Advertise on ChoralNet 
ChoralNet logo
The mission of the ACDA is to inspire excellence in choral music through education, performance, composition, and advocacy.

Basic skills for singers: How to teach beginners to sing in Harmony

Once again, choralist comes through for me. The following is a list of
responses that I received, most within just a few hours. In time for me to
try some of them! Thanks, I have things to work with now. Also for
clarification, they are 8th grade girls, I have them standing in a block
next to the sopranos (SA choir with 3 boys) with the strongest singers in
the back.

Kylie Regan
Highlander Way Middle School
Howell, MI

Have you tried moving the altos? I don't know how big your rehearsal space
but I had a similar problem and this really worked. I moved the altos as
far as
possible away, sometimes had them turn around as well (probably not a good
with middle school) and had the sopranos sing very quietly. Gradually I
the alto over to the group and had the sopranos sing at normal volume... it
a while and sometimes it got very frustrating but it worked in the end.
are also a stronger section now because they heard how their part fit in the
whole piece.
Best of luck,
Stacey Campbell
I like having the altos sing their part while the
sopranos hum theirs. Also, having them block one ear.
You might try having them form a circle singing into the center. Tell them
they must project across the circle to the person opposite them. Remind
them that in order to stay on their part they must be able to hear each
other so projection is critical.
Good Luck

Fred Sang
Artistic Director
Kalamazoo Children's Chorus
Is there a good instrumentalist in your high school who sit in on some
rehearsals and could play the alto part with your altos as they sing it? A
viola, perhaps, or a clarinet?

Marjorie Drysdale
I'm working through this exact same issue. Here's what I'm doing:

The issues, for the most part, are lack of experience, confidence and
independence. The latter two will come as the former one grows. Specific
things I'm doing:

I'm doing sectional work with my girls right now, with the other sections
out of the room. Once they nail their part (with good tone and diction, not
the mumbly whispering that they start with), I begin to sing the _other_
part softly with them, gradually getting louder and louder until we're in
each other's faces with our own parts.

When I put them together, I put lots of physical space between groups at
first. I direct with lots of energy; I stand on tables and run around the
room. They respond very positively to this level of energy, and it keeps
their tone from going flat (which is a symptom of lethargy).

***Remember: most of your singers are probably learning by rote, whether you
want them to or not, because they can't read music. This means that they'll
get more confident with their part as they memorize it, which is what
they're trying to do.

I always do harmony when we warm up. We sing intervals, first in unison,
then with one part holding the first pitch, then changing. Then at the end
I say, "That's what a minor sixth sounds like" (for example). The next step
will be parallel intervals, but I'm not there yet.

I also do "pep-talks" with them, to help them work out the independence and
confidence issues. I allow them to articulate their frustration to me (or
with me :) ), and I reassure them that this won't happen overnight but they
will get it, just like any other skill.

Finally, don't get too uptight about it. This is fairly normal when
breaking in new singers to the world of multi-part singing.

A book was recommended to me, but at this time the title escapes me. I'll
drop you another line later today with that info.

Have fun!

Well, somebody's "new", and I don't think this situation has anything to do
with you. :-)

What you're describing is not uncommon at all, especially in junior high.
Heck, I found five of my 20 Freshman altos doing the exact same thing when I
gave them singing tests last week.

Generally, all altos are somewhat "new" at the beginning of each school
year,(basses seem to have the same syndrome) depending on their intellectual
level and experience singing alto.

Just keep stressing that the "job" of an alto is to find those lower notes
stick to them. I always tell my girls that being given the alto job isn't
much a matter of range (which they want to think it is) but of intellect and
experience. Therefore, singing the soprano part is just not acceptable. By
the range comment, I have to clarify that my belief is that girls in grades
7-12 should NOT be limited in range, but should physically be capable of
singing any female chorus part. If they can't do this, it indicates 1)
injury, 2) bad training/technique 3) a stubborn choice on their part, 4)
they're so used to singing one part that that's the only part of their voice
they exercise.
So, I let incoming Freshmen girls tell me what part they want to sing, but
then I TEST the sopranos to make sure they can access the head voice
acceptably. I stress with the altos that since singing alto is more a brain
function than a voice function, I don't have time to give IQ tests and so
I'm leaving it up to them. I also warn them that after all this discussion
and leaving it up to their good judgment, if I find them singing soprano,
going to call that two strikes against them. 1) for singing soprano in the
alto section and 2) for not having good judgment in calling themselves altos
in the first place. This usually sets the right tone. Occasionally I have
worry about the seating chart, to put the followers by a girl who can sing
alto well. Like I said, I found this pocket of Freshmen who can't do
and I have to separate them all.

