Tuesday, August 11, 2015

How to Have a Successful Elementary Choir

I won’t pretend that my choir has the perfect sound, perfect attendance, perfectly behaved students, or perfect concerts, but I have a good choir culture, kids who love choir, and parents and teachers who are very happy with our choir. 

I have found that if my students were perfectly behaved, listened at all times, and did everything we asked, that teaching would be so easy. But of course, they are students and are learning, so we have to do lots of things to set up an environment for learning. 

Over the years I have started traditions that have helped us to have a positive choir culture at my school. We had 70 kids last year and we sang one song at the patriotic assembly on Veteran’s day, a Christmas concert at the beginning of December, a district choir concert where we sing our own solo song and 2 very big group songs, and the final concert of the year at the beginning of May. This post is not about the musical teaching but is about procedures and  policies that have worked for me to help make my choir successful and I hope this will give you some ideas!

 1.    Build a positive choir culture so that students feel that they  belong to a unique and wonderful school group. Some things that  have helped us build a positive choir culture are to:
  •   Choose a choir song that you can make your own.
  •   Choose good music.
  •   Get the best accompanist you can find.
  •   Have high expectations for your choir in every way.
  •   Expect good behavior.
  •   Expect good attendance.
  •   Give occasional treats.
  •   Have an end of year party that is fun and easy.
  •   Reward your oldest students with privileges and acknowledgment for their years.
  •   Communicate often with parents and students.
  •   Be careful about what age you have in choir.
 2. Choose a choir song that you can own- We have learned and regularly sing the song "Harmonia Mundi". It is a beautiful song and has a beautiful message about music. We have sung it the past couple of years for our graduating 6th graders at our end of the year concert. It is part of what makes kids feel a part of our choir. Get the music here. 

 3. Choose good music. I spend a lot of time choosing my music every semester and constantly hear that I am really good at choosing programs. I feel that it makes all the difference in the world. I explore music on the JWPepper site. They have recordings of many of the songs.  

    Music/choir programs need to:

  •   Be challenging for my choir, but not so hard that we can’t master it. If you choir can handle it, choose songs in parts and some in unison. We have done at least one 3 part song in the past year, but be sure you can handle the music you choose. It is better to do simple things well.
  •   Be interesting but I don’t want to choose what I call sugar—satisfying for a short time but not long term. Being a Kodaly teaching district, we lean toward folk songs, but there are also many well written songs.
  •   Have varied tempo and instruments—some fast music, some slow music, some songs with rhythm instruments or accompaniment in addition to piano
  •   Be a program that my audience will love.  It takes some careful thought so that the audience will stay interested. You need to have a strong opening piece to grab their attention and a strong and well done closing piece.
  •   Be themed or at least cohesive. You could do many themes, such as Around the world. I don't always do a theme, but it is nice if you can.
  •   Have a really interesting beginning and end of the program. I often bring the choir in singing a round or in a processional that the student sing strongly while walking in order to their spots.
  •   Contain at least one song from another culture. I am in a school with a lot of Hispanic students, so I try to find at least one song in Spanish and at least one song from another country so my students are exposed to a variety of music and cultures.
  •   Have interesting piano and/or instrumental accompaniment. If your choir is inexperienced and needs to sing more simple songs, a nice accompaniment will make it sound great. It needs to be playable for my accompanist, although my husband has been my accompanist for the past few years and he can play anything.
  •   Make a program to hand out to parents the night of your concert. Once you have a template of it, it takes only a short amount of time to fill it in, print and fold. I get students (usually my older ones to help). 
   ***Read some blog posts about prior programs I have chosen HERE and HERE
 4.    Get the best accompanist you can find. I feel strongly that an accompanist can make or break a choir. A good one makes you look and sound good. A bad one can ruin your concert. I have been very fortunate to have good accompanists every year, but the past 3 years, my husband has been accompanying me. He told me to say that you should marry your accompanist and it will save you time and money. Haha.

 5.    Have high expectations for your choir in every way. I was recently accused by a parent whose child chose a first baseball practice over our end of the year concert of being too serious, but I take my choir seriously and want it to be a quality experience for every student. I live by the words of Zoltan Kodaly, “Only the Best is Good Enough for Children”.

