When I took over the entire high school choral program more than two decades ago, the previous choir director had a tradition with his “top” choir.
When learning one of the choir traditions, O Come Emanuel, the following “traditional” event would occur at the start of each year:
The senior officers would place all 80-100 choir member names in a hat, and pull out a name. That student would stand up at their seat and sing a verse of “O Come Emanuel” by themselves. They would do this for several days. When each student finished singing, the entire class would applaud, as if they had just be indoctrinated into their choir fraternity.
This, is not an approach I recommend for having students sing solo. Putting students on the spot in a ‘trial by fire’ situation is a control tactic and creates the opposite approach to a comfortable learning environment.
While I believe we should expect our singers to sing by themselves, every opportunity should be one that is handled with care and consideration for their well being. Our primary goal is to foster a positive learning environment. Within that learning environment, we want every student to thrive. This can only happen when they become accountable. Accountability comes from solo singing and does not necessarily need to come from teacher grading.
Here Are My 5 Do’s for Requiring Students to Sing Solo:
I believe every year, I need to hear every student. It gives me the opportunity to build their confidence, to help them to further understand their vocal technique, to get to know them as a person, to help them to self-assess their own vocal growth, to figure out where they are best suited within the choir, and to help motivate them to improve. I voice all of my students to start the year. I meet with my singers in small groups and have each student sing a simple exercise together before asking each singer to sing the same series of exercises by themselves. Each singer sings for less than 3 minutes by themselves as I can easily hear 10-15 singers in one 40 minute period. This experience could be mutually beneficial quarterly or following each major concert!
2. Teaching rounds in class
Rounds are the bridge between solo repertoire and choral repertoire. A round is a means for all singers to learn a melody together. Since most rounds have a range of an octave, students are developing their voice in a way that is different than singing a more limited and less interesting choral vocal line. Once the choir has sung in unison and broken up into the canon, I recommend asking singers to hold their melodic part independently with other singers. In essence, they are singing their part solo but not alone. Some easy rounds I recommend are Jubilate Deo and Viva La Musica. I have a Thanksgiving Round that is slightly longer, more challenging and also useful for an upcoming performance, especially since it ends on a pretty chord. The Thanksgiving/Fall Gratitude Round is also a great bridge into sight-singing as it is fully diatonic and has very simple rhythm.
3. Teaching solo repertoire in class, perform solo at home
When we teach solo repertoire, singers can build upon the concept of singing rounds. Everyone learns the melody at the same time. When students sing a melody, it builds confidence differently than a harmony that can’t stand on it’s own. After teaching a solo, provide an accompaniment recording for singers to practice with at home. From there, you can encourage or require them to sing their solo song with a Flipgrid assignment (set it for private viewing so only the teacher can view). By singing at home, singers are not subject to having to sing in front of others. Additionally, they can sing without a mask, so this aids in our ability to help them.
4. Giving Sight-Singing homework
Sight-singing homework, besides being beneficial in developing reading skills, can also develop confidence and independence in each singer. I recommend using Sight Reading Factory (10% discount with code: ChoralClarity) with student accounts. In addition to teaching sight-singing in class daily, students can receive individualized homework based on their skill level. Since they will be performing in the comfort of their own home, we can minimize the fear factor. My students receive a weekly homework assignment. I explain my approach (how I assign and grade sight-singing) in great depth in the blog post below.
5. Using Choral Rehearsal Tracks for home practice and home performance
Choral Rehearsal Tracks teach singers how to sing independently. High-quality choral rehearsal tracks will teach singers about independent musicianship: shape, tone, and dynamics. These three aspects of singing are often lacking in average and less confident singers, as the students are primarily focused on singing the correct pitches. By giving singers rehearsal tracks for home practice, we can also require them to submit a Flipgrid of them singing their part. Keep in mind, they can/should be permitted to sing their part with the professional choral rehearsal track in their ear.
I highly recommend using Kinnison Choral Co. for all choral tracks, as I believe they produce the highest quality tracks on the market. In preparation for this post, I reached out to them and they were willing to offer 30% off any 3 choral tracks in their library to my readers for the first half of November. Use code: CHORALCLARITY30 at checkout! If you ever wonder why so many high school a-cappella singers look to confident, as opposed to typical choral singers, it may be because they have gained an extra level of independence and confidence using choral rehearsal tracks.
Check out the Kinnison Choral Co.’s complete song list. My choirs are currently working on Salmo 150 by Ernani Aguiar and Ad Astra by Jacob Naverud. One of my all-time favorite choral pieces is I Choose Love by Mark Miller. This piece is simple and beautiful.
If you are looking to add an element of assessment to home performance, I recommend using a self-assessment. The assessment I created could also be used by a teacher to assess a student. By allowing singers to record themselves while listening to the part in their ear, we are setting them up to be successful. More advanced singers can use the provided tracks to sing their part against all other parts (their voice part can been omitted from the track). Our singers can record over and over again until they are happy with their performance.
By expecting students to sing by themselves through positive reinforcement, we have opened that door to motivating them to exceed expectations. There are many other healthy ways to foster solo singing in a choral setting. Some teachers have created an environment where all students feel comfortable singing by themselves. In my self-selected choral program, all students sing by themselves in sectionals and rotating lessons; in rehearsal, many students sing by themselves voluntarily.
Regardless of how we choose to foster individual singing, our first priority needs to be the well being of our singers; we want them to love making music. In the end, I believe independent singing is a critical part of gaining this love because the more confidence they gain in singing, the more appreciation they will have for the art form. Everyone can be taught to match pitch and everyone can learn to sing. I believe all members of our choirs should be expected to individually contribute and grow; each individual contribution will improve the choir exponentially.