So, it's not you.

Hope this helps,

Chuck Peery
1) Be patient. "We fail forward toward success."
2) Could you get some help from a couple altos in the high school choir (or
a fellow teacher or parent) to visit once (or more often) to serve as a
model for the younger singers?
3) Form the sopranos and altos in separate circles. You be one of the altos
and have a strong student "lead" the sopranos.
4) If they're accustomed to hearing the piano--Form concentric circles
around it with the altos in the circle closest the you and the instrument.
Have them sing their part (encourage them to think of it as THEIR MELODY)
then add the "countermelody" of the soprano.

On my way to class, but hope that helps a little!

Peter Jarjisian, D. M. A.
Professor of Music
Try having the sopranos sing very softly, while you actively "direct" the
altos; you might even sing with the altos. (I assume you aren't teaching
their part by playing it on the piano.)

Kay Hotchkiss
Organist/Music Director
Hi. Have you tried moving them to completely different areas of the
classroom? One corner for sopranos and one for altos. Just so they can
barely hear the other part when they are singing. It may help them build
their independence. They gradually move them closer to the sopranos. I'd
be interested in other responses. Thanks!
Blake Leister
When you start the process of teaching parts in a piece, start with the
not the melody.

Also, start from the bottom up (alto in SA or SSA music).

Repeat it a lot, offering reasons for the repetition (better vowels,
line, more dynamics, shape the phrases, cleaner consonants, better
more efficient use of breath, sing on solfege syllables, sing on "ah," etc.)
that are valid but are also just way to keep you from simply saying "let's
it again."

Sing phrases this way: alto alone, soprano alone, alto alone, soprano
both together.

If there are voice crosses, double the rehearsal time you think you need and
make sure that both parts are absolutely secure before putting them

"Freeze" chords from time to time, to check parts.

That's all I can think of offhand.

Hope this helps.

I've noticed that altos have a hard time singing a separate part when the
harmony is in 3rds. If they have a completely different linear structure
and some rhythmic differences, then they catch it quicker. That is why they
are so successful with the canon.
However, there is still great literature that has the alto part in 3rds with
the soprano, so these young ladies shouldn't be completely sheltered from
it. I've had success by having the sop's sing one nonsense vowel or word
and a different one for the altos. That way the ladies only cling to those
singing the same word they are. Also, if you've taught them solfege or
numbers for sight singing, having them sing the respective syllables/numbers
to their part will lock each section to a separate set of text and encourage
pitch consistancy. With enough productive repetition, they should, in time,
be able to shift to the real text and remain on their parts.
And, of course, positive reinforcement, positive reinforcement, positive
reinforcement, positive reinforcement, positive reinforcement, and positive
Good Luck!
Bo Shirah
Music Director
Valley View Christian Church
Carrollton, TX
Former Choir Director
Richardson Junior High
I've had success switching some strong sopranos who are the better readers,
to the alto part, and putting the altos who keep leaning toward the melody
up on the sop part.
At this age, I've always told my student that every woman can sing every
part- and i believe it's the truth- clearly, there are some exceptions.
The sopranos who you switch may hoot and holler, but kill them with kindness
and subtly say they are doing you a favor, and you are counting on their
musicianship to help you, etc.... Empower their leadership.
Lastly, how do you have them standing?
If you stand them SAT(B)
Perhaps you can switch to ST(B)A, in a semi- circle, so the women can face
each other....
If it's a women's ensemble, put the altos behind the sopranos, and vice
versa, experimenting with formation, as that is a huge factor as well.
If they can sing canons well, then you've got to catch up their eyes/minds
with their ears. Those migrating altos just cannot read music well enough
to SEE/KNOW that their notes are different than the sops.....
I would put your strongest READERS on the alto part, and gradually help the
strong-ears throughout the year.
When they get to HS, and their voices are still changing, they will be
better skilled to sing either part....thus incorporating the darker colors
to alto, and lighter to sop.....etc....
I hope this helps,
patrick walders
Glad I'm not the only one with weak altos in their middle school choir!!!

It sounds like you are doing the right thing (part work alone, rounds, etc.)
I have found that with my altos, it's just a matter of time.....then one day
it just clicks! Hopefully it happens before the concert!

Sometimes music that is written where the alto part is in intervals of 3rds
to the soprano melody, it is more difficult for them to sing. Having a
completely different alto part, like an second melody, might help.


