I have spent several weeks already going through John Bertalot’s 5 Wheels to Successful Sight-Singing and there will be a number more. I would also like to direct readers to his webpage containing 35 articles on various aspects of leading a choir. Every one is an absolute gem. Please, please read them! You will not be disappointed.
Wheel Four-Theory and Practice Bertalot writes “Every theoretical point must be made practical and vice versa. Sing what that see, see what they sing.” In the very first rehearsal when you draw a staff and treble clef on the board to explain what they mean, you must then make it practical by putting music in front of the choristers and asking them to explain it. When you draw the first note on the board and teach them that it is a G, you must then have them sing it. Then put a piece of music in front of them and ask them how many Gs they can find. This must happen with every concept you teach them.
Wheel Five-Steer the Car As Bertalot points out, the most important wheel on a car is the steering wheel, and the choir director needs to have a firm grip on that wheel. A lot of this deals with discipline in the choir room. If you have good discipline in the classroom, teaching your choristers will be much easier. Bertalot says “The children must learn quickly to respond to what I say. They must realize that I mean everything I tell them. Children need boundaries within which they can work. If they learn that you don’t really mean what you say, they won’t know where they are, and they’ll call the shots. From the children’s very first practice on, they need to know that the boundaries are there to help them achieve the great things that I have in store for them.” Go out and Steer the car!
In my previous post on John Bertalot’s 5 Wheels to Successful Sight-Singing, I wrote about the Great Secret, namely, “every moment of all practices must be geared to sight-singing.” Today I would like to write about the Five Wheels themselves (the actual 12 steps he outlines on how to teach sight-singing come after the Five Wheels, so please be patient). I will list them below with a little commentary following each wheel (Bertalot compares these to the wheels of an automobile. You will see in the next post where the 5th wheel enters).
Wheel One-Passion It sounds rather like a cliche to write that one needs to have passion for what one does, but it is true. If you are going to teach your choir to sight-sing, it has to be an obsession with you. This determination will force you to make decisions about what your choir will sing and how you will teach those pieces of music. If you don’t make this an over-riding priority you will not succeed at it. I have personally reached the point where I am not willing to compromise on this issue with my choristers, even if it means cancelling a motet they don’t have time to learn by sight. I will not go back and you mustn’t either.
Wheel Two-Small Groups Bertalot believes that ideally one would teach one student at a time (he feels that two students take twice as long to teach as one student) so that no chorister falls through the cracks or get by using another chorister as a crutch, however, he takes four students at a time because of time constraints. I find this wheel difficult because the choir master never has enough time in his day and training 10 new singers individually doesn’t fit into his schedules. I currently have 13 new students that I see as a group, and while it goes much slower with this many students, it is what works for my schedule. You will have to figure this out for yourself, but smaller is better.
Wheel Three-Teach One Step at a Time I remember the exact rehearsal with my choristers when I finally slowed down enough (I wanted my kids to sound like Westminster Cathedral as soon as possible) that I taught only one concept at a time and made them figure out the music on their own. We made it through only 4 measures of a new hymn in 15 minutes (unison only), but those minutes flew past and every child was thoroughly engaged and enjoying himself. It was great! So… what did it look like? First they figured out the key and time signatures, then they clapped the rhythm until they had it right. Next, they sang through the hymn in solfege without worrying about rhythm. Then they put pitch and rhythm together, after which they added text. It sounds tedious (and it is), but two years later it goes much faster.
Another thing to remember is not to skip important steps or concepts you take for granted. Think of the grand staff. How many directors teach the staff as having 5 lines? That is true, but only half true. The staff also has 4 spaces, which are just as important as the lines. You would be amazed how long it takes to stick in the minds of some choristers that the scale moves from line to space (or vice versa), rather than line to line (rarely ever do they think it moves from space to space). Make sure you are teaching only one step at a time and that your steps build one on another in a logical sequence. And don’t skip important concepts!
