The Basics of How to Teach a Choir Song
What are the best practices for how to teach a song to a gospel choir? Teaching songs well is the most important skill a gospel choir director needs. Everyone sees you standing in front of the choir, waving your arms to give them direction, but the real work takes place in rehearsal.
When you’re a beginning choir director, preparing and teaching songs may be an intimidating task. But with practice, it gets more natural and comfortable.
Steps for Teaching a Choir Song
- Study the song thoroughly.
- Decide on your arrangement of the song.
- Present the song to the musicians.
- Think about how you want to teach the song to the choir.
- Start teaching!
- Do it again at another rehearsal.
1. Study the Song Thoroughly.
The choir director should know all the parts! To be ready to teach a song, you have to know it. Study the song until it becomes a part of you, until you know it backward and forward. Some gospel choir songs have sheet music you can learn from, but most do not. You’ll usually be studying the song by listening to a recording. If you’re a beginning choir director, you may need to spend a lot of time training yourself to hear the individual soprano, alto, and tenor parts in the music.
Listen to the song and sing along with it. Practice singing the soprano part until you can sing the entire part correctly without stumbling. Now repeat the process singing the alto part until you have that down pat. Now do the tenor part, then the bass part (if there is one). Yes, you will be listening to the same song over and over and over. Yes, you will drive your family nuts. Even if you use headphones, you will still test their patience because you’ll be singing along, over and over and over.
Tips for Learning the Song
- If you have a higher voice, like most females, you probably can’t hit the lowest notes on the tenor and bass parts. Likewise, if you have a low voice, like most males, you would not be able to reach the high soprano notes. Just sing the part an octave higher or an octave lower when you need to. The important thing is that you have full command of the part.
- For extra insurance, you might want to write down some notes that you can use as a reminder when you’re teaching the song in rehearsal. If you know a little bit of music theory, you can make note of the scale tones that each part starts on.
When you stand before the choir you want to be fully confident that you can teach every part. Your goal is to be able to do this yourself without having to ask the musician, “What’s the alto part on the chorus?”
2. Decide on Your Arrangement of the Song.
Are you going to do the song exactly the way it is on the recording? The recorded version might be just right for your group and your purpose, but if not, adjust things to meet your own needs.
You might decide to do the song in a different key, based on the vocal ranges of your choir members. You might also want to speed the song up or slow it down to get a different feel. Decide if you want to make any changes to the vocal parts or the words.
Some Good Tips About Song Arrangement
- In some cases you might need to simplify a song. If you are going to have a limited amount of rehearsal time, you could leave out a complicated passage or stick with only one vamp (repeating chorus) when the song might have two or three of them.
- If you’re working with a choir of less-experienced singers, you may also leave out key changes and inversions (that’s when the tenors jump to the alto part, the altos go to the soprano part, and the sopranos go up into the stratosphere).
- If you don’t have a lead singer, you might leave out the lead verse.
- Another option (when there’s no lead singer) is to have a whole section of the choir sing the lead verse. Our choir has a couple of songs where the whole soprano section or the whole alto sections sings a verse that was done by a soloist on the record. This works best if the verse has a very straightforward tune and rhythm that don’t need a lot of embellishments, otherwise you’re better off just leaving out the verse.
- On the flip side, if you’re going to be singing for a special occasion, you might decide to add some extra flourishes to a song. Add a dramatic introduction. Give it a more elaborate ending. Whatever you feel.
- Also, make plans for the instruments. On some songs you might want the full band. On others, maybe just a couple of instruments. You might also begin the song with just the piano, then bring the rest of the instruments in.
- Do you want the drummer to use the sticks or the brushes? Remember that tone is important.
Once you’ve decided how the song is going to be performed, then you’re ready to present it.
POLL - What does your choir like to sing?
What kind of music does your choir like to learn the most?
3. Present the Song to the Musicians.
Your choir rehearsal will go much better if the musicians already know the music. Trying to teach both the singers and the instruments at the same time makes for a long rehearsal. The singers will have a much harder time learning their parts if the instruments are still trying to figure out the song and making mistakes along the way. Bring the song to the musicians ahead of time so that they’ll be ready.
Consider How Your Musicians Learn Best
As you know, your gospel musicians probably don’t read sheet music. With some, you can just hand them the CD and they handle the rest. (We all love musicians like that!) Others may need a paper that shows them the chords. This is called a lead sheet or a fake sheet. If you’re familiar with chords, you can write out a fake sheet yourself. If you need help, there are some websites that provide chords for many well-known gospel songs. One very popular site is the Chorded Songs page provided by Earnest and Roline Ministries. There are also great sites for a collection of chorded-out songs.
Talk to your musicians about how much advance time they need before a song is going to be taught to the choir.
4. How Do You Want to Teach? What’s Your Lesson Plan?
When you’re teaching the singers, you want them to start getting an understanding and a feel for the song as soon as possible. Decide beforehand what you think will be the most effective way to teach the song so that they’ll grasp it well.