 6.    Expect good behavior. My choir is at 7:30 am on Tuesday and Thursday morning. I actually let kids sit where they want within the alto or soprano section (each row is a different grade unless a student is really tall and then I move them up). I tell them what I expect and that if they talk, they will be moved.
  •   Last year, I had one student who I love but she talks too much. I had a “rest” area ( a chair with a rest sign) When she would talk too much, I’d move her down to the “rest area” for a little bit and it made a big difference. After a while, she got better—not perfect but pretty good. 

I am not a nazi about talking because I feel it should be a little bit of a relaxed atmosphere so kids feel like they want to come back week after week in the early morning, but I do work hard to keep order.
  •   Occasionally, I give the students “talk time”. I tell them that if they work hard for a certain period of time, I will give them a few minutes to talk or go to the bathroom. They will focus better.
 7.    Expect good attendance.
  •   Talk to students and parents about attendance expectations. It is a pet peeve of mine when people are missing or late. We are a team and when kids are missing from rehearsal, they really are missing important learning. I talk to the students about us being a team and how important it is to be there.
  •   Keep attendance records. I have tried several things in the past few years and have finally come up with something that works well for me. I use my IPAD (personal) to keep attendance with an app called Attendance 2.  It actually has QR codes you print and the kids can sign in that way, but I found it to take too long so I abandoned the QR codes last year. I have a student (6th grader) take attendance until 7:30 and then I take back the IPAD and will quickly take further attendance during a transition or break. After choir, I write down the names of the students who weren’t there and can quickly figure out the ones that are sick. When I see the others in the hall or coming into class, I will tell them I missed them and that they really need to be in class. On a few occasions when a student misses often, I talk to them and most of the time, they agree that maybe getting up early isn’t their thing and that they are welcome to come back in future years when they are ready to get up early. In a rare occasion, I have had to talk to a parent.
  •   On Time Tickets. I buy a big roll of carnival tickets from Oriental trading company and have a student pass them out as everyone comes in the door. The students write their names on the ticket and put it into the bucket. At 7:30 when it is time to start, we stop handing out tickets (sometimes, it is a minute late).  Part way through the rehearsal, we do jokes. (see the next item)
  •   Joke time- It is good to give the students a break once in a while. It has become part of our choir culture to have Laffy Taffy jokes during our breaks. I pull 6 tickets out of our on-time ticket bucket and the students line up and tell their jokes. I have a microphone so the students can hear. They get a little noisy during this break time, so I have to remind them to be a good audience sometimes. I get a big bucket of Laffy Taffy at Sam's Club.

  •   End of year rewards for being on time- For the first time this year, I kept all of the on-time tickets all year. Near the end of the year, I had some choir students stay after school to sort out and count the tickets. I bought some small prizes from Oriental trading company out of my choir budget and at the end of year party, students got a paper with their number of on time tickets and got to choose prizes. Each point was worth about .5 and I priced the prizes accordingly with labels on each as to how much it was worth. I can tell that it was a huge hit and will further encourage on-time behavior.

 8.    Give occasional treats-

  •   Occasional treat for their hard work-It is hard to come week after week at 7:30 am, no matter what you do. Occasionally, I bring in a special treat for after choir. It is never anything big--a couple of donut holes or very small donuts that I get at Sam’s club in a big pack.
  •   At our Christmas concert, I give a treat of some sort with a note thanking them for all of their hard work and reminding them when choir starts again.
  •   Field trip for our district concert-We have an all district concert in March and we go on a field trip to a local high school to rehearse. On the way home, I give them a fruit snack. I am sure to talk to the driver about it and make sure the kids pick up their trash at the end.
  •   End of the year party- We have a special party at the end of the year. (see the next section)

 9.    Have an end of year party that is fun and easy.  

  •   On the Friday after our last concert, we do a birthday/pizza party. I get a quarter sheet birthday cake, plus pizza (2 pieces per student) and pop.  We end school at 1:30 on Fridays. The party is only from 1:30 to 2:00. We sing happy birthday and the 6th graders get to go first (one of their privileges). This year, I had parents help with handing out pizza and pop. I also had a parent help with giving out prizes for on-time attendance. I think it would be best to have 2-3 to help with that. I have about 70 students and it was a little crazy but so very fun!

