Part Two: A Proposal for Children’s Choir Rehearsals
In Part One, I presented a philosophy of children’s choirs that may have sounded ambitious at best, and crazy at worst. Let me convince you that it can be done, whether you have a 30-minute rehearsal, only a few children, no helpers, or an unruly bunch.
In a previous call, I had the children’s choir for 45 minutes each week, with them leading worship every 5-6 weeks. For various reasons some adjustments had to be made to the choir schedules, and it became made up of 19 children, Kindergarten through 6th grade, including 2 middle schoolers as helpers. Yet each week, we were able to complete the elements described in Part One, sometimes with more grace than others. How? Making sure that not one minute of rehearsal was wasted. Here are some strategies that I used to help accomplish all of these goals:
I. Clear Expectations
Children thrive in environments where they feel safe and accepted. Part of that feeling of safety comes from knowing exactly what is expected of them. When children are unsure of what is acceptable behavior and what is not, they will test the boundaries until they have it figured out in their own minds. Imagine how much time is wasted, if we have to discipline each child as they test the limits!
There are many wonderful ways to express and devise expectations. Covenants have long been an effective way to keep behaviors appropriate and to save time.
- Create three covenants together at the beginning of the year (a great icebreaker!)—one for singers, one for the conductor, and one for parents.
- Give yourselves permission to add/edit/remove things from the covenant during the year.
- Working together to create a covenant also ensures that the children are aware of the expectations and, most importantly, believe in the importance of the expectations!
- The covenants should use positive but clear language in describing what the singers/conductor/parents will do, not what they shouldn't do.
- Post these covenants and, when needed, remind the singers of what is on the covenants.
- Soon, the children will begin regulating themselves and each other, and you can do what you do best—lead a safe and engaging rehearsal!
There are lots of resources out there that discuss classroom management and community building. While most of these resources are designed for classroom teachers, the principles are easily adapted for choir rehearsals. I encourage you to check out these two websites that I have found useful:
Have a ritualized rehearsal where each “rite” is predictable for the children, including a “Gathering” & “Sending.” Imagine your rehearsal like worship. There’s ritual, predictability, flow, transitions between “rites.” Liturgy is specifically designed for all-young and old, readers and non-readers. Why should your rehearsals be any different?
When children know what it going to happen next, behavior is rarely a problem. If rehearsal always starts the same way, maybe with a certain hello song, conversations stop, all eyes turn to the conductor, and all lips are joining in on the song. There's no need to get their attention through talking or clapping—just start and they'll know it’s time!
Here’s a sample of a rehearsal ritual that has worked for me:
- Hello Song
- Movement activity
- Vocal Warm-up
- Chorister’s Prayer (led by CotW)
- Segment of Hard anthem (discuss what about, for what liturgical season, why)
- Segment of Easy anthem
- Hymn of the Month
- Segment of Medium anthem
- Goodbye song
Keep the kids constantly engaged by using quick & active transitions between “rites.” All too often, this is where the most time gets wasted in rehearsal and when behavior issues crop up. If children are actively engaged in singing and music-making, they can’t fool around, and they will not lose focus. Prior to rehearsal, have the entire rehearsal plan on the board. Use those visuals (as well as some pantomime, too!) to aid you in showing what will come next. If you need to give some sort of verbal instructions (try to cut down on those as much as possible-they really take up time and can break up the concentration that you might have just cultivated), sing the instructions. The use of ritual will also cut down on wasted transition time.
IV. Less IS More
Teach musical, theological, liturgical elements in small, quick bites. Teeny, tiny bites. Repeated many times over a period of weeks. All too often, conductors (guilty!) get bogged down in long explanations of historical liturgical theology, or why the colors of Advent are now blue. I believe with my whole heart that children can and should learn this stuff, but we don’t need to give lectures on them, either.
Plan your teaching segments of anthems/hymns in short segments. For a lower elementary aged choir, each segment would be 7-10 minutes or so. Older ones can handle 10-15 minute segments (if they’re allowed to be active learners). Preschoolers can handle 5-7 minutes. As crass as it may seem, think of the time between commercials in TV shows. If we exceed that length of time on one teaching moment, we are not getting them at their most alert and focused.
V. Get Up and Go!
Start rehearsal with a movement activity. Children have been sitting most of the day. My first three years, I put the movement activity at the end of rehearsal as a sort of reward. Unfortunately, we almost never got to it and movement is not a reward. It is intrinsic to rehearsing and learning. Believe it or not, once we began rehearsals with movement (a folk dance, a creative movement piece, a singing game), we got MORE accomplished in each rehearsal than I ever expected. Children need to MOVE and they learn best when their WHOLE bodies are engaged. Our movement activity got the wiggles out and helped them to focus. Another bonus of starting off with a movement activity is if you tend to have latecomers (who doesn’t?), they are not missing rehearsal of a piece. AND, because no one wants to miss the fun movement activity, the children beg the parents to make sure they are on time or, even better, early!
Use movement during rehearsal. Again, children have been sitting much of the day. We also have many children in there who are kinesthetic learners. When we use our bodies to keep the beat, show the phrase, get a certain articulation, we are engaging every child. If you are doing something in compound meter, have the kids skip around as they sing. If the piece is very legato, have the children use their arms to sing the phrase musically. Be creative. Have fun with movement!
VI. Shake It Up
Alternate the difficulty levels of anthems. And, do not be afraid to simplify an anthem when you need to. We all have had those weeks with half of our singers sick or on vacation (especially when we have many children from the same family. One family’s illness could alter rehearsal plans for a couple of weeks.) A rotation that has worked well for me is easy-medium-easy-hard. This way, you could begin the tricky parts of the medium and hard anthems well in advance without panicking or crash learning—something discouraging for you and the singers. Yes, we want to challenge them, but we want them to always be able to feel successful about what they are doing. Joyful learning should always be at the heart of what we do.
VII. Empower Them
A teacher-friend of mine gave me the idea of Conductor(s) of the Week. (Side note: If you don’t have friends who are elementary classroom teachers, make some. They are INVALUABLE resources.) Her school uses “Teachers of the Day,” so I adapted this for church choir. Each week, two singers became the Conductors of the Week (CotW, from here on). The CotW were in charge of leading the Chorister’s Prayer, passing out/collecting music/instruments/pencils, behavior modeling, and anything else that I needed them to do! Each child was thrilled when it was his/her turn to be CotW and took the role very seriously.
Have a middle schooler or a high schooler from your older choirs to be your assistant. My older assistants were always called “Ms. (first name)” (I haven’t had any young men yet). Giving them that slight status boost was so helpful! The assistants stood up a little straighter and took initiative to help the little ones. Plus, my assistants always had younger siblings in the choir. By empowering the assistant the younger siblings treated them with just a little bit more respect.
Children's choirs are critical to the worship life of a faith community. As such, much care and thought should be put into this ministry. There is time enough to create a well-rounded learning environment for these children-there's no need to triage! Thanks be to God!