Rethinking How We Teach Chorus

Version 2Chorus in many ways is the perfect means for providig music making opportunities to non-musicians. After all, except in rare cases, we all have voices and we all can use those voices to sing. Actual inability to sing in tune is extremely rare, and most people in a safe environment free from judgement and negative criticism enjoy singing with others. Often, those who populate our school and community choral ensembles do not read music, so the method of choice is to teach individual parts by rote, one at a time, and then combine parts.

The skill the singers need to succeed at this includes to be able to maintain their part while at the same time hearing others sing something different. In this scenario, the “other part” becomes a distraction, and the singer will often try to block all other parts out in order to hone in on his or her own part. The individual tones to be sung were learned intervallically, so the singer does not know how to use other parts to help in their task, and only hears them as a hinderance. Each singer rote learned their part as a melody, and tries to understand it as if it were a voice within a polyphonic texture. The consequence of this method, however unintended, is that the learning process becomes unnecessarily complex, and takes longer than it should.

What we are able to do as performers of music starts with what we have been able to do as listeners of music. Rote teaching individual parts is contrary to how people hear music. Very few people listen to choral music the way they are asked to learn it as performers in the way I just described. People don’t listen to one vocal part and do their best to ignore the rest. No, instead, they listen to the blended sounds of all voice parts, attending to the melody in one part and the harmony created by the other parts. Melody and harmony are combined in our perception of the choral performance. Becasue of this, our ears are highly accustomed to the three basic harmonic functions of tonic, subdominant, and dominant.

Choral directors should use that harmonic familiarity in their teaching of choruses. In the melodic method described above, if the subdominant tone is approached by skip, it can be difficult to locate if learned intervallically by rote. But if the singer has the tonality of the piece in mind, and thinks of the subdominant tone as the subdominant instead of a pitch a certain interval from the previous tone, then that tone becomes much easier to locate, and the other voices that are singing the other tones of the subdominant chord will reinforce and help rather than distract and hinder.

Singers who have only been taught individual parts by rote with no reference to chords or tonality cannot simply jump into using chord functions to make their learning easier. Singers need to be trained in basic harmony and given enough experience with tonic, subdominant and dominant chords to make use of them as part of their musical vocabulary. The foundation upon which choral directors can build has been laid by the music their singers are already listening to. What is left  is to use exercises singing tonic, then tonic and dominant, then tonic, dominant and subdominant chord patterns, and exercises hearing those patterns and identifying them as tonic, dominant, or subdominant. Gradually, the singers will become skilled in knowing where any note in any of those patterns  is at any time while singing. When this happens, the problem of skipping to the subdomiant tone is solved, because finding that tone no longer depends on reproducing a melodic sequence learned by rote, but instead by simply singing the known tone that is the subdominant in the scale of the tonality of the song.

These skills are integral to music literacy. They are outcomes of comprehensive music education and are attainable through the use of Music Learning Theory (MLT) and of MLT in combination with Kodaly and/or Dalcroze methods. Implimentations can be achieved by using Conversational Solfege (Feierabend), and/or Jump Right In Tonal Register books (Gordon). Dr. Gordon has explained teaching music patterns and transferring learning to singing songs. Use this link to view that lecture. Be sure to play both parts 1 & 2.

Feirabend Conversational solfege is an excellent application of MLT to the Kodaly method and involves following a 12-step curriculum that starts with rote learning of patterns aurally, then songs, and progresses through to decoding aurally, reading familiar songs, reading unfamiliar songs, and creating. You can read the complete twelve steps here. Steps 1-8 are partiuclarly relevant to choral and vocal teaching. Steps 9-12, which deal with creating music, apply prior learning to a greater extent than many choral directors will desire, but deepens musicianship beyond a level usually achieved in performance ensemble settings. Using MLT and Conversational solfege in general music classes and chorus rehearsals builds the skills needed to advance beyond rote learning, and to sing with true tonal and metric understanding.

The goal of doing this is to enable students to hear individual voice and instrument parts in a harmonic and metrical context when all other parts are not physically present. In other words, for the student/singer to be able to hear the harmony function of individual tones without hearing others sing or play the other notes of the chord, and for the student/singer to be able to hear the meter of the rhythms without hearing others sing or play the other rhythms of the meter. Gordon called this audiation, and Kodaly called it inner hearing. Students who are merely repeating from rote are imitating without understanding, without harmonic or metrical context. Is it any wonder, then that they have difficulty in maintaining their part in the presence of other parts, and of singing or playing accurately. Singing from rote only is like a person reading a language they don’t understand, speaking the words they have learned to read from rote practice but having never learned what the words mean. Such a person would be extremely limited in what they could read, and would derive no meaning from doing so. Such is the nature of students/singers who are never taught any more than their voice part by rote.

Teaching every choral piece by rote means that with every new song, everyone is starting over, from square one. Teaching MLT and CS opens up music to their minds and imaginations so that they can “think in music” similar to the way they think in words. Can you imagine LA teachers teaching every reading assignment to a class by rote, never teaching them how to read words with comprehension? Yet this is what happens in choirs. It is much better, and much more time efficient to truely teach music literacy, true music reading, not just note naming.

Music Learning Theory and Conversational Solfege materials are available at GIA Publications. No compensation has been received for promoting any materials or resources.


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