 10.    Reward your oldest students with privileges and acknowledgment for their years. It can be hard to keep your oldest students year after year. I do several things that keep my oldest students and get new ones to join in 6th grade every year.

   1. Give special privileges to your oldest students
                           i.     They get to sit in chairs on the top row
                          ii.     They get to play the rhythm instruments, play special accompaniments on piano or rhythm instruments
                         iii.     They get to do narration
                          iv.     Only my 6th graders get to have choir positions

      •                    Choir president and Vice president- they get to announce things and to choose the Laffy taffy joke people out of the container
      •                   Choir librarians- help clean up music and take it back to my room
      •                    Attendance- they take attendance with my IPAD
      •                   First to get food at the end of the year party

   2.   Acknowledge their years of service. My first year of choir, I was thinking of giving out choir pins to my 6th graders for each year. I sent in an order to a company and they never sent the pins. Not sure what was going on. I decided to give out Hershey bars for each year of attendance. It is funny how excited the
   kids get over getting a Hershey bar for even one year of experience. start with  the kids who have been in only 1 year and end with the ones who have been in the longest. They enjoy being acknowledged for their years of service.
 11. Communicate often with parents and students

  •   This one can be hard but it is important. At the beginning of the year, I have parents sign a paper with name, phone number, e-mail and sign a line that says they will do their best to get their student to choir every time and on time. I compile a list of e-mail addresses and send home frequent e-mails about what is going on. I always put the most important info into the subject of the e-mail since some people aren't good at reading their e-mails.
  •   Send home occasional hard copies for events that are near
  •   Send home the whole schedule at the beginning of the year at the back to school night. 

 12.  Be careful about what age you have in choir- The person before me used to let kids be in choir from the time they were in Kindergarten. It is difficult to have students that young in choir because of attention span and to work toward a high quality performance or to keep them coming for years. Over the years, I have grandfathered them in until I only have 4th-6th grade with some very good 3rd graders who have 
    auditioned to get in. There are occasional fabulous 2nd graders who get left out, but overall it is a good policy. Some people choose to have younger choirs, which is fine, but you must keep the music more simple and have shorter rehearsals to have success.

One more note about budget. I do not get money from the principal for our choir but ask for a $20 donation that is not required. I get the donation from many students, such that I can buy the materials I need from that budget, including a t-shirt for each student that is their uniform for the year, (they also wear dark or black pants or a skirt for concerts. That money also allows me to buy the treats, Laffy Taffys for jokes, end of the year things for the party, plus the instruments we need to buy that will be used in both the choir and music classroom. We can also buy some music, although I have to teach much of it by rote because music is very expensive. 

  Please let me know in the comments about things you do to help make your choir successful.



  1. As a BYU student, I did a year-long music internship (instead of student teaching) at Amelia Earhart in 2000-2001! I've often wondered how the music program is doing there today. So happy that they have a wonderful teacher and a strong choir! Thank you for this blog post. It has helped me get excited about another year of early morning choir!

    1. Jenny, such a coincidence!! Wow! You must know some people I know here, although so many have left, even since I've been here for various reasons. I am SO glad this helped you. I have gotten to this point from trial and error since I've been here and am mostly happy with things at this point. We still need to work on our sound, but isn't that a constant thing? I would love to know where you are teaching. e-mail me at seamonsfloatingdowntheriver@gmail.com.

  2. I just switched positions in my district from k-2 to 3-5 and will now have a 3rd choir and 4/5 choir. It's something I'm not comfortable with being an instrumentalist and I'm soooo happy and excited that I found this blog post! Thank you so much for the advice and even blogging about your programs. This will definitely help me get started and will ease the stress a bit!

    1. I am a French Horn player and my bachelors degree was in music ed with an emphasis in band. I taught high school band when first out of school. It was only when I took the first kodaly level that I realized I could do this. It has been a process of getting comfortable with teaching choir. With experience, you will get there! Be careful with how hard your program is to start with and only do a song in unison if your choir can't handle too much at first. Good luck!!

