How to create a teaching plan for your choir’s new music

Embarking on a new piece with your choir can be a little daunting for all involved. Often you have gone from weeks of rehearsals leading to a performance where everyone is completely sure of their parts and harmonies, to suddenly being right back at the beginning of the learning process.

I love starting on new pieces and watching my choir as I introduce them, as the first harmonies start coming together and as my singers grow to love it (or if they don’t love it at the very least grow to appreciate it!). However, the caveat is that I can only enjoy that process if I’m well-prepared. Here are some important lessons I’ve learned about introducing music to my choir.

Listen, listen, listen

A significant chunk of time has often passed between selecting a piece and teaching it. Make sure you listen to the arrangement a few times, whether you have rehearsal tracks, a recording or if you play the piano parts through. Don’t assume you will recall everything because you listened to it thoroughly when you selected it.

Work on each part separately

Listen to each separate part, getting a feel for its structure and how it develops through the piece. Put yourself in your singer’s shoes and note down areas which may need the most work. Perhaps there’s a tricky interval or a passing of the melody from one section to another. Imagine yourself as a singer in each section and the part you must play in the piece.

Understand the story

Before you teach a piece to your choir, make sure you have an understanding of what it is about. What style of music is the piece and does this have any bearing on its story? For example, a country ballad may have a heartfelt narrative whereas an epic rock anthem may have a strong message about love or peace. Perhaps the repertoire has a historic message relevant to the composer at that time. Understanding the emotion intended for a song is really important in being able to lead your choir in a sympathetic rendition. It also shows your singers that you’ve done your homework and put thought and consideration into your repertoire choices.

Patterns and logistics

A new piece can seem daunting to singers so when planning your rehearsals look for patterns and repetition in the piece which will make it seem less so. If you’re teaching contemporary music, you tend to find a verse/chorus structure with perhaps a middle eight, so there is lots of repetition. In a more classical setting you will often find repetition of motifs and sections. You can plan your teaching with this in mind as there is no rule saying you must start at the top and work your way down.

You may also find patterns when helping your singers to find notes. If you’re using scores, this can be easier as singers can see the notes in front of them. If you’re learning from lyric sheets, this can be more difficult so being able to identify note patterns can really help. For example, my tenors may come in on a C but are struggling to find it. If I point out that the altos sing a C on a certain word in the previous line, the tenors can pick it up from there.

Build the piece

Unless a piece is particularly straightforward, try not to cover it all in one session as this can leave your singers feeling overwhelmed. Far better to cover it in manageable pieces, allowing singers to become confident with the sections gradually. Remember to carefully manage your rehearsal calendar, thinking about how many sessions you have before the next performance as you don’t want to leave the new learning stages to the last minute.

Comments on How to create a teaching plan for your choir’s new music

  1. Avatar Chuck says:

    Nice outline of how to prepare a piece for the choir.
    Thanks, Christine!

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Chuck, glad the article was helpful for you.

  2. Avatar Funmi says:

    Thank you TCR for your helpful and reliable resources.


    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Funmi, glad to hear you’re finding our resources helpful.

  3. Avatar Charlie says:

    Thank you for the very useful points. My normal pianist (amazing how many worship leaders and keyboardist who can’t read and play parts) has been on the injured reserve list. Her replacement has a lot of desire but usually can only play one line at a time. I added something to our rehearsals this year. I try to purchase music which has parts rehearsal traxs. If not, I will take the demo trax and use some free editing software to chop the song up into small chunks. Then I set my computer and playback system to repeat and we sing each part till they are comfortable with it then move to the next chunk. They have expressed appreciation to this method. Just a thought

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Charlie, it’s always great to get input on the systems choir leaders are using and what works well for them.

  4. Avatar Lynne says:

    Well done, you! This is a pocket guide to teaching that every choir teacher should have. I love that you incorporate the study of the story. Too many choir teachers think they have to choose music for the Notes and Rhythms and … yes… that is the curriculum…but only partly! Music is communication. What are we saying with this piece? What are the messages we want to send with our songs? Vital stuff and often ignored.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Ah thanks Lynne, it’s always lovely to get such great feedback. I’m so pleased you found the article so useful.

  5. Avatar Brooke Baker says:

    Thank you for your kind wisdom. I’ve just started a choir so this is so helpful. It’s difficult too as most members don’t read music and are mostly altos! Any advice greatly appreciated and used!


    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Brooke,

      Thanks for your comments, really pleased you found the article so helpful. Great to hear you’ve just started a choir, hope you are enjoying it. In terms of your members not reading music my advice would be to start slow and gradually build up their skills. Simple rounds or songs will soon enable them to follow the dots and then you can eventually step it up to more challenging pieces. The majority of singers coming along to my choir also pronounce themselves altos. I think there is a slight fear of soprano for novice singers as they feel it will be too high for them. Perhaps if your choir is small you could do a range check. Everyone stands in a circle with a circle of chairs behind them. Then do some basic five note scales working up or down the scale a semitone each time. When someone reaches their limit they sit down starting at one end of the circle. By the end everyone is sat on the chairs in the order they had to drop out so you can identify your lower, mid and high singers. If your choir is already too big to do this in the rehearsal space, you could try the same thing in some smaller workshops.

  6. Avatar Valerie says:

    This was wonderful. Thank you very much indeed. Us choir leaders wonder how you manage to produce so much interesting and thoughtful material for us all.


    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Valerie,

      Thanks for your kind words. We combine a love of singing, running our choirs and talking and writing about it all which keeps us nice and busy! We love the varied aspects of our work and also the amazing choir leaders we meet and converse with along the way. Really pleased the result is something you find helpful. All the best with your choir.

  7. Avatar Oluwole says:

    Thanks a lot, TCR! You’ve been more than helpful to me and my choir.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Oluwole,

      Really pleased you find Total Choir Resources helps you and your choir.

  8. Avatar Helen says:

    And when they’ve had the high of a performance, they’re still high for the next rehearsal, full of chatter and in my experience, a little more difficult to control!

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Helen,

      Oh such true words! With my choir everytime we do a performance, I know we’re in for a great deal of excitement and chatter at the next rehearsal. I’ve decided that’s part of the joy of being in a choir for the members. Like you say though it can be a little tricky out at the front – dashings of patience required! :)

  9. Avatar Sara says:

    This is so helpful. My choir are all novice/inexperienced and find new material very daunting!

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Sara,

      Really glad the article helped you. You’ll be amazed how quickly your inexperienced singers will develop and start tackling new music without feeling so daunted. All the best.

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