Planning children’s choir curriculum: the big picture

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Planning children’s choir curriculum: the big picture

school-172345_1280The prospect of starting a children’s choir in your church is both exhilarating and daunting. If you’re the one leading the charge, it’s exhilarating… because you probably love children, music, and the prospect of bringing these two things together in the context of ministry.

But it’s also daunting. There are lots of inevitable questions: How will I recruit? Where and when will we meet? What’s my budget, if any? Am I qualified? Where will I find music?

These are all important questions, but they all flow from this primary question:

What’s the purpose of a church children’s choir?

That’s really the place to start, and most of your curriculum solutions will flow out of a firmly established philosophy of why you’re doing this. So here are the three core objectives to a children’s choir in a local-church context, in order of priority.¹

1. Teach them doctrine through timeless hymns.

The children in your choir are souls that will live somewhere forever. To that end, your primary goal should be to use music to teach them biblical truth, praying that God will grant them faith leading to eternal life. And the most effective way to teach them truth in a choir rehearsal is through learning and singing timeless hymns.

You’re accomplishing several things here. First, good hymns teach truth in a way that is succinct, poetic, and memorable. The human capacity for memorization is incredible. A child’s capacity is even greater… and when you add music to the equation, that potential only increases. Think of times when you want to sing praise to God, or sing comfort and exhortation to your own heart. What probably comes to mind are songs you first learned when you were young. There is great opportunity here for life-long spiritual formation in the minds of the children in your choir. Commit to engraving timeless hymns on their hearts, even before they’re old enough to understand every theological nuance. Don’t dumb down your song choices merely because you think they won’t understand. Some concepts might be a little big for them now, but in time they’ll grow into them. I always take time to discuss the words and phrases with the choir so they can sing with understanding. Children may often drift towards silliness, but they ultimately appreciate substance.

Second, you’re contributing to a common musical language of praise in the body of Christ. Children should grow up singing the same songs their parents and leaders sing. Moreover, you’re helping shape in their minds what is normative in corporate worship. They should expect depth, biblical clarity, and poetic beauty in the lyrics they sing. Cultivate their appetite early.

Finally, don’t miss the basic point that when they’re singing hymns, they’re singing. Your rehearsal time is limited, and skilled directors will plan activities that accomplish multiple objectives at once. Children are in your rehearsal to sing, not to listen to you lecture; and hymns are a great way to teach the mechanics of singing. Hymn tunes tend to be melodically and rhythmically simple, manageable in range, and easily learned— great material for teaching principles of good vocal technique.

While teaching spiritual truths should be foremost in the mind of the director, that doesn’t mean it necessarily occupies the largest dedicated time slot in the rehearsal. I typically spend only about 10-15 minutes (of a 60-minute rehearsal) singing and discussing the hymn of the week. However, it should be clearly represented in the lesson plan, woven throughout the rehearsal, and emphasized in the opening and closing prayer. Your singers and their parents should know what matters most to you.

2. Teach them how to sing beautifully.

This second objective assumes some aesthetic norms, of course, which can be somewhat cultural and generational. But the pluralism of our present culture has infected vocal pedagogy— sometimes to the neglect of real, objective, measurable principles that are rooted in the physiology of the human voice. Or to state it more simply: there are objectively right and wrong ways that children can sing, and we shouldn’t be afraid to be definitive. In the weekly rehearsal time you have, your second objective is to teach your singers how to form habits of natural, relaxed, energized, resonant, vibrant singing. This occupies the largest component of the rehearsal— 5 minutes of warm-up and perhaps 30-40 minutes of repertoire.

Included in this second objective is the actual learning and preparing of songs to sing publicly, but preparing songs should also encompass aspects of the first objective: teaching truth. While you’re preparing children to sing beautifully and communicate the music in a powerful and skillful way, teach them what it means to serve in the ministry of music. Teach them about humility, modesty, exuberance, and the preciousness of the local church.

As the director, your responsibilities of teaching beautiful singing are:

  1. Know what an ideal children’s choir sounds like, and understand the basic vocal processes behind that sound.
  2. Listen to the sound you get from your choir. Really listen. Evaluate what should be different.
  3. Through modeling and succinct commands, inspire and encourage the students to sing correctly.

Sure, it’s difficult. You can (and should) spend the rest of your life adding tools to your teaching toolbox: ideas, games, examples, and phrases that efficiently communicate what you want. So read books, observe skilled directors, watch videos, and attend conferences. By teaching your students good vocal technique, you’re setting them up for a lifetime of singing— and that’s a profound gift.

3. Teach them basic music literacy

This third objective is less important than the first two, but to me it’s still an essential component of the curriculum. Children should learn both how to turn written notes into sound (decoding) and (secondarily) how to turn sound into written notes (encoding).

For music literacy, I take a two-fold approach. I encourage students to really read the music they’re singing (rather than just imitating what they hear). We begin by learning basic principles of navigating the score: measure numbers, staves, and melodic contour. They also sing their hymns from written music. But the second aspect is a formal, dedicated sight-singing curriculum. You can see the first few chapters of our curriculum hereI don’t spend much dedicated time on sight-singing— perhaps 10 minutes. But over the course of weeks and months and years, even that little bit of instruction becomes a learned behavior.

 

These are the principles that guide my curriculum planning. Every rehearsal should spend focused time on all three principles. Once you’ve established the big picture, you can begin answering the practical questions that flow from it.

 

¹ Note: these three “big-picture” principles were first suggested to me by one of my church music professors, Fred Coleman.