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.

Comments on How to teach a new song without boring your choir

  1. Avatar bismark says:

    Great ideas from you all but i will like to ask a questions;
    1.what would you do to your choir members when they don’t like to listen to the songs given them ? teach parts and they forget before the next meeting day what would you suggest i do?

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks for your message. In answer to your questions, I think it’s inevitable that your singers won’t like all of the songs all of the time. However, as long as you choose a good range of music and are confident about the repertoire you cover then I think you’ll find you can often win them over! At the same time there may be some songs that some of your singers just don’t like and you know what, that’s okay. Music is so subjective and everyone has different tastes. Stick to your vision for the choir and instincts and you’ll be just fine. In answer to your second question this is inevitable. Whenever I teach a new song I always find it takes my singers a good two or even three sessions to get it under their belt. Try not to overload your singers with a new piece, build it up gradually. Look for repertition in the song and help guide them through it in a manageable way. All the best.

  2. Avatar Bliss James says:

    Beautiful writeup Christine.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thank you James.

  3. Avatar Aaron Tagoe says:

    Great !

  4. Avatar Ann Clewlow says:

    Hi Christine
    I agree with everything you say, except the breathing bit at the end. I find (and it is the same with my singing students) that it is essential to learn the breathing places right from the beginning or people will get into bad habits that are difficult to unlearn. I heard a festival adjudicator advising this and I have taken this on board. In fact I now mark every copy with required breathing places so we all break the line together. I tell the choir that I would like them to breathe in the marked places, but that if they need another breath this can come (almost) anywhere they need it to. (The subject of another discussion?)

    We are lucky enough to work and perform with an accompanist, and that the hall we rehearse in has another smaller hall attached to it, also with a piano. So if we are learning a new song, or there is a tricky harmony part, I will often send one part into the other hall on their own with the accompanist for some one-to-one note bashing, while I take the .other part. If it is a three part song we might take staggered tea breaks. Their joy at having “got it” when they hear how it sounds with the harmonies when we put it together is amazing, and boosts their enthusiasm for working on the next bit.

    Thanks again for all you hard work – I’ve learnt such a lot from you!

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Ann,

      Thanks for your message and feedback on learning new music. Great to have a break off room you can use for rehearsals. I sometimes feel for my singers when one section has to master a tricky harmony whilst others wait patiently. I’m really pleased you like the site.

  5. Avatar Greg says:

    i am a music teacher i go grade from play group to 10 greade can you suggest and guide to teach proper way,

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      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.

  6. Avatar Meg Hansson says:

    Thank you for your wonderful help girls . I look forward to each edition. Meg Hansson

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks Meg,

      That’s great to hear.

  7. Avatar Adele says:

    I have a great enthusiasm for ditecting music, I just started doing it a few weeks ago and it has really been tough , most times I can’t really pick the parts the way the original singer of the song sang it . what do you think I van do to help my hearing.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      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.

  8. Avatar Innocent Abel says:

    Your articles have really helped me and my choir a lot. Thanks Christy and more grace.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Christy,

      Thanks for your lovely comment, it’s always great to get feedback on the articles from choir leaders like yourself.

  9. Avatar Abia Ime Akan says:

    Thank you so much Christine for this piece! I observed i’ve been practising some of your tips but I learnt some more. Thanks a lot.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks for your message Abia, really pleased you find the articles helpful.

  10. Avatar Marylou Rumleski says:

    I’m looking for a song for my grades 5-8 choir. I want to do something modern, something the kids will know. It would be great if it was 2-part. Any suggestions???

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      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.

  11. Avatar Ariel Wilson says:

    thanks, this helped a lot!

  12. Hi Christine, thanks for the useful post. Agree with everything you say!

    A few thoughts from my side:

    I say why I have chosen the song particularly if it is going to be included in a set for a performance eg we are working on wartime songs at the moment for various WW1 commemoration events – this helps the choir engage with the song as they think about the end game of performing it and getting the message across to the audience with simple moves and facial expressions and how it will be received, especially at outdoor events where concentration is less and need to make more of an impact.

    I sometimes teach a phrase or a chorus from the new song as a warm up especially if it has a focus I can explain eg difficult intervals or rhythm or needs a particular style of singing eg swing style/triplets for jazz numbers.

    With a difficult rhythm I sometimes get the choir to talk through the words in normal speaking then teach them the rhythm and get them to chant the words in the correct rhythm, leaving gaps for the rests etc

    Love your point 5. I should do more of this. As I also teach in schools I sometimes feel a bit too teacherly when addressing adults but I know from experience they respond just as well to the same sort of questioning and getting them to think for themselves rather than spoon feeding.

    On point 3, I use the analogy of building a brick wall for learning a song, lay good foundations, break it down into manageable chunks eg one verse is four rows of bricks! So I will often say we will take the next four weeks to learn this song – today we’re going to focus on the chorus or verse one etc, or all sing the melody first, then add parts in the following weeks etc.

    On point 6, rather than heading this as “be reactive” I would be more positive and say “Collaborate with your choir”. One member at Christmas had been on a cruise where they had had a choir which performed for the other guests on the last night (must get into this!) and she felt confident enough to mention how they had sung a particular Christmas song in that choir and taught the rest of the choir a very simple harmony ending to “Rockin’ around the Christmas tree”! She is not an experienced singer I have to say but still felt fine humming it in front of everyone and then adapted it to suit and incorporated it. I reinforced this kind of contribution by congratulating her on her arrangement which we would take on board.

    Maddie, Landmark Show Choir

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Maddie, some great ideas thank you. Yes I agree about speaking the words through before singing them and often do this with my choir, it really does help. It sounds like you have a lovely choir and I like the title ‘collaborate with your choir’!

  13. Avatar Jennifer says:

    Hi Christine,

    Great post. At the beginning you mention that you have rehearsal recordings on hand because you don’t have a piano…..and your choir learns by ear. At the end you mention that your choir lwanted to keep a part of the arrangement a cappella…..

    So that left me wondering if your choir sings to a musical track for all or some of your pieces? Can you clarify? As well…can you tell me about your rehearsal recordings…do you record the parts and play them individually thntogether to give your singers an idea of what their parts and the piece will sound like?

    I have taken to recording each part as a track and posting on soundcloud seperately and together, which the choir likes, as they can access the parts and practise at home…..but i haven’t played them during our rehearsal…. sometimes find it hard to give them an idea of what the song will eventually sound like if they haven’t accessed the recordings or have forgotten what they sound like when stitched together( i did watch your recording video, which was re-affirming, thank you)


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