Yesterday, as part of my Assisting Silent Seekers program, I wrote about Starting a Homeschool Choir. Katherine Trauger from Home’s Cool! had some great questions, and in this post, I answer them to the best of my knowledge and experience. I truly encourage you to leave comments and/or questions down below!
Q: Our church is looking for a way to reach out to its low income, mixed heritage/language neighborhood. If the children are from moral backgrounds, do you think this could work for that purpose? Not so much for excellence, but for corralling kids to learn a bit of English, Scripture, and of singing.
A: I think it could absolutely work! It might also be fun to teach the English-speaking children some songs in another language as well. This will reinforce that the culture of each child is important, and that it can be fun to learn new languages.
Q: Given a lack of a musician during the week, could the children practice with recorded accompaniment until closer to time for performance, and then add practices with live music near the end? Does a cappella work? Guitar? What is a good pay rate for a low-skilled pianist, in an economically depressed area, for a few sessions and one performance?
A: A recorded accompaniment could work as long as the conductor is able to keep the children with the music. So the conductor would need to know the music very well, rather than sight-reading the score.
Also, you need to be sure that your accompanist is good enough to play the music as fast as the accompaniment, and in exactly the same manner. Give your accompanist a copy of the recording, and have her pay attention to things like dynamics, fermatas, ritardandos, etc.
When your kids are first learning the piece, you may have to teach it to them a cappella. Just work on bits at a time. It just wouldn’t be efficient to go through the entire recording over and over again as they learn.
As far as pay rate goes, remember that a low-skilled pianist will have to practice way more than one that is highly skilled. I once practiced three hours a day for more than a month trying to learn the score from Mozart’s Impresario. Had I been a better pianist, a half-hour per day would probably have done the trick.
It also depends on the amount of music being played, how long rehearsals last, what time of day rehearsals will take place, whether they will be on weekdays or weekends, and the level of difficulty. Ask around to see how much they’d be willing to play for, knowing how many rehearsals, and the dates of the final rehearsals and performance. Then, if I were you, and if I could afford it, I’d give them 10-20% more than they asked for (as long as you think they were being reasonable to begin with). Off the top of my head though, I’d say maybe $100? That’s what I would want, unless I was part of the church group, and then I would do it for free.
Performing a cappella could work; just try to keep your kids in tune as much as possible. (Slow songs are really hard to keep in tune.) Considering that your parents will be happy to see their kids singing and learning about God, whatever accompaniment method you choose should be just fine. Guitar is quite nice.
Q: Do you find that the style of music changes the behavior of the children during practice? For instance, would a peppy piece cause mischief or a slow piece cause boredom?
A: Slow pieces can cause boredom if there isn’t anything going on musically. If I really want to do a slow, plodding piece, I will have the children march around, taking one step per quarter note, and sing at the same time. This helps establish the underlying beat, especially if you are singing a piece with long notes like half notes or whole notes. If the kids can feel the tempo per beat, instead of per measure, they will be able to bring more energy to the piece.
A peppy piece is a pretty good idea as long as the words themselves don’t encourage mischief (Grandma Got Ran Over By a Reindeer). I don’t tend to like this sort of song anyway. Too much giggling. Fun is definitely okay and encouraged; fast is okay too, as long as the children can keep up. You want to pick something that requires concentration, but is still easy enough not to be sloppy. That way, their attention will be on the song the whole time.
Q: What ratio of children to adults do you recommend? Should parents be required to attend/assist?
A: I work with homeschoolers, who are all pretty well behaved, and I have a ratio of about one adult per five children. It works out pretty well for me. And if I need something, one of the adults is almost always willing to help. I wouldn’t require parents to assist, but depending on the attitudes of your kids, you might want the parents to at least be around. Or someone who is responsible for each child. (Perhaps a woman can bring her own kids and her nieces and nephews, and be responsible for them all?) You don’t want to turn choir into a babysitting hour, unless that is just part of the ministry. You probably would get more kids to show up if you didn’t require the parents to be present, so just weigh your options. You can always change your mind later, if need be.
Q: Are auditions meaningful? I mean, is it good to try using children who just cannot sing?
A: Here, it depends on the purpose of the choir. If it is to glorify God, to make parents happy, to provide opportunities for children, or to bring people together, my answer would be a definite “no, don’t audition.” The sweetest sound I ever heard was a girl with Down’s Syndrome singing We Are the Reason at church camp in front of hundreds of people. And remember, everyone loves the cute kid in the back singing twice as loud as everyone else and out of tune. Kids are kids, and they are precious, no matter what their talents. If, however, you were going to take some to contest or something like that, then just take a select few, and have auditions just for that purpose.
Q: What about misbehavior?
A: I have a behavior program in my choir. Well, at least I did the first year. I haven’t used it even once though, so it’s kind of a moot point for me. Anyway, it went something like this: I collected contact information for each child’s parents on the first day of class. (The parents aren’t required to attend, but a couple do anyway.) I have each child’s name written on a sheet in my binder, along with the contact info. If I had to call someone out, I would place a checkmark next to her name. After three checkmarks, I would contact her parents. (I would write down what each mark was for, so you can have a helpful conversation if you need to contact a parent.) I wouldn’t reset the checkmarks until the end of the semester. If you have more trouble than that, maybe you should just require a responsible adult to be present with that particular child. Other than that, just use whatever behavior management methods your church already uses in Sunday School, etc.
Q: Should singing lessons be available, or should they be required, or just part of the total experience, as needed?
A: I would make singing lessons available, as long as you have a suitable voice teacher who could teach them. Other than that, I would teach good health and voice habits as part of the overall experience. When a song would benefit from a particular technique, teach it to the whole class as an exercise before singing the song, and then incorporate it into that specific song. When you have one or two people who are demonstrating poor sounds or habits, address it as though you are teaching a new concept to the entire class. This will keep your not-so-perfect singers from feeling like they are being singled out of the group.
Two final tips: Make things fun for the kids (incorporate sign language, costumes, props, rhythm instruments, etc). Glorify God in everything you (and your kids) do.