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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Elementary Choir: to sheet music or not to sheet music (that is the question)

One of the questions I hear time and time again from elementary choir teachers is the question of whether or not to have students use sheet music when they are learning a new song. I'm putting this out there right from the get-go: I don't think there is one right answer to that question. After having taught elementary choir in a few different settings, I've learned that a lot of how to best answer that question depends on your teaching situation.

So fair warning: this post is not going to answer the question unequivocally. Instead, I'd like to offer some thoughts to consider to help you make the best choice for your ensemble.

First a couple of things to keep in mind:
  1. No matter what, we need to make sure we are following the law. Even if you aren't using them with the students, you'll usually need to purchase enough copies for the number of students in your ensemble for any piece you're using.
  2. Not all sheet music is created equal. Some music you can get in digital form to project on a screen or even edit to simplify or pull out an excerpt. Look into your options!
  3. Because I have taught elementary choir in so many different situations, all of the options I'm mentioning today are things I have done at some point. I don't have a preference for one over the other.
The reason this question gets so tricky is usually because of the pull we feel between a few different considerations:
  1. the desire to teach music literacy, particularly the specific skill of reading their part from a choral octavo,
  2. the desire to keep choir fun and accessible for everyone, and
  3. the reality of time constraints and pressure to have a certain amount of music prepared for public performance.
All of these are valid, and all of these considerations need to be weighed differently depending on several factors:
  1. the amount of rehearsal time you have for a given performance or specific piece (and the quantity of music you need to prepare),
  2. whether the choir is voluntary or mandatory, graded or not graded (or put differently, whether the choir is a part of the school music "curriculum" or not),
  3. your philosophy / educational goals for the ensemble,
  4. the age and musical background of the singers, and
  5. the space you have for rehearsal and sheet music storage (and other practical/logistical considerations).
There are probably other factors that play into this as well, but those are the main ones that have played a role in my decisions over the years. Let's look at each of the factors above in more detail and talk about when you should consider using sheet music and when you should not.

1. Rehearsal time

Obviously it will generally take longer to teach students a song from a choral octavo than it will to teach them the song by rote (or with just printed/projected lyrics). If you are able to take the time to teach students the literacy skills they need to learn the music from sheet music, then it's definitely worth the time! But if your time with the choir is limited, you may need to think hard about whether the literacy skills the students would gain from using sheet music are a high enough priority to warrant the use of sheet music. You may decide that you need to focus on singing and choral ensemble skills, and find other ways to develop literacy skills (such as in general music class), or you may decide to find a middle ground.

There are a few ways I've found to still give students some opportunities to develop their reading skills without fully committing to reading all of their music from the score:
  1. pick one or two songs to teach from sheet music,
  2. have students learn a portion of a song from sheet music, either by passing it out for a particular rehearsal or showing them part of the song on an overhead etc,
  3. give them the sheet music after they have already partially learned the song, so they aren't starting from scratch when they're working on reading the notes,
  4. or give them the sheet music to look at and possibly follow along with, but do most of the actual teaching by rote (so without actually expecting them to read the notes themselves).
I've played around with different iterations of the options above depending on the situation. A lot of my choice comes down to the complexity of the music and the score itself, and students' attitude towards reading music notation, along with the time constraints.

2. Curricular or extracurricular

If the choir is curricular, meaning it is a mandatory part of the music curriculum and meets during the school day, then I'm more likely to try to incorporate sheet music (also, this usually- though not always- means I have more rehearsal time). If the choir is extracurricular, then I'm less likely to do so, because I know I can't depend on the learning students get during choir rehearsal to teach certain literacy skills- I will have to teach it again in general music for the students who aren't in choir. 

3. Philosophy

Your own philosophy and educational goals for the ensemble will play a huge role in how much importance you place on teaching from sheet music. If your main focus is to foster a love of singing and maybe encourage students to participate in community choirs and other singing opportunities later in life, then sheet music may be less important. If your goal is to give students the skills they need to sing in higher-level choirs and learn more challenging music, then it may be more important to sacrifice the quantity of music you teach in order to devote more time to using sheet music to develop their literacy skills.

4. Singers' ages and musical backgrounds

The ages and musical backgrounds of your students will affect how much difficult it will be for them to learn a song from sheet music. If they have to spend too much brain power on just figuring out basic rhythms and following a melodic line, it may be completely overwhelming to them to see a choral octavo. If students are fairly comfortable with basic note-reading skills, then learning to follow their part in a choral score will be less of a stretch. Even if your time is limited and your focus is not on literacy, it may be worth considering one of the "middle ground" options above if your students can pick up some of the basics without too much headache.

5. Space and other practical concerns

Besides the actual teaching and learning, sheet music adds a layer of complexity to any elementary choir rehearsal. You'll need a place to store the sheet music in an organized way. You'll have to develop a system for passing out and returning sheet music to and from each student. You'll need to have a way for students to keep their music together and hold it comfortably during rehearsal. And if you want them to be able to make notes on the sheet music, you'll need a way to distribute, store, and keep track of pencils as well. 

There are definitely ways to streamline the process of distributing and collecting everything: when I use sheet music regularly, I have folders for each student with numbers on each folder. I write that same number in the corner of each octavo, and I also put a pencil inside each folder with the same number written on a piece of tape that is wrapped around the top of the pencil. I give students a number based on the seating chart the first day, and I ask the teacher bringing them to rehearsal to have them line up in number order. Then when they come in to my room, they pick up their folder as they walk by to their seats, and at the end of rehearsal they leave in reverse order, putting their folders away as they walk by so they're ready in number order for the next time they come in. A few times I have been lucky enough to have a mail sorter with enough slots for 2 folders to go in each slot (I wrote the numbers on the side of each slot). Otherwise I have them put them in milk crates in order.

There is definitely a lot to think about with the question of sheet music, and there is no reason to pick one answer and stick to it from year to year, or even song to song! I think in most cases some form of middle ground is going to be the best solution for your students- it's all about balancing, reflecting, and adjusting! 

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