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new HS teacher: Help with altos (pitch, staying on part, etc)

Hello you wonderful founts of knowledge.
I subscribed to ChoralNet when I got my High School choir class and read it everyday.  I've learned so much.  Briefly, I am a choral director by dint of doing.....17 years of church choir, student assistant conductor to our local community college for 4 years.  I have an AA in music but not a BA and that won't happen until my kids have gone and finished college!  So I don't have the classroom training, music education skills you all have.
This is a brand new program that I'm starting from scratch at a charter school with no other music classes (or visual arts either). Last semester was hard and stressful. It improved when I asked the principal to remove the problem kids. I also sent back all the SAB music I had purchased and had them send 2 part arrangements instead. By the holiday concert we were doing pretty well. 
I listened to everyone individually at the beginning of each semester.  The sopranos all have range, lovely voices and good pitch centers.  They are young and are still learning but are doing well.
The boys are a mixed bag and I need plenty of help here.....but my main question has to do with the altos.
I have sung alto all my life (1 brief 2nd soprano stint).  I encourage the girls and let them know that their part is very important.  I share the "tricks" of singing alto that I have learned in 45 years of singing.  The thing is that most of the girls that have pitch challenges and can't hold their part are altos.  Most songs give the melody to the sopranos.....the girls with the most ability have the easiest part.  My poor altos have the hardest part and the least amount of skills.
It's also hard because I can't grade them.  Only pass, fail or distinguished.  So the challenged girls refuse to do the outside work that would help them improve.  They know that they will pass if they come to class with music, show up at the gigs and do the other homework (not the call ins.....they won't do them).
I have made practice parts available.  I take them for sectionals.  I don't have the tools or skills, I guess, and that makes me sad because I thought I did.  
How do you all manage to help your singers improve without losing the ones with skills to total boredom? I've already lost my best young man because he was so bored he couldn't stand it.
Do I put the altos on the soprano line and the sopranos on alto so we can do an SAB piece or should I stay with 2 part?
Thank you for any pointers or advice you can send my way.  I've already put in place many of your suggestions from other posts.
Gratefully yours, 
Replies (13): Threaded | Chronological
on January 29, 2014 6:45am
Hi Bernadette, 
You sound like you are experiencing classic new teacher syndrome.  Don't worry, it will get better as you start to get the classroom management experience you need.  Sounds like you are actually doing pretty well.  You've got buy-in and cooperation from a solid percentage of your students.  Pat yourself on the back!  It will keep getting better!  
What!?  Who says altos aren't important?!  
Be sure that you do some warm ups specially for each section of your choir to give them a chance to show off a little bit at what they are good at from the safety of the herd.  As you warm your way up the scale, cut off your altos and basses and say, all right divas, this is just for you...  and have the sopranos and tenors continue the excercise a few more degrees up the scale.  And do the same for the bottom of the scale.  Cut off the sopranos and tenors.  All right.  Let's hear some sultry, chocolate tones...  Ooh!  Low E!  Yeah ladies!  Nice and warm and rich!  
How about singing something with altos and guys on the melody and sopranos on a descant to help your problem singers get comfortable with their reading and their sense of importance?  (And to challenge the sopranos reading skills).  
How about adding a few rounds, so that each part is of equal importance?  You can mix up your voice sections to do this, putting a mix of strong and weak singers together on each part.  Talk about blend and make a big show of listening to them try it once and then rearranging your sections.  Have them stand in a circle, so that they can hear themselves and the change in blend.  
Be sure that you are picking music where all parts are interesting.  As a fellow alto, you know there are a lot of lame alto parts out there.  Especially in the "easy music" category.  Two part pieces sound like a good idea, but make sure that both parts are equally melodically interesting.  
Sing something a cappella.  In accompanied two-part music, often the upper line is the melody, and the lower line is a random fill-in.  The piano is doing all the fun harmonic stuff and doubling parts, so if the lower line weren't there, you wouldn't miss it much.  If something is written a cappella, however, ALL LINES have DEFINITELY been written to stand up on their own.  