If you have "stronger singers" in the alto section, group them together to
form a "nucleus" of sound. I know some people spread them out to sit them by
weaker singers, but I've found grouping works better. Sometimes, when I ask
my altos to REALLY listen to their section and not any thing else that is
being sung, they are more successful. Maybe they just need their listening

Have the sopranos sing their part rather softly and the altos sing loudly
(don't even be concerned about quality, phrasing, etc.). Gradually, have the
sopranos increase volume.

In warm ups do chords (either 2/3 part) depending on the make-up of your
choir) up and down by 1/2 steps to see if they can hold on to their note.

I know some directors don't agree with classifying middle school students in
a certain voice, but maybe some of the altos are really sopranos and thus
gravitate to the part where their voice more naturally falls?

Just my thoughts.

Hope things improve for both of us!!! I have 55 altos in my choir and
sometimes I can barely hear them!
Good Luck!

Rex Neff
I have had great success in my middle school with beginning part singers
by choosing music that has completely independent parts, like partner
songs, or songs that sing unison a great deal and then move to a
different note on the ends of phrases. This helps establish
independence. A good one to try for two part music is "With a Banjo on
my Knee", by Spevacek, and SSA Festive Alleluia by Lightfoot. There's
lots of music like this out there, you just have to look. I had this
same problem with my boys choirs. I have 7th and 8th separated by
gender here...highly recommend that.

I will also share with you my philosophy about teaching girls to sing
in parts. I believe and have former professors backing me up in not
"assigning" parts to middle school girls. I teach them part one in one
piece, and part two in the second piece. I began this in 6th grade last
year and have increased it to everyone (girls) this year. My now 7th
graders who did this last year are much more independant part singers,
because they did it all year last year. My own experience is as a sop.
one, and I have always had a hard time holding harmony, because I am so
used to singing the tune. I wish someone had done this for me. I am
very lucky because my high school choir director where my kids go after
here, also does the same thing for 9th grade. They are really too young
to be put in one part all the time. They complained at first, but now I
never hear a problem, and I highly recommend it. Good Luck
Just a word. After studying the work of and with Dr. Edwin Gordon
some years ago, I learned that we have musical aptitudes, abilities to learn
certain aspects of music. Singing harmony would be one of those. These
students may not have the aptitude. You can keep trying, but for some it is
a lost cause. Not much help, I know, but food for thought.

Pat Lacey
Department of Music
Missouri Baptist University
One of the best things I've found to help out altos and basses (both seem to
have this kind of problem in their own way) is to have everyone singing the
alto line in unison (octaves if necessary) with the altos a few times, the
include parts slowly readdressing the altos part problems as necessary.

I know when I was young, every little girl wanted to be a soprano, so your
problems may not only be with notes! This problem may need to be addressed
as well...remind them that they are vital to the choir-a foundation for the
rest of the building (much as you would say to basses) and that they as
altos provide the color and whatever extra 'pizaazz' that it takes to make
things beautiful. Not sure if that is part of the problem, but it could be

I would really love to hear what other directors have to say, so if you
could either post the list of responses you get or just shoot me an email
I'd really appreicate it!

Best of luck!!
Alisha Gess
A solution for your alto problem that worked for me during 36 years of
teaching, was to use a simple polyphonic motet in which each part sing a
melodic part, NOT rhythmically parallel to the soprano. These pieces are
easy to find. If you'd like to try it and need a suggestion or two as to
titles, send me more information about your group - voicing (SSA or mixed?)
and number of voices per part. I'll be glad to provide some.
James Myers, Director
The Cecilian Singers of Columbus
There's a ChoralNet resource which addresses this: > Rehearsal > General Reheasal > Singing Harmony Independently
One thing that occurs to me is to do warmups in parts using short exercises
involving sustained chords first, then moving lines and then both (e.g., as
in "The Complete Choral Warmup Book" by Robinson and Althouse, Alfred Pub.
Co. Inc. ISBN 0-88284-657-4; see Index, bottom of p. 127, "Warm-ups for
Other Than Unison Voices", and "Suggested Warmup Sequences", p. 128). Let
them get more accustomed to *hearing* other parts alongside themselves
simultaneously, and moving from note to note in whole-note or half-note
chords, when they don't have melody/upper voice.
Perhaps your sopranos are overpowering the altos. That is usually the case
with my baby choirs, that the sopranos are pushing out the sound, instead
of "floating" it. When the sopranos aren't "blatting out" the sound, then
the altos can actually hear their part. If that is not working, it could
be that the altos need a little more "umph" in their tone. My altos are
usually breathy and weak. Work on developing a little more tone with them,
and maybe that will help them hear their own part. Just suggestions, I
hope they work for you!

