Harmony Singing Method
Date: March 1, 2013
I've been getting a lot of requests for my harmony singing method, and figured I would share it with you all again. Below are links to the first level, some notes on implementation, and a little background. Feel free to use these with your choirs. If you're interested in obtaining the complete method in all 8 steps, contact me at email@example.com
It is strongly encouraged to have students utilize Kodaly hand signs with these exercises. It is imperative that the piano is not used in implementation. I also suggest having students start by singing at quiet dynamic levels to ensure they are actively listening to each other. I offer every level in every key signature too, to train the eyes in assimilating pitches, scales, patterns starting in different areas of the staff.
Once this level is achieved, half the students are to add a drone on DO, while the other half sings the exercise. Then alternate. Then move the drone to RE, LA, SOL, etc.. Once this is achieved, the exercises can be sung backwards, from the end to the beginning (to promote true sight singing and avoid singing from memory - it's also a fun challenge for students). Level C can also be presented as a worksheet, in which students have to ‘fill in’ solfege or numbers with a writing utensil. It is also crucial that students know how to figure out key signatures.
Learning how to sing choral harmony at a young age requires mental discipline and theoretical understanding. In our society, children of newer generations generally are not disciplined to actively listen in their daily lives. It's especially evident in music; where active listening is crucial. Contrary to some popular theories, the ability of a young person to sing harmony has very little to do with human developmental stages. Students in junior high/middle school in our society often struggle with harmony because they were not trained in music theory and harmony from 2nd or 3rd grade on up. In many schools in England (as well as some other countries in Europe), especially private schools, the tradition of children singing intricate harmonies with other children and grown men still thrives, becoming a well-oiled skill by the ages of 9-12. These children, with the guidance of their music educators and/or church choral directors, begin their musical training around the age of six. There is no genetic difference between the children in their society and ours. The difference is in the approach to music education.
While teaching K-12 music back in 2007-08, I spent a semester crafting an exercise that guides the young choral singer through an entire sequence of music theory and harmony singing. The exercise incorporates solfège as well as numbers, taking students through a gradual theoretical eight-step process that imitates the progression of vocal music through the Ancient – Medieval periods. This method produced incredible results for my choir, and has caused me to believe that humans’ most natural path to understanding harmony is a reflection of how harmony developed in our history.
Case and point:
My 6th grade mixed choir of 57 students struggled with unison singing when I first started teaching. Harmony was simply out of the question. By the first month of implementing this exercise they were able to successfully sing in two-part a cappella harmony. By the end of the Fall semester; three part. In April, Spring semester, we performed William Byrd's "Non Nobis, Domine". I had to rearrange a few measures to fit their ranges, and transpose the bass up an octave with some slight rearrangements there as well, as none of my students’ voices had changed yet. The flabbergasted looks on the audience and teachers faces provided all the assurance my choir and I needed; It really worked, and we were on to something big.
These days, most elementary/middle school music curriculums use partner songs and rounds as primary methods for teaching harmony. While these are very useful and enjoyable at early ages, we as educators may want to reconsider whether they should be used as ‘primary’ methods for teaching harmony. Partner songs and rounds are based on independent (and often common sounding) melodies that arrive at “incidental” harmonic junctures, whereas methods like the one in this article would serve to provide a theoretical foundation for approaching choral music written with “intentional” harmonies.
Since America became an independent nation, our society – of course with some exceptions - has loosened its commitment to educating our youth in music theory and training them to be proficient sight singers and singers of intentional harmonies. This level of musical training is now mostly reserved for the high school graduate who wants a career in music. Of course, in an age when the arts are already struggling for territory with liberal education and athletics, we must continue to make the arts an enjoyable experience so as not to alienate our students and risk placing ourselves any further off the map of “necessary” school subjects. Nevertheless, if we can accompany a new direction like this with our creativity and passion as great music educators, I believe together we can re-define a part of what music education means in America.
For more information on this method of teaching harmony singing, or to obtain the booklet for your own classroom, feel free to contact Andrew Miller at: firstname.lastname@example.org