How I teach - A school choir sets the tone

Singing gives pupils confidence and can benefit the community

Gerald Haigh

"So," says the headteacher of your new school. "It's about time we had somebody who knows about music." You smile, guiltily - your expertise is limited to grade 4 on the piano.

"What I'd really like to see," the headteacher continues, leaning eagerly across his desk, "is a good choir. What do you think?"

You mutter something about doing your best, but you dare not admit that you have no idea where to start.

I once found myself in that very position, but over the course of my career I ended up learning quite a bit about school choirs. So, here's my advice for teachers who are starting one.

Where do I begin?

Ideally, not with a choir at all. You'll have a happier, bigger and better choir if it grows from a whole-school singing culture. Sing as much as possible with your classes. When singing in assembly, sit near to your pupils to encourage them. Work to build this culture and the message will get through to colleagues and senior leadership that singing is a confidence-building, inclusive, morale-boosting activity worth taking seriously.

What should I do on Day 1?

Plunge into a song the children already know, then coach them in areas for improvement. The message that will mark your choir leadership is: "Singing is challenging, but you can do it. Getting it right will give you, and others, joy and satisfaction."

What about auditions?

Some teachers - often those who have been, or are, members of a highly accomplished singing group - want to create the perfect selective choir. To them I say: in education we aim for inclusion and are dedicated to the business of learning.

Do I need to play the piano?

It helps, but use it sparingly. It is better to teach pupils by singing. When you need an accompanist for a concert, you can always find one.

Do I need to sing?

Of course. You must model confidence, production, articulation and tuning. You will soon be able to call upon individuals and groups who can demonstrate what you are looking for.

Should I know about voice production?

  • Aim for the basics, using catchphrases such as:
  • "Strong here" (smack your tummy).
  • "Loose here" (wiggle your shoulders and neck).
  • "Feet planted" (preferably on a hard floor, not carpet).
  • "Show your top teeth" (smile).
  • "Feed long notes with breath" (aim for a beautiful legato).
    • When should we practise?

Try three or four 10-minute sessions a week and a couple of longer after-school rehearsals when a big event is looming. Frequent short sessions produce good learning and retention.

What about performance?

Children need to experience performance at an early stage - typically, in an assembly for parents. As you improve, get your choir performing in local events whenever you can.

What does this have to do with education?

Pupils will experience selfless collaboration. Less able singers will blossom. Eventually, the school will smile more. Get it right and you will bestow a blessing on your school and community.

Gerald Haigh is a retired teacher

Top 10 resources for choirs and singing

1. Let there be sight

Sight-reading makes everything run smoothly. Use these games to provide an engaging introduction to this most important of musical skills.

2. Heralding harmony

Watch teachers from very different schools come together to form an unlikely choir in this video from Teachers TV.

3. Back to Bach

Are your pupils baffled by Bach? This revision guide to the composer's chorales saves time and consolidates the basics.

4. Proper polyphony

This video shows a panel of experts providing a clear demonstration of choral polyphony.

5. French forte

If your students struggle to speak French, why not get them to sing it instead?

6. Songs of Sofia

A video exploring a traditional Bulgarian folk-singing technique.

7. Moving tunes

What better way for children to say goodbye to school than by singing about moving on.

8. Windpipe warm-up

Tongue-twisters will warm up pupils' vocal cords before they embark on a musical journey.

9. Give it some Oompa

Challenge your students to compose songs in the style of those sung by Willy Wonka's diminutive companions.

10. Response required

Learn a traditional call-and-response song from Uganda with the help of this video and information sheet.

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Gerald Haigh

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