Denise Richardson
Assistant Choral Director, Gilbert High School
My opinion: all girls in JH/MS should always alternate singing
parts--never staying on just the alto or just the soprano for the
year/semester. That promotes healthy singing--using the upper register
and bringing it down into the lower register.


Dr. Terry Barham.
Director of Choral Activities
Emporia State University
Start with partner songs. An excellent example would be "Play for me a
Melody" Kirby Shaw arrangement (SAB) or "I've Got My Ticket" by Lon Beery.
This second selection is a mixture of partner and homophonic writing, so
altos will get the opportunity to try both.

I learned from my elementary mus ed professors that the next progressive
after canons is partner songs. My experience has proved that this is so
Good luck to you.

Eric Anthony
Director of Upper School Vocal Music and Theory Instructor
Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School
It's been my experience that part independence is really a skill that tales
time to learn. It's not going to happen right off the bat in September
(unless you have a goodly number of experienced singers with you).

I do the following:

1) Singing along with them.....This is really the best way, as they learn to
focus on your voice and match it as opposed to focusing on the highest sound
in the room.

2) Make sure you make them sing without the piano as much as possible. If
you are a pianist, this is a killer, but it must be done. They must hear
what they sound like by themselves--this goes for all parts, both seperately
and together. (Admittedly, this is easier with a large chorus.) After they
become accustomed to this, then you can have the other parts sing acapella
while you either play their part on the piano or sing with them.

3) You can gather them around you or have them herd in one area of the room
while they form a circle and sing to each other as the others are singing.
This works well in the beginning of the year for me.

I'd be interested in a compilation if you could post one or send one to me.

Good luck!

Laura Kosmich
Leonia Middle School
Leonia, NJ

MSN Photos is the easiest way to share and print your photos:

on May 27, 2003 10:00pm
Try to sing a simple song like " mary had a little lamb." make up harmony to the song( its easy!) then if all else fails try sectonals they work just as well my director works mostly with our altos but we alwork together on the three parts.
on April 9, 2006 10:00pm
Partner songs are the way to go - one to try - "Let All the World Hear Music" arranged by Liebergen (Alfred Publishing) - put the altos on part 2, sopranos and guys (all my guys are tenor) on part 1 - then switch 'em around every once in a while - it keeps them on their toes and focused.
on October 21, 2006 10:00pm
Greatadvice all around! This is my first visit to your site.

It's also a good idea- when working in a very shortend rehearsal situation, such as a musical- to work what I call "note to note". After plunking through parts a few times, go from one word to another, all voices, but with a fermata on each word. Let them listen to eachother and really tune in. Going ever so slowly- they seem to tune in easier and actually hear the difference in tonality.

As an M.D. in NYC- I would also strongly suggest to all that singers need to learn to read music. It's wonderful that they can listen and parrot- but they need to really read well in order to get better jobs- if that is their interests.

All the best and thanks again for the wonderful advice on the pages.

Mary Ann
on April 12, 2007 10:00pm
When i meet problems with `non-melodical` voices (A,T,B) in choir of mostly newbies ,best way is to start to reherse that voices without soprano and when they bow themselves together just add the melody voice. This way is usefull `cause the unexpirienced singers accept the way of accompany voice as something usual as it is something natural. This problem is psihological and the cure is to treat it like that.

Djordje Perovic , choir conductor from Belgrade , Serbia
on September 11, 2007 10:00pm
Warm-up time is the best time to nail harmony issues. I usually have one section sustain the tonic while the other sing various scale degrees. I never use the piano (even temperment destroys tuning)!!!
I have the luxury of having sectional rehearsal periods in middle school. All of my students solfege their music. It discourages them from rote learning. However, after they've sung their part one time, they are relying on memory anyway. So most choral music learning is rote after one hearing. Even if one is a strong music reader, his memory will pick up any slack.
In my opinion, make them sight-read all the time! I also stay away from the piano. Being a mediocre piano player is my best gift...
on January 4, 2008 10:00pm
All of your suggestions have been absolutely wonderful. I'm so gratefull for you help and guidance in this area.

My only question that I have is this, my school district offers the students an opportunity for a district wide concert. In this concert the students work with all five middle school choirs as well as a guest conductor. At the end of the day they perform in a very large concert.
If I were to do the individual groups such as all 7th grade girls singing sop on one song and then all 8th grade doing alto, how am I going to have them switch during the middle of a concert for the next song? I don't see that working all that well. Would I be better still using the alto, soprano method for this part of the school year and maybe the grade level method for the rest of the year? This way they have confidence before they start to split into smaller sections within their groups.

Melissa Mulford
Lead Teacher Choral/General Music
Choral and General Music Teacher
Robert Abbott Middle School
Waukegan, Il