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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Lesson Planning for Elementary Choir

I've talked a lot about lesson planning for general music (see this post for an overview of what I do), but today we're talking elementary ensembles! I currently teach only choir (and that is where the majority of my ensemble teaching experience is), so I'm going to talk specifically about planning for elementary choir, but most of these lesson planning strategies will apply to instrumental ensembles as well.

Lesson planning for choirs, or any ensemble, is not talked about as much as it should be in my opinion. Far too often we just pick out performance repertoire, rehearse it until the concert, and hope for the best. What I've realized over the years is that my groups are far more successful, and my rehearsal time is far more productive and meaningful, when I plan out my rehearsals the same way I do for general music:

starting with the end goal in mind and planning out the most effective 
sequence of lessons to get the students to that end goal.

1. Clarify the end goal(s)

The "end goals" for an elementary choir will depend a lot on the overall music program. If choir is a required class, you can expect to cover more general music concepts than if the group is an elective/ extra-curricular. If choir is the only music class those students are taking, you will need to cover more general music skills and concepts than if the choir is an additional class alongside general music.

My choir classes are elective, pull-out classes in addition to the required general music classes, so my goals for choir are focused specifically on singing and ensemble skills. I cover some of these same skills in general music, but at a much more surface level.

As an example, for my beginning choir (3rd and 4th graders), my goals are:
1. sing partner songs
2. follow a conductor
3. read simplified sheet music with 2 vocal parts
4. sing a tiny little bit of parallel harmony
5. follow rehearsal procedures
6. sing with different vocal timbres to match each piece
7. demonstrate staggered breathing

2. Choose repertoire that addresses the end goals

Once I know what skills I am aiming to teach, it is a lot easier to choose appropriate repertoire for each ensemble. I'm a firm believer in starting with the skills and concepts rather than the theme, but keep in mind that often it's easy to modify a song to fit your needs! I often will simplify an arrangement by taking out the majority of the parallel harmony, for example, or introduce students to score reading by printing out a version with just the vocal parts (side note: be aware of copyright restrictions if you do this).

3. Test out new songs for 1-2 rehearsals

It's hard to tell how quickly you can expect the choir to learn a song that you've never done before, especially if you don't have as much experience with elementary choir or you don't know your students' music backgrounds. I usually go into the first 2 rehearsals without a long-range plan- I introduce each of the songs and see how it goes, changing out songs or adjusting the voicing/ arrangement if something unexpectedly bombs, sometimes adding a part or even adding another piece if they learn it more quickly than expected.

4. Backwards plan

Once I have a better sense of how quickly I can expect the group to learn each song after the first couple of rehearsals, I make a basic outline for the rest of the rehearsals I have leading up to the next performance. Ideally, I reserve 2 rehearsals before the concert for run-throughs and polishing, including time to practice the logistics of staging etc for the performance. Then I space out my sequence of learning each song so that they finish learning it just before those last 2 rehearsals. This means that sometimes I will skip a song for a week here and there to avoid learning it too quickly- I don't want my students to burn out on a song! I account for learning the basic vocal parts, putting parts together, developing expressive elements (tone, dynamics, balance, etc), and memorization for each piece and break it down over the rehearsals I have.

5. Revisit and adjust

The beauty of having a long-range plan laid out, besides obviously giving you a clearer direction for each rehearsal, is that it's easier to see when groups are going to learn a piece too quickly or not quickly enough to be ready for the concert so you can make adjustments to your performance plan before it's too late. I'll address some specific tips for adapting the performance plan to make sure the group is prepared in a future post, but I've already mentioned a few ideas in step 3 above :)

Bonus: organized performance preparation

Of course there is a lot more that goes into getting ready for a performance (whether it's a full-scale staged musical production or a straight-up, "stand and sing" concert) besides preparing the music itself. I've already written previously about planning ahead for all of the logistical considerations for performances- be sure to check out this post for more on that topic:

If you want to read more about how I teach elementary choir, check out these posts:

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