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After school choir repertoire help

I am going to be teaching an after school choir for the next 7-8 weeks, and I need some more ideas for songs. The students are in high school, but have little to no music experience for the most part. I don't know yet what the numbers/gender make up of the group will be yet, and it is likely to change over time. I tried looking through the databases here on choralnet, but I couldn't find music that was easy enough to teach by rote and suitable for teens who have lived a lot of life. 
The school I will be working at is an alternative school housing two programs - Early College HS (for highly motivated students to get both their diploma and Associates) and the Teen Parent Program. Some students may have piano or guitar experience (though they might not read music), and if they have been in the school district since elementary school they would have had general music and might have sung in choir in elementary or middle school. 
Any suggestions for songs that are easy enough you don't have to read music, but difficult (or difficult sounding) enough I won't insult their intelligence?
Replies (11): Threaded | Chronological
on January 10, 2013 3:50am
Dear Jennifer,
You might find a couple of my Scots song settings for unaccompanied choir useful - I think they're easy enough to teach by ear (I've used them with a university group who were mostly beginners), but will provide some challenge. They can be found at
A Red Red Rose is fairly easy, for three-part SAB choir if you have enough guys to make up a baritone section - I also have SA and SSA arrangements of it, email me for details.
Ye Banks and Braes is a nice simple two-parter (SA, each part could be doubled by tenors or basses).
Jock O'Hazeldean adds some slightly trickier harmonies and a few chromatics (SAB).
Highland Lad and Afton Water need reasonably competent male singers (again, SAB).
Duncan Gray is probably a bit too tricky for non-readers.
All are free for non-profit use, but if you've got a music budget then a contribution would be appreciated, say $15 per piece (or $10 each if you order three or more), and I'll send you a PDF so you can print unlimited copies.
Chris Hutchings
on January 11, 2013 7:45am
Though my teenage years are a distant and somewhat confused memory, I believe that I generally bought into songs that had either compelling music or compelling text, more frequently the latter.  Complexity of harmony was not a requirement - though simple beautiful harmonies did move me - and rhythm was at least as significant as harmony.
Assuming the student will have printed music for the words and general clues (rather than relying totally on memory), there should be some options available.  It may lie more in the folk and popular realms than the sacred and/or classical, but even (grasping for the obvious) Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus could be learned by rote and sung with effect.  Arrangements of traditional folk songs with moving texts could work.  I grew up listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary (very easy to pick out harmonies), Bob Dylan, and some of those folks.  They had simple lines and strong texts.  Something in that direction, perhaps more recent?
The only offering from my stuff that occurs is "Hard Times, Come Again No More".  It's SATB, a cappella with flute/oboe obbligato, but could add piano reduction.  I've also got a simple accompanied SATB setting of "Danny Boy", but don't know that the text would enthuse.  Samples in the Mixed Voice section at
I'll poke through my shelves for anything good and simple, but don't have any immediate thoughts.
Best of luck,
John Ward
on January 11, 2013 6:12pm
Hi, Jennifer.  I've been thinking about your questions, and following the replies with interest, but I seem to have missed something.
Why do you assume that the only way to teach choral pieces--even if the students are inexperienced, have "lived a lot of life" (which puzzles me; is that a euphemism for "inner-city students"?)--when you yourself suggest that at least some may have piano or guitar experience, general music classes, and may have sung in choir before?  That seems like quite a lot of assumptions, when you don't even know who you will be getting yet!  And yes, I understand both the needs of an Early College program (since my daughter taught in exactly such a program in the NYC public schools) and a Teen Parent program (which will very soon have a practical need for some great lullabies!!!).
And if they're inexperienced, isn't part of the choral experience to start GIVING them some of that experience, in part to try to show them how much satisfaction they can get and how much fun it is to be part of a "team" making music together, and in part to prepare them for their NEXT experience when they have that opportunity?
I almost get the feeling that you're unsure of your own ability to teach parts using music, but I'm sure you wouldn't have taken on the challenge if that were true.  So I'm left puzzled.  Could it be as simple as not having any budget to acquire music in the first place?  But if so, why set up the experience in the first place?
But the resources and databases here on ChoralNet are hardly the place to look for dead-easy, simplistic arrangements that can be learned immediately by rote (which also, of course, requires perfect attendance or else you'll end up repeating the same learning in every rehearsal!).  Some VERY complex arrangements can indeed be taught by rote, but usually to highly experienced singers and ALWAYS by someone who has the very special skills needed to keep everything integrated in her own mind.
So perhaps you could give us just a tiny bit more information about the actual situation you're in.
All the best,
on January 13, 2013 3:46pm
I guess that I am making quite a few assumptions. I know that from talking to the school coordinator that she thought they probably wouldn't enjoy "regular" choir music, and I also got this impression from a friend who teaches there. They know the kids a lot better than I do that this point, but I will definitely talk to the students and see what their thoughts are and bring examples.
