How to teach a new song without boring your choir

You've welcomed everyone to the rehearsal and done you're warm-ups. Now its time, deep breath, to dive into learning a new song!

I'm always excited to teach my contemporary choir a new song and can't wait to see their reaction to the music. In my choir, we learn by ear and the singers use lyric sheets. I am always a little nervous as to whether they will like a new song but after eight years of working with them I think I have a pretty good idea now of what they enjoy, plus I often get their input on song choices which helps me to understand their musical preferences.

Tackling new music is one of the most intense but exciting parts of being a choir leader. It requires lots of planning, learning and concentration. You become a salesperson of sorts, selling the idea of the music to your choir by teaching it to them in a way that is engaging and fun, yet concise and in keeping with what you want to achieve. Whilst all this is going on you have to think about conducting, bringing in the parts and keeping the choir under control - quite a juggling act!

Here are my top tried-and-tested tips for learning a new song:

Learn early

Try to keep the bulk of learning new material towards the beginning of the session. That way people will feel fresh, alert and eager to learn. Later in the rehearsal, I've found that it's best to focus on existing repertoire, although if I teach a new song in a session I often run it again at the end just to see what people remember and to keep it fresh in their minds.

Keep everyone involved

Don't leave any of your sections sitting without anything to do for too long. By the very nature of learning several vocal parts, it's inevitable that not everyone will be singing all the time, but if you leave people too long without anything to do, they will get bored start chattering. Try including everyone in learning all the parts. After all, it does singers no harm to understand how the song is put together and what everyone else is singing. Get everyone trying each part, even if this requires them to sing up or down the octave. Another tip to prevent boredom is to ask singers to hum their parts quietly whilst you focus on a particular section's part. This will give your singers context for the piece and an understanding of how their different parts fit together.

You don't have to start at the top! 

I often start by learning the chorus because it often involves everyone singing together. This also helps them to get a grasp of the central theme in the music and gives them satisfaction as the chorus is repeated so they start to feel like they're getting somehwhere with the learning.

Look for patterns

Point out repetitions and similarities in the music and lyrics to your singers so that they feel less daunted by the amount of learning in a piece. Obviously, you don't want to launch into lengthy lectures, but a few signposts here and there can really help.

Ask questions

Get your singers involved by asking them questions; don't just give them all the answers straight off. Questions such as: what style is this piece? What is it about? What do you think about the blend of the parts? Do we need to vary the dynamics?  This will get them thinking about the song and taking a more active role in understanding how the piece comes together and what can improve it, plus you will look super smart as their conductor as you have all the answers!

Be reactive

If something needs tweeking don't be afraid to change it. I remember we rehearsed a part of a song acapella.  The blend of the parts sounded so lovely that we decided to finish the song this way (taking out the accompaniment early). The choir were really behind the idea as they loved the acapella sound and were really pleased that I included this as part of the arrangement.

Give it time

Accept that learning new music takes time and doesn't all come together at once. Be careful not to overload your singers for example, with dynamics, breathing, diction and pitch directions all at the same time. Work on one aspect at a time, building up the song over rehearsals to the finished piece you want. Don't be afraid to move on even when things aren't perfect.

There are my tips for learning new music. I'd love to hear from you about how you tackle new repertoire with your choir.
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3 comments

Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Marylou. Nothing springs to mind. The best place for questions like this is the Total Choir Resources Facebook Mastermind. If you haven't already joined, you can request here.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Adele. It sounds like you're trying to teach your choir songs by learning them by ear yourself. If you find this too hard, perhaps it would be better to buy choral arrangements of songs to teach to your choir. You can still teach them by ear if your choir doesn't read music. Best of luck with your new role.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Greg. You'll find lots of ideas in the articles and podcasts on this website. You can search on any subject you're interested in, or have a look through the subject areas listed under 'how can we help' in the nav bar.
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