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The Untamed Journey
by Gavin Spencer, Chair, Northern Region, CA-ACDA
(reprinted by permisssion from "Cantate," Fall - 2008, Douglas Lynn, Editor)

spencerCan you believe we're back in school already? During my summer break, it is against the rules for my friends to mention how many weeks or days remain before the first day of school. I hope you had an opportunity to charge those teaching batteries and strengthen the soul with the spirit of music.

After experiencing the genius of Dr. Z. Randall Stroope and Dr. Charlene Archibeque at the Summer Conference at ECCO, I feel primed and equipped to leap on board for an untamed journey through another school year.

At many schools, the first major event of the school year is regional and state honor choir auditions. The auditions take place on September 20 and 27, and October 4, depending on your school's geographic location. That doesn't give you much time to prepare your young singers for their audition. If finding time is your concern, please read on for some suggestions that will save you time, more adequately prepare your auditionees, and have every student in your program proficient in performing these foundational exercises required for the audition.

The skills demonstrated in the audition are fundamentals for our students, regardless of their desire to be in honor choir. Why not save yourself valuable time and allow every single student in your program to learn those skills together? It's a win-win.

Every student should have the opportunity to sing an Italian art song at least once in his/her lifetime. This is the perfect opportunity.

Select one song (from Schirmer's 24 Italian Songs and Arias) per class and spend a few minutes teaching it each day. Most students can have the song learned and memorized in a week or two from just participating in the daily rehearsal. Then if someone wants to audition—even at the last minute, a song will already be in place. I also give each student a CD with the piano accompaniment. It can be purchased with a book if you wish. One of my most well-respected colleagues told me she followed this similar practice. It turns out that one of her classes loved their Italian art song so much, they were offended when it wasn't programmed into their next concert.

Students love them! I taught "Sebben Crudele" to my beginning men's choir last fall and they had a ball with it. I urge you to give it a chance—you might be surprised.
Teaching students to sing major and minor triads and major and chromatic scales is a core concept that must be taught to everyone.

Excluding the chromatic scale, these patterns are quite easy to teach and don't take much time. Teaching the chromatic scale is somewhat more challenging. There are several different methods for naming tones in this particular scale. Some directors teach students to count from 1-13 and others use the text "Mary Had a Little Lamb" while others use note names (C-C#-D-etc…).

If students are familiar with the keyboard, a method that Dr. Charlene Archibeque implements is to have students close their eyes and physically play the pitches on an imaginary piano. Note that students may use whatever fingering they wish, even if it only requires one finger. The physical action of playing the notes bridges the vocal coordination of matching the correct pitches in the pattern. This technique works exceptionally well.
Since sight singing demands such a generous amount of daily attention, you now have an additional motive to ensure it happens effectively.

Use a method that you are comfortable with and be consistent. No matter what method you choose, consistent daily practice will bring well-deserved success to your students. If you need to implement a new method of sight singing, just practice with your students. You will internalize it quite rapidly. In my opinion, sight singing becomes laborious when copied examples and/or books have to be distributed to students frequently.

Here's what I do now, and I love it. I bought a subscription to www.choraltech.org (an online sight-singing program) a few years ago and with it came a PDF file of 700 sight-reading examples that progress from easy to difficult. In my classroom, sight-singing examples are cast onto a screen on the wall using an LCD projector. The class can now read it together. NO MORE PAPERS OR SIGHT-SINGING BOOKS! The logistics of sight singing are finally simple.

The remaining fundamental is tonal memory. This portion of the audition is simple to practice and very beneficial for aural training.

Play a five-note passage on the piano and have the class replicate it in a "call and response" style. Start with a simple pattern and progressively construct them to become more complex. I prefer to challenge the ladies and gentlemen separately so it can be done in the appropriate octave. This can be done in less than two minutes per class period.
Practicing these fundamental characteristics of singing in the classroom will make all your students better musicians. However, this is not a substitute for individual practice. Nor does it eliminate the students' need to receive one-on-one coaching. But now your time can be spent polishing and perfecting prepared music instead of laboriously drilling scales and triads for each and every student individually.

Lastly, teach your students to be confident. Teach them to reach their potential by creating the most beautiful art possible. Teach them character development and genuinely expressive communication. Teach them about classy dress and how to enter a room with poise and dignity. Teach them the value of honest and comprehensive preparation.
Teach them to be a star, but with grace and humility.

I hope many of you will give your kids the opportunity to be a participant in what may be a life-changing chapter in their lives.

Anton Armstrong of St. Olaf College inspired me as a high school student in the Oregon All-State Honor Choir. For me, that experience was the decisive moment in my life that led me to become a choral conductor.

Many of my own students have been everlastingly touched by the honor choir experience and so can yours. I challenge you to go for it. ♦

 

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