Before I begin this week’s post, I want to make a correction to something I wrote last week regarding John Bertalot’s Practical Secret, namely, condition choirs so that you only have to tell them once. I used the example of a chorister who is not listening when the director tells the choir where in the music they are to begin singing. I made the point that you should not repeat your instruction, because then the choristers know they don’t have to listen the first time around–surely you will repeat it a second, and possibly a third time. I wrote that one should instead plow forward so that the student has to figure it out on his own. While it is true that one should not repeat the instruction a second time in the usual manner and then move on, it is, nevertheless, not true that one should move forward in the way I wrote (students who love choir, but struggle musically, or ones who know musical concepts well, but would rather be goofing off, usually won’t put forth the effort to catch up, which leads to much bigger problems) . The afternoon after I posted the article, I stood in front of my choristers and that very example became reality, and I realized I needed to do things differently. I gave the choir an instruction, but one student chose not to listen the first time I said it. What I did is what is sometimes referred to in education circles as the “no opt out.” When said student asked me to repeat what I had said, I looked to another student and asked the second student to repeat what I said. Then (and this is absolutely important!!!) I returned to the original student and asked him to repeat the instruction so that he knew that I would not let him get away with sitting there. It is amazing how well this works and it eliminates so many behavioral problems with choristers. Alright, on to this week’s topic–The Great Secret.
Oh, what would it be like to hand my choristers a motet they had never seen and then lift my hands and go? Oh wait, that is a bi-weekly occurrence in the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum (my group of choristers). Last week I handed my choristers Victoria’s O vos omnes, which they will sing on Palm Sunday as well as during our 3 p.m. service on Good Friday. This is how I began (the story you are about to read is true, but the names have been changed to protect the innocent!).
Me: Susie, what key are are we in? You are correct, Bb minor.
I didn’t explain that Renaissance music could be sung in any key you liked or that we were really in a mode as opposed to a key. I was just happy I had 4th through 8th grade students who were singing Victoria. At this point I played the scale and chord structure of Bb minor and asked them to sing lah, which they did correctly (they knew that the minor began on lah).
Me: Choir, please sing lah. (I didn’t repeat lah for them after playing the scale. They had to be able to figure it out on their own, which they did.)
Me: Johnny, what time signature are we in? Yes, Johnny, we are in cut time. Edward, what does that mean? That is correct, it stand for 2/2. Sarah, what does the top 2 mean and what does the bottom 2 mean? Yes, the top number means two beats per measure and the bottom number means that the half note gets the beat.
Me: As we learn this piece, we will read it as if it were in 4/4 (this works best for my choristers as a whole).
Me: Sopranos and altos, I would like both parts to sing the alto line through measure 16 on solfege, one note at a time. We will focus on rhythm later (be specific in your instructions!).
I asked both the sopranos and altos to sing because It was a good reading exercise for all the students (I did not play a single note on the piano to help them). This didn’t go perfectly (70 percent the first time through). I had to focus on a couple of the difficult leaps. Next, both parts worked on the rhythm.
Me: Sopranos and altos, I would like both parts to clap the the rhythm and speak the beat of the alto line through measure 16 (all I did was establish the speed of the beat).
My choristers have a fairly good grasp on whole notes, halves and quarters so this line was not a problem (If the line had contained a dotted quarter note, I would have had to stop and make sure a few of the choristers were sure of this rhythm.) At this point, I asked both parts to sing the line again, this time in correct rhythm. Next, I repeated the process with the soprano line. Lastly we put the two parts together, which they sang at about 90% accuracy (the entire process took only 5 minutes). We spent 15 minutes on the piece and learned through sicut dolor meus (no Latin yet). Not bad.
If I had taught this piece by rote, it would have taken the choir 15 minutes just to learn the first 16 measures (and they would have forgotten this before the next rehearsal). I write all of this because it ties in to John Bertalot’s Great Secret: Every moment of all practices must be geared to sight-singing. If you are going to teach your choir to sight-sing, you must be relentless (in a fun way) about it. Yes, it takes a lot of time and effort in the beginning, but it pays off in the end. Bertalot’s goal was to teach each chorister to read well enough that he or she could sing any of the choruses from Handel’s Messiah by sight after three years. Now THAT is a time saver. We will get to the how of teaching sight-singing later, but for now, MAKE THE DECISION TO TEACH YOUR CHORISTERS HOW TO READ MUSIC. You AND your choristers will be grateful!