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Beginning High School Choir

Hi everybody!  I am a first year teacher, about halfway through the schoolyear at my first job.  I teach one beginning band class, and 4 periods of what is called "chorus", but in reality, is a general music class.  This all takes place at a low-income high school on Chicago's west side.  I want to first establish that I enjoy this job, and love my students, but it is getting increasingly difficult for me to find meaningful activities for them to do in class.  The reasons for this are as follows:
-My focus at school was primarily on band, not choir OR general music
-The class is required, so many of the students do not want to be there, but have to be
-Most of the students have never had a music class, so they are starting from scratch
-We have no money, no music library, and very few resources
-There is no curriculum for this class; the position was created this past summer
I realize this is not a unique situation, but I am not ashamed to admit that I do not feel very prepared for it.  I am essentially "winging it" so far, and have managed to develop a good rapport with most of my students.  But, it becomes very stressful for me, often not knowing what I can/should do on a weekly basis (which has improved from the day-to-day basis earlier in the year).  I want these classes to be more than just loosely connected musical experiences, but a lot of what I have researched to teach basic elements of music is not enough to hold the interest or attention of this brand of high school student.  
Here is a brief rundown of what I have done so far:
-Basic theory training (some note values, letter names of pitches, how to navigate the staff, some vocabulary)
-Explanation of posture and developing singing technique
-Sung a good deal of warmups, but the messages behind them did not really reach the students
-Sung a few pieces of music using sheet music, but it was all unison because the majority of my students were unable to match pitch initially (this has improved, but not by much)
-Sung pop music by ear, while providing lyric sheets, which we used to take notes on form/structure, other vocabulary (helpful for the unison singing, but still a lot of students that cannot match)
-Some projects based on genres of music/lyrics
-Held a winter concert, where we performed a few holiday classics and pop tunes (which ended up being very well-received)
-Introduction to piano (how to identify white keys, reading basic melodies)
Basically, I am looking for guidance/advice/anything you can offer, on two things:
1.  High school general music curriculae 
2.  How to start high school beginner singers from scratch, in a way that won't bore them to death
I have other ideas going forward, but I would love to be able to structure the second semester in a way that makes sense, a logical progression, so that these kids can come away with as much meaningful experiences as possible from a 1-year required class.  Any and all feedback is greatly appreciated!!
Replies (3): Threaded | Chronological
on February 3, 2013 10:48pm
Hi Rob, it looks like you're doing a lot of good stuff already. The first thing that I wonder is if you might have the support in your administration to differentiate between some of your "chorus" classes. For next fall, could you actually teach a couple of them as general music, and a couple as choir, for instance? My concern in your situation is that the serious singers who already have some skills would get bored or frustrated. I think it would serve them (and you) much better if you could actually teach choir to the students who want to sing, and general ed for those who don't, instead of what sounds like an unfortunate mashup of the two concepts. Could you, at the very least, offer one "Chorus II" class that would be an elective for students who had already taken your current class? 
Are you teaching them solfege and the Curwen hand signals? Even if you learned fixed do in college and are a true believer, you really have to use movable do with a choir, it's the only thing that's going to develop their tonal sense. And they really enjoy doing activities with the hand signals. When it comes to having them read rhythms, why not play some pop music on the stereo for them to clap along with instead of just a metronome? There are so many different activities that you can do to build up their musicianship and their bodies moving in class. You might spend some time on youtube searching for orff schulwerk, Kodaly activities, or clapping games. Also consider bringing in some different instruments - guitars, African drumming, etc. Teach them the "cup game," and then teach them the "cup song," and then have them do them both together (check these out on youtube if you don't know what they are). Have them sing rounds. Oh, and don't beat them over the head with warming up (they should do it quickly and the warmups should be fun), and don't get immediately into sight-singing exercises after warm-ups. Before they sit down, have them sing something that they know well purely for the enjoyment and exhilaration of it, it makes the whole rehearsal go so much better when it starts out positively.

Another thing that really helps beginners is a lot of helpful visuals in the classroom. Beginning choir students in high school aren't nearly as sophisticated as the instrumentalists, and need more help with the basics. I have this whiteboard topper in my room:
I am of the opinion that pop music can be a very powerful way of building a choir program, especially at first (do a youtube search for PS22 to see what I mean). I don't limit my choirs to pop music by any means, but I do have them singing a lot of it, because they can relate to it, and so many pop songs are so wonderfully adapted for choral singing. Our last concert of the year is always a pops concert on some theme or another, and a lot of the best choral programs in the state do the same thing. Doing pop music (this year it's an all Motown concert) with a rhythm section is a really exciting thing for the kids, and ends the year on a musical high that they won't forget. 
This year is probably going to continue to be a challenge for you. But keep fighting. It does get better. Building a program takes years. Starting the year out right is crucial to get the students to buy in to the experience. One of the most powerful lessons I have learned by observing some of the top notch programs in the area is that with beginners, you have to give them experiences of early success. Find them music that they can sing and visual decipher (if not sight read) within the first couple of days of class. I have found that when choirs can learn a piece of music very quickly and easily (some pieces are much better for this purpose than others), they get excited and they will be more receptive to what you bring to the table as the year unfolds.
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on April 16, 2013 2:25pm
Thank you so much for your input!!  I have been away from the ChoralNet scene for a while, trying out new ideas and just figuring out what works and what doesn't, but now that I have a new take on things, I'm back looking for ways to expand and improve.  I really appreciate you taking the time to write everything that you did, and have looked into a lot of it, and will reference it again in the future.  Hope everything is going well with you, and thanks again!
on March 12, 2014 9:49am
Hello, Rob:
(I am looking for the reply to this post and cannot find it!)
I am in a similar situation, seeking advice regarding "starting from scratch". I have inherited an extremely talented young group of singers via three separate chorus classes. The problem is, they are new to music reading, theory, etc...and, of course, they are a bit wild.
Have you been able to come up with any solutions? Has anyone responded to your post?
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