For a lot of songs, it will work fine to just start singing the first part of the song and proceed from there. However, with some songs, you might want to take a different approach. If a song has a lot of words, you should probably present the words first before the tune. If there are complex rhythms, talk through the song with them at a slower speed, if necessary. Once they have the rhythm down, then teach the melody.
Ask Yourself Which Vocal Part You Will Teach First
Usually, in gospel choir songs, the sopranos have the melody. This makes them a natural first choice. But, if the altos or tenors are the part that really holds a particular passage together, start with them.
If a song is long or complicated, consider teaching just a portion of it at one rehearsal, then teaching the rest of it the next time.
Tips on teaching Vocal Parts by the Choir Directing Community
- If you’re going to be doing the song about the same as the original recording, you may want to play the recording for the choir when you first present it.
- The choir can hear the finished product and perhaps sing along with it. This can give them a boost of confidence and generate some excitement about the song.
- Remember to be prepared to take questions at any time.
POLL - How do your musicians learn best?
What is the most effective way to teach music to the musicians you work with?
5. Start Teaching!
OK! You’re all prepared, the musicians know the music, the choir is here, let’s go!
My motto for choir teaching is “Drill, baby, drill!” You’ll notice as you read that I use words like “repeat” and “again” and “over” a whole lot. This is an important point. Since gospel choirs sing from memory, parts must be repeated until they’ve been internalized. Drill, baby, drill.
Deal With Mistakes Right Away.
- Give the choir a little bit at a time. Whichever part you’re starting with (usually the sopranos, but not always), give them one line at a time. You demonstrate it first, and then have them sing it back to you. Let them repeat the line until they look and sound like they’re comfortable with it. Then add the next line to it and repeat that until they’ve really got it. Then bring the two lines together and make sure that they can sing them smoothly. Keep adding a line at a time until they have learned the whole verse.
- After they have the whole verse, move on to the next group of singers and repeat the process. When they have learned the verse too, you may want to have the two parts sing it together, or you may want to move on to the third group of singers right away. When all the parts have learned the verse, have them sing it again together. Make sure that everyone is able to keep on their part even when they’re hearing the other parts singing. If anyone seems unclear on their part go back over it. It is important to deal with mistakes right away. If you let someone sing a part incorrectly several times, it will be difficult for them to unlearn those wrong notes.
Practice Your Transitions!
- After the choir learns one portion of the song, go on to the next portion (the chorus or bridge or whatever). Teach it the same way, a part at a time, a line at a time. Be sure to practice the transitions from one portion of the song to another! Some choir directors make the mistake of teaching each portion in isolation and the choir has trouble figuring out how to get from the chorus to the bridge (“Do we wait four beats, or do we come straight in?”).
- After you’ve taught the whole song, sing it again from beginning to end. If the choir is hearing the song for the first time, they may have forgotten the beginning parts by the time you get to the end. Go over the whole thing to refresh their memories.
- Let your choir members know that they can ask questions at any time during the rehearsal. If there is a part they are unsure about, you want them to ask you immediately. Otherwise they might forget the question. And every time someone asks a question there are probably two or three other people who were wondering the same thing.
6. Do It Again at Another Rehearsal!
Don’t expect the choir to remember a song perfectly after only one practice. Once they leave the rehearsal, they will start to forget. You will need to rehearse the song at least two or three times before you can be confident that they will be ready to sing it in a church service.
There are very few songs that are easy enough to learn in only one rehearsal. If you need suggestions for super-easy songs, you can check out my one-rehearsal songs page. Otherwise, plan to practice a song several times before you sing it.
At the second rehearsal, try having them sing the song all together as if it were an actual performance. They might be able to do it, or they might be shaky on their parts. That is normal. If you need to teach the parts again, go ahead. It won’t take as long as it did at the first rehearsal.
I hope this gives you some ideas and some inspiration for teaching your choir. I'd love to know that you came by. Feel free to leave a comment or a question.
POLL - Which vocal part struggles the most in your choir?
Which singers have to work the hardest to learn their parts in your choir?
Questions & Answers
My church choir has about 10-12 regular members with what I've experienced as a usual mix of people who can read and people who can't. They are all wonderful and work hard. I plan rehearsals with sufficient lead time before they have to perform but we always fall behind and end up frantically trying to finish something at the last minute. It just seems to take too long to learn a piece. Do you have tips for troubleshooting an excessive need for more rehearsal time?
If your choir members are working hard when they practice, then I would be inclined to just start practicing the songs further in advance. How much time is sufficient to lead can vary from one group to another. The main choir I direct (a small church gospel choir) has their major concert near Thanksgiving. We start practicing for it in June. With other new songs, I usually start teaching them almost a month before we perform them. I have found that that is the amount of time my particular choir needs, and I just go with it.Helpful 3