any specific recommendations?

    1. Hi Andreas, I'd be happy to share some of the pieces I've used if I have more details of what you're looking for- choir pieces or songs to use in general music lessons? What age group? Send me an email at if you'd like to chat!