Write your own material, for classroom practice, even if you aren't confident to use it for a concert.  Teach everyone a melody, and then for the last note of each line, have all three parts split out into a chord.  Feels rather magical at that age.  Do some work arpeggiating chords.  (Also feels rather magical).  Find a fun chord progression in some more complex piece and, just for ear practice, have the kids arpeggiate their way through it.  Basses come in...  "Dooo"  Then altos...  "Dooo"  Then sopranos complete the chord...  "Dooo"  Then basses start the next chord...  You can do this on solfege syllables if that is part of your curriculum.  You can hit each note on the piano for them before it comes in.  Great training to get them started thinking about singing in more complex parts.  And it softens the sense of melodic line and makes them think about harmony instead.  
Try Pachelbel's canon on doot-doos for a challenging excercise.  Clearly, all the parts are important, and most of your students probably know the tune already, so the reading will go a bit more smoothly.  
Don't always start a new piece of music by going over the melody with the sopranos.  That reinforces the idea that they are the important part, and the other part(s) are just there to make the melody look good.  Sometimes start by going over the alto line.  In a well-written piece, it should be able to stand up as a melody on its own.  
on January 29, 2014 7:05am
Hello Bernadette!
It sounds like you are doing a great job as a teacher - I'm in my first year of teaching and read this forum every day to learn as much as I can from the fountain of knowledge all these people possess.
I encountered a similar problem with my 9th grade choir - altos shifting to the melody or being so apathetic to not sing if they can't immediately get their part.  It seems to be so much about instant gratification, and so I struggled with what seems to be the same things you are struggling with.  Here's a three-step approach I sort of made up as I went along, and things are wayyyy better now:
I started out doing a new canon every week, and by the middle of the first quarter, we had five that were a good start and could pick a different one each day of the week.  After they were really confident singing together, I broke them into two parts, grouping the altos and baritones together.  After a few more weeks, we were able to do the canons in three parts!  This was a strong start.
In addition, we started doing basic solfege sightreading exercises every day.  The entire first week we only practiced "do" and "re" on rhythms with quarter notes/rests.  The next week we added half notes/rests, "mi," and "fa."  Week 3 introduced whole notes/rests, "sol," and "la."  Week four introduced "ti," high "do," and eighth notes/rests.  This helped their ability to look at the actual notation on the page and follow their score.  It helped with tuning, rhythm - it really helped with everything.
Lastly, I came to the frustrating conclusion that music "off the shelf" just wasn't going to work for my kids at the moment in time we were in.  I'm sure the people that compose it, edit it, and publish it are all much smarter than I am and have done research on what kids this age should be able to do, but the alto parts were really challenging, there was too much divisi, the mens' parts went too high or too low, or they were just too boring.  So I started writing nearly all of their music, and I used the things we were already doing...I used stepwise melodies and harmonies with all diatonic pitches that we could do in solfege; sometimes I wrote one verse as a canon, and I wasn't shy about using some unison passages from time to time.  In the end, the arrangements were varied and at a perfect place for them to push themselves forward, but also be successful.  

I wish I knew of a "trick" or two that could help you out immediately - but I don't....  Just thought I'd share so you knew you weren't alone.  Keep up the great work!
on January 29, 2014 7:59am
Your altos are not unique.  Learning to sing in parts isn't easy if you've never been asked to do it before.  I've encountered similar problems with my young altos in my church youth choir.  What I've found is that it is harder for the altos to hold their own part when the music is homophonic.  What I started to do was pick 2-part music in which all the voices sang the melody at the beginning, and at the end the sopranos (and I usually put my young boys with the sopranos because the range fit better in their voices) take off and sing a descant or counter-melody of some kind.  One might think, "Golly - but I'm trying to teach them harmony."  Yes, that might be the end goal, but FIRST they have to learn independence.  If the sopranos are indeed the strong section, give them the hard part and let the altos sing the melody.  Eventually - and it might take a couple of years (it did for me) - the altos will feel independence enough to try some homophonic harmony.  Give it time, measure progress in millimeters if necessary, and compliment more than criticize.  