  3. Hi! Great post. :) I'm assuming that 7:30 AM is before school for you and since you teach at a Title One school, how do you make sure that everyone has the opportunity to be a part of it- aren't there some kids whose parents can't get them there that early? I started my own choir last year- 3rd to 5th auditioned- and had about 40 kids in it. The problem is that we met from 8:45-9:15 one day a week (not nearly enough time and even worse when most kids didn't show up until 9:00 or later), and just didn't have enough time or good attendance to get the best out of the choir. Don't get me wrong- it was a great first year, but I felt like half the kids got gipped. I'm trying to figure out a solution for this year. How did you get kids to be able to come in early?

    1. Hmm. Good question. It is a tradition at our school and the parents make an effort to bring their kids. Often they carpool and come together. I am sure some kids are left out. If they are committed to coming, they will be more dedicated and work harder. I wish I could do something to help those whose parents aren't committed. The on-time tickets and talking about being on time really help me get most of the kids near the beginning.

  4. Excellent suggestions. I love the Laffy Taffy idea :)

  5. I use magnets with student names for my fifth/sixth grade choir attendance. They move their magnet when they come in and I can see at a glance who's missing. Our choir is during lunch recess, so they straggle in after eating lunch. They can have an Altoid mint when they come in so there is no Dorito breath (Which nauseates me!). I love your motivational tips (Laffy taffy jokes!) Thank you for sharing!

    1. I love your tips! Dorito breath! LOL! Thank you for sharing!

  6. Thank you. Great ideas. Used to do many of these myself, prior to retirement. Hoping many read this and implement your ideas. Choir creates memories and friends for a lifetime. It is a very special community.

    1. It is definitely difficult to them and me to get there so early and often, but that hardship certainly helps create that very special community!

  7. I LOVE the laffy taffy idea!! What a great way to motivate and have a silly break time all in one! Love all of these tips- thanks for sharing :) #fermatafridays

    1. My kids love it too! Funny thing is that I was the part time teacher at another school my first year and we started doing the jokes, but we didn't have written out jokes they could tell, so some of them were off color. Oops. After that, we came up with this idea!

  8. Great ideas. I am fortunate to have a neighborhood pool behind my school and so we often have our end of the year party at that pool. It's convenient and the kids of course love to go swimming!

    1. Wow! My kids would LOVE to have a pool party! That is wonderful!

  9. Linda,

    Thank you for this Elementary Choir post. Where can I find the music to Harmonia Mundi?

    1. I just added it to the post. Thanks for reading!

  10. I'm entering the classroom after 30 years of raising my family....thanks for the great ideas. I'm excited to teach music again. Your advice/wisdom is very helpful. I think the hardest thing will be finding good music!

    1. I spend a lot of time looking for quality music and I think that is a huge key to success. I hope it goes well for you!

  11. Do you have suggestions for quality Spring concert pieces for third graders?

    1. I just saw this post. I actually have some 3rd graders in my choir. Some simple rounds would work. I would stick to pretty simple pieces, such as partner songs. I did a song called "Peaceful River in the past two years where they just learn the two parts and then sing them together. Look it up on JW pepper and look for other simple partner songs. If you e-mail me at seamonsfloatingdowntheriver@gmail.com, I can give you some other suggestions.

  12. Linday,

    I appreciate your willingness to share your expertise! You mentioned about doing the jokes with the candy occasionally. How often do you have the students do this in choir? If not every time, are there other incentives you use with the on time tickets as well?

    1. We do the jokes mid practice at every practice. My district changed their policy last year to not allow any candy, so I had to change what I give. I have written a blog post about how to make molded crayons and started giving those last year. The kids love them. Lots of work but if you get kids to help you, it is easier. http://floatingdowntheriverontheohio.blogspot.com/2016/08/make-your-own-non-candy-inexpensive.html

  13. I'm a first-year teacher and I'm considering starting an after-school choir for my 4th-6th grade students. Do you have any suggestions for recruiting students and parents and getting them excited?

    1. I just moved schools. My current school has an in school fine arts choir and it has its challenges since kids didn't elect to be there. She auditioned every student in 5th and 6th grade and invited students to come and had a very good response. You could have a parent meeting to tell parents about what you plan to do or put a note in the school newsletter. It does take time to build a program. Choosing good music and recruiting by word of mouth- kids telling others about being in choir is a great way to go. Be patient with yourself.