When students are experiencing three- and four-part music for the first time, they will have more success if the parts they are singing are melodies. It is very disconcerting for young singers when, upon trying to “harmonize” for the first time, they find themselves singing the established melody (probably the Soprano I part) or some part other than their own. They have difficulty “hearing” their part when it contains many repeated notes and no melodic contour. Directors will have more success with part singing in the Beginning Choir if they choose music written in melody-part style.
Common practice of rote teaching in most American schools is to pass the music out and, taking sections one at a time, to play each part on the piano and ask the students to sing what they hear. Often the instructor will sing the part as it is played. After several repetitions alert adolescents are capable of listening to the piano and singing the part even though they may have difficulty when combining it with the other parts. With a few more repetitions they practically have the part memorized. At this point, the students, particularly the boys, find very little purpose for the printed music, and they set about using it to satisfy that insatiable desire they have to “piddle” with something. Eventually, the corners will be torn off and it may be rolled up, stomped on, used as a paper airplane, or any other creative destruction their fertile minds can conjure up.
Consider an alternative approach to rote teaching. Two components in the preceding description are not essential: the printed music and the piano. Because adolescents develop a dependence on the piano that is detrimental to the process of learning to read music, the practice of using it as a teaching instrument is discouraged; in fact, it slows the process. If the piano is used constantly to support the singers, soon they will depend on it for security in singing. If they are required to sing their parts without the piano, they soon learn to depend on their listening ability and voice for support. Since they do not know how to read the printed music, why give it to them? Why not sing the melodies to them and ask the students to sing them back? Since all the parts written in melody-part-style music are melodies, the adolescents grasp them very quickly and are able to sing them correctly almost after one hearing. Further, the use of line notation that is written on the board, on transparencies, or on teaching charts can be greatly accelerate the learning process. Rote teaching in this fashion dictates that the instructors be able to sing each of the parts correctly, and line notation assists them as much as it does the students. Singing the parts together acappella greatly quickens the students’ ability to tune the chords and develop a sense of musical independence.
When teaching by rote, stand the singers in sections in four distinct areas of the room. Be sure there is enough separation between the groups so that each group is slightly isolated from others. The melody each group is singing needs to predominate in that area of the room. It is important that each group be able to hear the others but not as well as they hear themselves. The groups should be facing the board or the area where the transparency is being projected. If teaching charts are used, place the chart for each group on a music stand in front of them. If there is a need to turn the charts in the middle of the arrangement, designate one of the less exuberant singers for that responsibility. Be sure the ones turning the charts are not the type who enjoy entertaining the other students, or they will disrupt the choral process and make a production out of the turning process.
There is no set order in which the parts should be taught to the singers. The basic rule of thumb is to teach first the part that is the most melodious. If all the parts are equal, teach the baritone first to set the foundation for the tonality. Always teach the established melody last.
It is important that teachers know each part well and that they be able to sing it with confidence. During their preparation time, if one particular phrase or note seems difficult, they should master it completely before attempting to teach the singers. The students will sense any hesitation or insecurity on the part of the teacher, and it will affect the students’ sense of assurance as they sing the melody back to the teacher. Teachers should not dwell on chromatic tones or point them out. The singers do not analyze the non-diatonic character of the tones and probably will not recognize them as being foreign to the key. They will recognize them as being at home in their melody, and that is how such tones should be approached.
Analyze each part and determine if it should be taught as a whole, one phrase at a time, or more than one phrase at once. A phrase with a strong cadence point or one that is repeated should be taught alone. If a phrase leads to the following phrase, the two phrases should be taught together. There will be rare occasions when the melody should be taught as a whole.