Good luck!  
on January 29, 2014 12:20pm
Very good suggestions, above.   One more point, perhaps: most young singers are Sopranos, if female, and Baritone-ish if male.  So change the choir around: make your nominal altos sing soprano, your sopranos sing alto.    Just for fun, of course.  You'll see some of the observations above are very true.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on January 29, 2014 12:58pm
I echo other thoughts here, that this is not a unique problem, and that lots of "music off the shelf' is too hard for beginning choirs.  I also think sometimes our singers with higher music apptitude, greater kinesthetic intelligence, or who are just gifted with a especially facile vocal mechanisms have range and so are classified as sopranos, and some of our singers who by virtue of either struggling to audiate and are less sure of the higher pitches they are aiming for, or who struggle to find a an efficient female head voice setting - are classified as altos.  I think all adolescent women can be taught to have a solid octave-and-a-half vocal range, from about Ab below middle C up to Eb at the top of the treble staff, andthat  they can all be taught to sing harmony.  A few things that have helped me:
1. Find out who has some prior music reading expereince - piano, violin lessons, sings at church or in a children's chorus, etc. - and put only those students on the harmony part.  I used to evenly divide my grade 4 and 5 choirs, and expect them all to sing two parts, and it was a mess.  After reading "Sound Advice", by Jean Battle Ashworth I tried putting everybody on melody, and putting a core group of 6-8 kids (choir of 45 voices) on the harmony part.  It was magic!  Once they become secure, you can start to have other voices join them.
2. Judy Bowers, from one of the colleges in Florida, has a great "heirarchy" of song types to teach part singing.  It goes something like:
melody against drones
melody against ostinatos
partner songs
songs with concurrent independant parts (think Handel, or many Stephen Hatfield arrangements)
homophonic harmony in 3rds and 6ths
There are some partner songs that older middle school kids will sing that aren't too silly.  "A Distant Shore" by Mary Donnely and George Strid was succesful for me.  I also like some of the material out of the "Voiceworks" books by Peter Hunt (expensive because they are imported, but good)
Good luck and hang in there!
Dave Piper
Applauded by an audience of 2
on January 29, 2014 2:09pm
As I read this discussion I have not read anything about vocal technic.  Especially the alto voice needs guidance since most of the notes written for them lie exactly on the lower break in the voice.  It is vitally important to work in every rehearsal on the correct way to use the voice----posture, breath, relaxed jaw, etc.... That can be accomplished during the daily vocal warmup, first explaining and having all students experience and learn these thinkgs; second to consistently reinforce the vocal habits taught.  I have always allowed 8-12 minutes for vocal warmup, including regular chipping away at the basic technic, and sight reading.  Learning new skills takes time and perseverance.  By the end of the school year one can expect a significant amount of progress in music reading and vocal technic.  Including daily sight reading exercises is absolutely necessary.  For at least 40 years I have used Jack Boyd's "Teaching Choral Sight Reading" finding great success with my choirs in learning to read music.  One can use numbers to begin with, switching later fo solfege, and as students gain some ability in reading the "pesky little black dots," confidence begins to build and progress has begun..  The only drawback to my suggesting Boyd's book is that it is permanently out of print.  I think there may be a few copies available on EBay or other such sites.  In the foreword of his book, Boyd gives permission to copy the 80 pages of exercises, thereby not violating any laws.   However. I would be willing to help you acquire these copies, if you are interested.  I don't offer this to make money!  I offer it because I want to help music education be successful.  Only remibursement for copying and postage is all I would expect.
on February 1, 2014 4:16pm
Amazon has a few copies. I bought one today. 
on January 31, 2014 12:06am
Thank you all so very much!  I will be using your suggestions straight away.  I found Jack Boyd's book "Teaching Choral Sight Reading" on ebay and purchased it. 'll see if I can find "Sound Advice" too. Is there a book or a music list based on Judy Bower's work on the heirarchy? 