And, no - I wasn't thinking inner city, because Salem doesn't really have an inner city the way that big cities do (I worked in Baltimore and DC for a while). I was just thinking of the kids I work with in my other job who, from what little I know, seem like they come from a similar background and have similar educational goals to the students at ECHS. My kids are really, really intelligent, but they have had to work through some really bad stuff in their lives to be able to get on a path to completing HS and going to college that I never had to. Part of my apprehension (fear? uncertainty?) comes from my first real teaching job that was in a similarly unstructured environment that went HORRIBLY. I know that I have the skills and the education, but sometimes things just stick in your head. 
On to the music! What I came here really looking for was names of some of those songs that you sit in the audience and go "Wow!", but when you actually learn the song in choir you realize that it isn't very complicated at all. I know that I have done songs like this in choir in the past, but because of all of my moving in recent years my collection of choir programs has gotten misplaced or recycled and I don't remember what they were. Does this make any sense? I know that you don't have to be able to read music to tell if a note is going up, going down, or staying the same, so I am probably going to just get over it and put music in their hands. 
I love the suggestions that I have gotten about folk songs and pop arrangements too! I do not have a budget for music, but I have friends who have opened their choral libraries to me and there is always CPDL. I am also not sure what the piano situation is. I think I heard that there is an old upright lurking about campus, but that could be just rumor. 
Did this rambling reply clear up some of your questions? 
on January 14, 2013 6:54am
Hi Jennifer - you're welcome to use the works above for free if there isn't a music budget, just include a link to my website in the programme (and maybe suggest my name and original works to people you know if you get a chance?)
on January 14, 2013 7:23am
Hope it helps!  Good luck - sounds like a wonderful program!  (Well, except it looks like you need a budget and maybe a piano.)
on January 15, 2013 8:06am
Ease on Down the Road, arr. by Jeff Funk ... you could teach the harmonies for the refrain and hand out solos on the verses. 
My Heart's in the Highlands, by Lon Beery
900 Miles, by Paul Silvey, I think? There's SAB and SATB that are quite nice.
Don't worry too much about their past, just bring your love of music to the classroom. Try lots of things, accept feedback, tie lyrics to personal feelings/experiences.  Music (as you know) is a way to connect to hearts, to give utterance to feelings too deep for ordinary words.  You can help them find that.  Love, not fear.  Good luck!
on January 22, 2013 3:38pm
Sorry that I haven't updated this in a while. Thank you so, so, SO much for all of your suggestions! We had our first rehearsal on Thursday, and I feel much better about the whole endeavour now. All but one of the students have been in choir before, so that helps me out a lot! Still trying to get songs together that I think they will like, but it is a little easier now. They told me that they don't want "regular" choir music, but I think I might try to sneak some in while they aren't looking! 
on January 22, 2013 7:04pm
What about choosing a theme that can incorporate some learning outside of strictly music?  I have done some short-term classes with a similar population, and I build it around an interdisciplinary topic.  Since my situation is at a summer program, I don't worry about teaching part-singing, though.
Some themes I have done:  "A Bite of Broadway" -- musical theatre songs about food, introduces the genre without getting into a lot of boy-girl relationship songs, which can be hit or miss with young teens.  The kids loved it and wanted to do a flash mob performance at the cafeteria at lunchtime. Rep included "Green Eggs and Ham" (Seussical), "Ice Cream" (Anne of Green Gables), "The Candyman" (Willy Wonka), and of course "Food, Glorious Food" (Oliver).
                                         "Broadway on the Bookshelf" -- songs from musicals based on classic children's literature and there are a lot of them: Mary Poppins, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Shrek, The Secret Garden, Oliver, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Suessical, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, etc. A project could be to find the scene in the book and compare it to the scene in the musical.
                                         "Protest Songs" -- we learned a group of songs that traced the history of protest songs from the Civil War to Lady Gaga, lots of great repertoire here and some social history, and my class also wrote their own protest song about bullying.
                                          "The World in Six Songs"  -- inspired Daniel Levitin's very readable book of the same name about the connection between neuroscience and music, and their impact on the evolution of the human brain. I didn't get into the science side of it in class because that's not my strength, but we looked at the 6 reasons people sing songs in any culture and learned some from each category.  Good for cross-cultural studies and developing cultural sensitivity.
Best wishes,
Applauded by an audience of 1
on January 24, 2013
Um, that should say "The World in Six Songs" was inspired BY Daniel Levitin. I don't mean to imply that I provided inspiration for the esteemed Dr. Levitin! 
on January 24, 2013 7:29am
There are some great simple pop arrangments of a cappella tunes-- Jonathan Wikely is the arranger. He has a Beatles book, a pop book, and a jazz book. My middle school students just did an arrangment of CA Dreamin' from one of them, and we have done one from the Beatles book and the jazz book as well. Simple, but effective pieces, and the kids love them. What about gospel tunes? 
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