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Essential choral music theory?

I am trying to put together a music theory/sight reading/ear training curriculum for my choral program and am having a hard time deciding what is most important to include.  I have an extensive piano background so my approach to theory is - teach them everything!  However, this becomes a big time sink and even though my students enjoy theory (believe it or not!), because of student questions (and my enthusiasm) we get into a lot of deeper material that might not be considered essential.  
 
In your experience, what has been the most essential theory/aural skills material to teach to middle grades choral singers?  Additionally, if there is a method or curriculum you have used with success, please suggest.  I inherited a set of "Experiencing Choral Music" books but don't care for them much, since the tendency is to introduce more than one new concept at a time. 
 
Thanks!
Replies (3): Threaded | Chronological
on April 4, 2013 10:40am
Hi, Claudia.  Rather than reinvent the wheel, you might want to consider the extensive existing Kodaly materials.  He based them on real music, not on made-up exercises, and his system is definitely progressive and leads from one thing to the next rather than introducing too many things at once.  (But don't forget that the best learning is whole-to-parts, not parts-to-whole, so it's important to have a "whole" to relate to.)  And of course he built music literacy into his system.
 
Caveat:  I'm not the one with the Kodaly training; my late wife was.
 
But if you really do want to invent your own materials, may I suggest using Kodaly's approach and finding what you want to teach in real music?  That's pretty basic to the Kodaly approach.
All the best,
John
on April 5, 2013 5:13am
John - 
Could you expound on the idea of whole-to-parts v. parts-to-whole? I find it fascinating.
 
Thanks in advance for your reply!
 
Best,
-Chris
on April 5, 2013 10:04am
Chris:  Happy to expound, but you may regret having asked!!!
 
German researchers, around the turn of the 20th century, were doing a lot of research in sensory psychology (then a brand new science), and what they noticed and described came to be called the Gestalt Theory.  It's complicated, but the concept is simple.  Our brains are wired to learn (just look at how quickly and easily an infant or toddler learns everything surrounding him or her almost effortlessly).  That learning ability demands not a situation in which things are broken down into little tiny pieces and considered one at a time, but one in which we are surrounded by a rich environment filled with all kinds of things that are going on simultaneously.  And we have the natural mental ability to focus on any one thing within that rich background and bring it into our mental foreground, and then to return it to the rich background and bring something else into the foreground.
 
This is demonstrated in the famous ambiguous pictures which seem to represent one thing until, with a mental effort, we can somehow see something else in them.  And these observations led in time to the development of Gestalt Learnng Theory, which is designed to take advantage of this natural way that our minds are wired to learn.
 
In other words, everything is part of a whole and can be considered as part of that whole, and can always be seen as relating directly to that whole, but the whole comes FIRST, and contains all of the parts.
 
But this is NOT the way traditional teaching has been approached.  In learning a foreign language, in particular (and my mom was an excellent foreign language teacher as well as a musician), traditional teaching presented lists of gramatical rules and lists of vocabulary words, all of which were to be memorized.  But that is exactly the opposite of how we're wired to learn and how a baby learns its native language.  It's a parts-to-whole approach.  And during World War 2 the Army Language School discovered that it was a TERRIBLE way to learn a language, and that it was MUCH more effective to completely submerge their language students in an environment using nothing except the foreign language, surrounded by native speakers, living the language and learning the accent and subtlties and not just grammar rules and vocabulary lists.
 
I think of the traditinal approach as an "engineering" approach.  Design all the subsystems properly, make sure they all work as designed, and when you put them all together you'll have a "whole" that works perfectly.  Of course any actual working engineer knows that it never works that way, because it ignores one of the most important factors--the interaction and interrelationships AMONG all the subsystems.  But even at its best the whole can NEVER be greater than the sum of its parts, and in just about every field in real life the whole IS greater than the sum of its parts, and is expected to be.
 
Now when it comes to music teaching I can relate best to stringed instrument teaching, since that's something I've researched and written about.  The traditional approach to string teaching is parts to whole, period.  Break everything down into its component parts, approach each of them separately and practice it until it's relatively perfect, and eventually put them all together to create a "whole"--an accomplished string player.  And this is carried to an extreme in Suzuki teaching, which of course was originally designed for early childhood education and which works very well indeed within that context.  So first you practice holding the violin and the bow until it's perfect; and then you practice legato strokes on just one or two strings until it's perfect; and then you learn to play "Twinkle" using just 2 strings and one finger pattern (the relation between whole steps and half steps in the left hand fingers) until it's perfect; and so on and on and on.
 
The first string educator who broke away from that traditional approach, and who readily admitted his debt to Gestalt psychology and Gestalt learning theory, was the Canadian Dr. George Bornoff.  And as it happens, my mom and I wrote the book on his life and work and spent many hours with him both interviewing him and informally.  ("Bornoff: Breakthrough for String Education," John and Florence Howell, The Foundation for String Education, 1989.)  He himself was taught traditionally, and his early students were as well, but he observed that their playing was inconsistent, and that led him to experiment with a variety of teaching methods and to reject or reogranize the traditional method and etude books.
 
Long story short, what he ended up with was a teaching method that presented the violin (and the other stringed instruments) as a whole from the very beginning.  Students are introduced to the three basic bowings--legato, spiccato and staccato--immediately.  They are introduced to all 5 finger patterns on all 4 strings immediately.  How immediately?  For a trained Bornoff teacher within the first several hours of instruction.  For one of his experienced master teachers within the first 3 or 4 hours of instruction.  And Bornoff himself, given a class that was ready, would introduce them all within the VERY FIRST HOUR of instruction, something unheard of in traditional string teaching.  And he designed his method and materials to be used in CLASS teaching rather than private lessons, because he felt that in order to make string instruction available equally to all children it had to done through the schools.
 
Of course nothing was expected to be perfect at first, and that was also unheard of in traditional teaching.  It can't be expected to be!  Just as an infant learning language can't master all the words or all the rules of grammar perfectly at first.  But with constant correction and constant encouragement the basics are refined and improved and continue to be refined and improved.  And instead of the traditional approach of waiting until a particular skill becomes necessary in the music a student is learning and then turning to an etude that concentrates on that skill in isolation, Bornoff believed in building up the skill base gradually, but as each skill has been mastered through technical work to put it IMMEDIATELY to work with simple solo pieces that actually USE that particular skill.  Again, it's working from the whole to the parts, not from the parts to the whole.
 
Don't get me wrong; traditional teaching methods can produce excellent results and excellent players in the hands of a skilled teacher.  But traditional string teaching is inherently inefficient, and Bornoff's students, with class instruction rather than private lessons, accomplish in a single year what traditional students accomplish in 3 or 4 years with private lessons.  (And even Suzuki instruction is based on private lessons; the large scale class demonstrations that are so impressive and that sold the system to so many string teachers are simply a side effect of that private instruction.)  And in fact Bornoff had been doing similar large-scale demonstrations a few decades before Dr. Suzuki started, but in Canada where they got much less attention.
 
The equivalent in general music education is very much found in Kodály's work, his methods, and his materials.  Again, the whole comes first, before breaking it down into individual parts that can be used for practice and drill, and then immediately realated back to the whole.  And very much like Kodály, Bornoff has built learning to read music--music literacy--into his methods, but it isn't obvious so teachers kept asking him how he taught music reading.  His answer was that it just happened, but the REASON it "just happened" was that it was built into the methodology.
 
Sorry to go on so long, but you did ask!
All the best,
John
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