Monday, February 25, 2013

Q&A: How To Teach a Song From Scratch



Q:  I would love a post on how to teach a song. I am a newly called chorister and being a college-age convert to the church I never experienced primary as a child. I'm just not sure how to teach a song from the beginning .....thanks!

A: Yes.  Teaching a new song can be really daunting.  It doesn't matter if you've done it a million times, you still wonder what to do, what visuals to use, is the song too hard?  I don't have TONS of advice to give on this one, but here is what has worked for me.  Please feel free to comment and share what brings you the most success!

Finding the right method:

I suggest trying to find a way to teach a song that works for your primary.  It could be flip charts, posters, white boards, colored envelopes, repetition, etc.  For the kids I worked with, I found that they had the most fun and learned the best when I did rearranging activities.  Basically, you assign each phrase a picture or prop, then have kids come up and stand in a line holding said item.  You start with them really mixed up, and as you sing the song the kids have to put the pictures in order.  They had a total ball doing that, and I could usually teach a whole verse/song in one singing time.  Let me take just a minute and explain a few ways to teach songs, pros, cons, and a few helpful hints...

1.  I sing, you sing (aka "repeat after me").

This is probably one of the more difficult ways to teach a song, especially to Junior's.  Simply singing a phrase and having them sing it back to you is effective, but it really needs to be paired with visuals and you have to really listen to see if they're singing it correctly.  If you choose this method, really watch the kids mouths to see if they're catching on.  You want them to understand what all the words mean and how they fit together.  Keep in mind that teaching in this way also might affect where they are breathing - so remember to teach them phrases in a breath, not necessarily phrases according to the lyrics.  (for example "I am a child of God." echo. "And He has sent me here."  echo.  You should teach the line "I am a child of Go.........d, and He has sent me he.....re."  Does that make sense?)

2.  Flip charts.

I love flip charts.  I think they are amazing, but they have a time and a place.  I don't think you should rely on flip charts for every song you teach.  First, they are a total drain on your ink supply!  Second, they tend to be really small and ineffective for larger groups.  If you choose to use flip charts, there are typically two different kinds out there - the kind with all of the words printed on there, typically in smaller-than-helpful print, and the kind with a few key pictures and words/phrases.  If you have ever used a flip chart that I have made (like Samuel the Lamanite), you know that I prefer the key pictures/phrases.  (caution...I'm about to crawl up onto my soap box.  Please skip to #3 if you don't want to hear it...you've been warned!)  Here is why.  I think association and assimilation are more effective than memorization.  By giving them just a hint at what is coming up, it requires them to dig a little big deeper into their psyche and find those lyrics.  Simply reading the words will help them learn the song, for sure, but giving them the opportunity to create their own connections will help the song stick in their minds a lot longer.  Look for an upcoming post on how to create a good flip chart.  It will help hone this idea in.

3.  Posters.

Same idea as flip charts, but bigger.  Easy to use, no flipping and dropping pages, easy to see from the back of the room.  Hard to store, impossible to use in Sacrament meeting.  Can be hard to fit long songs on one side of the poster board.  You can use blobs to cover up parts of the poster to help wean them off of it.

4.  Disappearing visuals.

Imagine putting pictures on the board, each with a phrase of the song underneath it (all of the words or just key words.  I use key words...I'm just sayin'.  see #2).  Make sure the pictures and words are separate, so you can remove each part.  Sing the song all the way through.  Start by removing a section of words.  This is a great way to use a helper.  Sing the song again with the missing piece.  Continue until all of the words are gone.  Now they just have the pictures.  Repeat the whole thing again, this time removing one or two pictures at a time until the board is empty.  By the end, they should be pros.  This works better with shorter songs.  Longer songs take too much time and you run the risk of the kids losing interest.  

5.  Blurs.

I love this method, and so do kids.  Assign each phrase a picture.  I should warn you, this requires a small level of computer savvy, so if you feel uncomfortable doing this one, that's OK!  Go to www.fotoflexer.com.  You can use another program if it's easier, I just think this one is great because you don't have to download any software to your computer.  Upload your picture by clicking on the yellow bubble in the top right of the screen (which usually requires you to have the file saved to your hard drive or desktop).  Click the white upload bubble in the middle.  Find your picture and open it.  Your picture is now in the editing module.  Use the rotate buttons in the middle to get it oriented correctly, if necessary.  To make a blur, click on the Distort tab.  The Twirl function is what makes a blur.  You can also use the other tools, they are all pretty hilarious.  Don't make it too easy, but don't make it too hard either.  You want them to have to think about how that picture might fit into the song.  When you're done, save it as a JPG.  Then you can open it and paste it into a Word document to print.  Fit as many as you can on a page to save ink.  When you get to primary, give one set of blurs to each class.  Sing the song once through, using some recall questions to get them thinking about the lyrics.  Then have them try to put the blurs in order while you walk around the room singing the song quietly.  It will take a few times for them to get it, but you'll find that they start singing along with you.  It's like teaching by osmosis.  They learn it without you even trying!  This activity is better with Senior primary.