After determining exactly how it should be taught, the instructors should sing the phrase (or phrases, if there are more than one) for the students and ask them to sing it back. Teachers may sing with the students to support them if they desire. Point to the line notation on the charts, board, or transparencies as the singing occurs. With simple songs, a couple of times through the phrase(s) should be sufficient. Several repetitions may be necessary with more difficult songs. It is important, however, not to spend more than two or three minutes with each section. Spending more time than that will result in the other sections becoming restless. Teach the proper part to the first group, then the second part to the next group. Before moving to the third group, ask the first two to sing their parts together. After teaching the third part, combine the three. Finally, teach the fourth part, then combine all four.
As the adolescents sing, teachers may encounter one or two singers who are experiencing difficulty singing in tune (particularly if the process is being used in a general music class). The teachers should not stop the rehearsal to deal with the problem immediately. The primary purpose is to bring the students to experiencing a four-part song as soon as possible. Individual attention will impede progress toward that goal. It will be necessary to show them individual attention at another time that can be arranged by the teachers.
When male teachers teach the cambiata part (if used in middle-level-school grades), it is essential that they sing it at actual pitch. They should not transpose it down an octave because the cambiatas will attempt to do the same with disastrous results. It might be necessary for male teachers to use their falsetto in teaching, for singing in the correct octave is essential to success when teaching cambiatas.
Female instructors occasionally have difficulty relating to the changing-voice baritones, since the baritones sing one octave lower than the female. Baritones who just have entered the second phase of change usually are the ones who do not understand what to do because as trebles and cambiatas they sang at the same pitch level as the female. The solution to the problem is to request one of the established baritones to sing the part instead of the teacher until the light baritones understand the octave phenomenon. After a few sessions as baritones the young men will begin to relate to the female voice.
Since training the adolescents to listen to the tonal sounds is the principal impetus of choral singing, rote teaching should emphasize the music, not the words. Therefore, no words should be included on the transparencies or charts. A neutral vowel such as LOO, LAH, or LEH should be used as the parts are being sung by both the teachers and the students. LOO is best for all parts except the first soprano. It promotes good choral tone and blend. Be sure the inside of the mouth is open and the teeth are parted as the students sing. Attempt to establish a good buzz above the gum ridge, and remind the singers to begin each phrase with a slight tug at the breath-band. The first sopranos will be more comfortable singing the open LAH particularly when the part moves into the upper area of the voice. Remind them to keep the vowel bright, concentrating on placing it above the gum ridge. Do not allow them to “swallow” the vowel or produce it from the throat. A third choice that might work well for all voices is LEH, particularly if the voices are inexperienced and not grounded in good vocal technique. This vowel promotes forward placement that is essential to good vocal tone.
At this point, if time allows, one may consider teaching the words to each part. If there is not enough time to complete teaching the words, it is best to move to a different activity or reinforce what has just been taught and leave teaching the words to another session. Word teaching is done best by simply singing the part already known using the correct text. An effective method for longer songs where the words easily can be confused is lining out. The teachers sing the words to one phrase and the students sing them back, the teacher sings the words to the second phrase and the students sing them back, and so forth. This is all done without stopping the beat in a very smooth, continuous fashion.
Adolescents find this technique of teaching the words intriguing particularly if it is explained to them that lining out was used for several generations in the Colonial church before songbooks were available. Lining out is a technique that takes preparation by the instructor and practice by the singers, but it will be an effective teaching tool after it is mastered.
After the words have been taught to each group, directors should ask the groups to sing the parts together. The beauty of rote teaching is that a singing organization can be taught an arrangement and perform it by memory in as little as twenty minutes, once the teachers have become proficient at their responsibilities. Since no music is placed in the hands of the singers, their attention is directed to the teacher and the charts (or the projected transparency image) and their comprehension is greatly enhanced; thus faster learning occurs. After the song has been taught, then the piano may be added as an accompanying instrument.
It is important to point out that rote teaching is not an end in itself. It should be used only at the beginning of the semester (or year) until the students have learned enough about music reading to be able to understand the purpose of the printed music when it is placed in their hands and how they should function in response to it.
Since learning to sing in parts is the beginning of effective choral singing, one will find the process described above to be one of the quickest and most rewarding routes to success.