I like the suggestion to put everyone on melody except a core of those who can keep the harmony.  I will try that too.  I work technique constantly and do a thorough warmup each class.  I did the "Diva's Only" and the "Rich Chocolatey" Lower notes today.  They all liked that!  
I have a bit of trouble working in the Music Fundamental exercises.  I always seem to run out of time.  We have block schedule so I have them on T & TH from 1:10-2:50 with a 10 minute break. Then on Fridays for either 30 or 50 minutes depending on the week.  As many of you said, as a new teacher I have much to learn about classroom & time management.  Your gems of wisdom are a great resource for me.
Thank you, also, for the support about being a new teacher.  Since I came through the back door, so to speak, I feel the lack of the Music Education training you've all had.  I worked with adults for so long and it is really different working with children.  I have a 2nd-8th grade choir at one charter school and a High School choir too.  So, again, thank you for your knowledge and your wisdom!
More suggestions are always welcome!!!
on February 2, 2014 3:43am
Hi Bernadette,
Train your choir to be Tonal Beasts!  
1. Solfege everything you can as often as you can, every rehearsal, make it the culture of your choir.  We use solfege.
2. Teach them to love singing (and reading) music for its harmonic and melodic interest- NOT its rhythmic interest!!
3. Ostinatos: have other sections drone ostinatos while rehearsing separate section
4. pitch memory: no piano notes, no singing notes for them.  Tell your accompanist to play nothing unless you ask for it.  Make students find all starting pitches.  If they don't know, make guess and check with piano.  Assign section leaders and give them tuning forks to A 440.
5. Memorize an A 440: teach your choir to memorize, as an ensemble, an A 440.  
6. Teach your choir to find starting notes from an A 440.
7. When working on their signature piece have them memorize certain starting pitches within the song.  When they are good they might even be able to find, as an ensemble, starting chords...  But that is rarer...
8. Vocal ped for pitch problems: lip trill rep, sense of "lift" in voice, 
on February 4, 2014 10:15pm
I have found that usuing a VISUAL TUNER (not that expensive) and asking them:
1 - "There is a green light that activates when you are PERFECTLY in tune.  There are red lights on either side.  Keep your pitch between the Reds and GLOW GREEN."
2 - " There is also a needle that shows you if you are below ON or above pitch.  Get it to point STRAIGHT UP,  toward the GREEEEEEEEEEN button"
and using (as above) the BEST vocal techniques (no tension, no neck strain) with your diaphragm, teach them to MOVE pitch up and down in micro-intervals.  THAT is
how we tune....small increments.  By the way, these tuners also tune 2, 3, or 4 parts as well.  Ask them to sing with someone in tune and DEVELOP THEIR EAR.  The
tuner does not lie.
on February 10, 2014 9:19am
Stuart Hunt, I must beg to differ: the tuner indeed lies.   A 'natural' singer will sing a different major third than the tuner says, and be right.  
on February 11, 2014 5:31am
Update: I came back too late to edit my comment ... your exercise, however, is great for getting a group to understand that there IS a pitch, and that it's in their control to move it around and tune it.  
on March 7, 2014 8:25am
I work with a wide age range. My "tricks" for teaching harmonizing (which is what it seems they have trouble with):
Rounds. I always start the beginning groups on rounds. Not in concert but as part of rehearsal. 
Rounds resources:
Also, I have them sing up the scale and as we go down each group holds a note. I use this to teach them to not move to the note above them. Initially I sing with them, then stop, then break into more parts. The same with the rounds. We start in two parts, and then I tell them to split. The challenge being how many groups can we split into before they get lost. (I have a couple rounds that can have up to 8 parts)
This is a more then once thing. There is no quick fix. Start with 5th, 4th intervals on the scale up and holding on the way down. The third is hard for them to hear sometimes. 
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