6.  Recall questions (aka challenge questions, discovery questions, etc.)

--How many times did I say "pick a word" in this song?  Let's sing it again and find out.  6?  Are you sure?  I thought I heard 7.  Let's sing it one more time, just to be sure.
--This song says we should follow someone.  Who should we follow?
--This song is really high!  What word is on the highest note that we sing?  Let's sing the song and hold it on the very highest note...see if you can remember when it's coming up.  When we get there, let's raise our eyebrows really high!
--This song has a lot of words that rhyme.  Can you think of any?
--How does this song make you feel?

7.  Movement and rhythm.

Use hand jives, actions, sign language, sway back and forth, etc.  Just remember to wean them off of the actions before they sing in Sacrament meeting (don't get me wrong - I love a good gospel choir, but we are just going for something different!)

8.   Use the scriptures.  

Did you know that almost every song in the Children's Songbook has a scriptural reference?  Use this to introduce the song, so they can associate the why behind the what of the message.

9.  Have a fun introductory activity/object lesson that gets the kids excited about learning the new song.

When we taught Praise to the Man, I downloaded an MP3 of this song played by bagpipes and drums.  I had the kids sit really quietly and told them we were going to learn one of the most powerful songs I know.  I brought my little portable speakers and turned them up to an appropriately loud volume (borderline inappropriate).  The bagpipes began playing, and when they got to the second repeat the snare drums came in and I thought the kids were literally going to jump out of their seats - but they stayed quiet!  We listened to a minute or so of the song, then I asked them how that song made them feel.  Like marching!  Happy!  Like I'm going into a battle!  Then we talked about power and what that meant.  Can music be powerful?  How can we be powerful like Joseph Smith?  Where does power come from?  We didn't even sing the song that day, but the next week they were really excited to dive into it.  If you do an introductory activity, don't feel like you have to start learning it right away.  Wait until next week - let the excitement build up so that they are really ready to begin.

10.  Don't rely on the piano.

Children learn better with your lone voice.  But wait - my singing voice is horrific!  First of all, I don't believe you, I'm sure you sound fine.  Maybe not the MoTab Choir, but fine just the same.  If you are legitimately concerned about singing all by your lonesome, have the piano softly plunk the tune, but no accompaniment.  If you are singing a capella, get a starting note and go to town.  If you go flat, no biggie.  All of that will resolve itself when you add the piano.  Do you want to know another benefit of not using the piano from the beginning?  You can actually hear where the kids are having trouble.  The piano is the great equalizer - it covers up a multitude of sins.  But those are the things that you need to be aware of and trying to fix.  If the kids sound really strong and then it fades into a mumble and gets strong again, you can fix that!  You can hear and see who isn't singing, where your hot spots are, and where you need to work on dynamics.  When they have a good handle on it, add the piano in.  

11.  I still can't get over singing without the piano.  You really have no idea how bad I am!  Come on!

I love you.  The kids love you.  Most importantly, Heavenly Father loves you.  Get over it.  ;)  Take some Immodium.  Or just use the piano, it's really not the end of the world.  Whatever you do it's going to be great!

12.  Keep it simple. 

Really, don't stress about it.  Don't forget the 5-10-5 rule.  Pray about the message of the song and how best to convey that to those kids.  They are, after all, His children.  He will lead you in the direction you should go.  Don't plan anything too time consuming or complicated - save that stuff for review days.  Repeat, repeat, repeat.  If they just aren't getting it, move on to something else, go home, regroup, and attack it from a different angle next week.  Have fun.  Smile.  Wear a lot of deodorant   Take a nap after church.  You get the picture, right?

There you have it - a few thoughts on teaching new songs.  Still have concerns?  Let me know!  What is your tried and true method of teaching a song?
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10 comments:

  1. Fav piece of advice..... wear a lot of deoderant. :)

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  2. This is very helpful! Thank you so much!

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  3. could you post a small example of a blur? I have photo editing software I just want to make sure I am visualizing what you are describing! Thanks for all of the helpful ideas.

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    1. Click on this post to see a picture of the blurs I made to teach "I Will Follow God's Plan". Have fun :)

      http://afprimarysingingtime.blogspot.com/2011/02/i-will-follow-gods-plan-part-1.html

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  4. I have found using objects instead of pictures to represents words/phrases/ideas adds another dimension, makes the kids think a little more and just mixes it up. I love what you said about not giving the kids all the words too! Reading a song is not the same as learning and memorizing one. Thanks for your wonderful blog!

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  5. I knew that when I started this year that I would introduce every song with a scripture. I feel that is so important to let the kids know that these songs are inspired and can also teach messages from the gospel.

    I love using just key words to help them remember parts of the song.

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  6. Thanks for all your work on this blog. It's really helped me!

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  7. THANKS SO MUCH for this post! I've been looking for something like this EVERYWHERE. I'm a fairly new chorister and I really and truly have no idea what I'm doing. This will be extremely helpful. :)

    http://goodnightgirlblog.blogspot.com

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  8. Thank you!!! This Sunday will be my third week in Primary. I love it so far but I need to get a little organized and focused. This helps tremendously.

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