Saturday, February 23, 2013

Q&A: Using Singing Time Wisely

Q:I've just been called to be the chorister and am having a hard time with structuring singing time. When do you do what? What elements does a successful singing time include? Should you do a game every time? How much time should I spend on a new song each week?

A:  Well, this is a very good question (series of questions, actually)!  This will be kind of a long post, because there's a lot to cover - so skim to the parts that apply to you, or make yourself a mug cake and make a night of it!

The first thing that we should establish is that a good singing time is one where the kids have fun, feel the Spirit, and learn something.  It doesn't have to be mind-blowing or earth-shattering, or even life-changing.  The important thing is that you try to incorporate those three elements.  Now that we have our foundation, we can build upon it!

Issue #1:  How should I use my time?

Let's forget about all of the songs we sing outside of our actual singing time.  So we're just talking those core 20 minutes, k?  If it is a month that has a new song to be taught, I would not spend any more than 5 minutes at a time on the new song.  But how are they going to learn it in 5 minutes a week?  Ah, I said 5 minutes at a time!  Gotcha!  I won't go into teaching the song, that will come in another post.  Spend the first 5 minutes on the new song. Then 5 -10 minutes playing a game or doing an activity.  This is the time you use to teach other songs; fun songs, holiday songs, oldies, etc.  Spend the last 5 minutes on the program song again.  Let me say that again:  5 minutes program song.  10 minutes fun stuff.  5 minutes program song.  That's it.  That's the magic formula.  5-10-5.  

Issue #2:  But what if they don't learn the program songs perfectly?

DO NOT get wrapped up in the idea that the program is the purpose of primary music.  The program is just a way for the kids to share what they have learned throughout the year.  It is not a road-show, a performance, or even a talent show.  If they only learn one verse of each song, that is great!  Have you ever heard of a solo?  Oh, you have?  What about a duet?  Really?  How about a quartet, quintet, octet, or primary class?  Wow!  You are totally equipped to delegate a few verses!  For example, in July, I would rather teach patriotic and pioneer songs, but I also need to teach "Families Can Be Together Forever."  What to do?  Well, because I know that singing time is about more than the program, I spend 10 minutes on July 7 teaching them the chorus of FCBTF.  Then, I ask an adorable 5 year old to sing the first part of the 1st verse and the 11-year old girls to sing the 2nd verse.  The primary already learned the chorus, so now I'm done!  And I have the whole month to do other things.  When the program comes around, there will be the most amazing spirit in the chapel because that's just how it is, and all it took you was 10 minutes.

Issue #3:  What songs should I teach other than program songs?

Whatever songs you like!  There are hundreds of songs in the songbook that are amazing and really easy.  Also, don't overlook the songs that have been in the Friend - there are some really great ones in there, too.  One that I think should be required for every child to know is "I Know that Jesus Lives."  Find it and download it here.  Sing seasonal songs, learn new birthday songs, learn prayer songs or songs about Jesus.  No matter what you sing it will be worth your time.

Issue #4:  So much to do, so little time.

One thing that I notice is that so many choristers (once again - I know that we are "music leaders" and not choristers.  But I say choristers, and I like it.  If you hate it and would like to hear fingernails screeching down a chalkboard, please click here for effect.  I will continue to call us choristers, just like Fresh Market will always be Albertson's to me.  I'm stubborn like that.) have a hard time trying to squeeze a lot of different elements into their singing time.  Some of these are suggestions from the primary presidency, some of them are just unnecessary.  For instance, it is not necessary to include opening, reverence, wiggle, baptism, article of faith, birthday, and closing songs EVERY week.  The key to a smooth singing time is being able to pick and choose which songs you sing.  There are some that you have to include, like birthdays.  But if the clock is ticking, skip some of the other ones!  The world is not going to end if you skip the reverence song and go right into sharing time.  Don't get so caught up in the schedule that you don't leave yourself any time to teach and connect.

For example, let's say that you have a split primary and junior is first, right after sacrament meeting, and then senior is in the third hour.  Your structure might look like this:

Wiggle or reverent songs while the kids are coming in
Opening exercises, including opening song, welcome, birthdays, AofF, baptism, goodbye, etc.
Singing time (either before or after sharing time)
Wiggle or reverent songs while the big kids are coming in
Singing time
Closing exercises, including closing song, welcome, etc.

Of course, yours is probably different, but work with me here.  Pretend that sacrament meeting went 10 minutes over.  Now everything is condensed.  At this point, you need to eliminate a few things (like the final speaker should have done in sacrament meeting!).  Skip the wiggle songs at the beginning - they rile the kids up and the reverence song is usually not enough to get them to calm down.  Use the reverence song as the opening song.  If you have visitors, just recognize them and have the whole primary shout "Welcome!!" with huge smiles on their faces.  There is nothing in the handbook that says that children only feel welcome if they are sung to.  That bought you 2 minutes right there.  Sing the birthday song if there are birthday kids, that's one that should never get cut.  It's okay to pray that they're all absent that day so you can move on.  Skip all the other extra things so you can go right into sharing time or singing time.  If you have sharing time first (which I HIGHLY suggest that singing time should always go first, but that's between you and your presidency), tell them to keep it short and sweet.  When it's your turn, really analyze what is the most important thing you were going to do that day.

Issue #5:  But what if I have a big thing planned and I don't have time to do it?

Every time you make a lesson plan, make a short version and a long version.  If you are playing jeopardy, the long version would be 5 categories with 3 questions each.  The short version would be 1 category, and only those 3 questions.  The game becomes "Scrambled Titles" instead of Jeopardy.  The key is flexibility.  

Issue #6:  So what should I keep in mind while I'm doing my planning?  

Never plan activities that take more time to explain than to play.  Never plan activities that require 50 helpers.  It's nice to include people, but all that coming to the front business takes up valuable time.  Find other ways to include children (yet another upcoming post).  Don't overuse activities.  If you're getting in a rut, pray.  Don't underuse activities, either.  If there is something that your kids really love and respond to, bring it out more often.  If you don't know what they like or which activity to bring back, give them 4 choices and let them vote on next week's singing time.  This can be a reward for good behavior and hard work.  Call it Kid's Choice Week!  (we can do jeopardy, name that tune, puppets, or laundry...what'll it be?)  Always plan simple activities that don't take a lot of prep time.  The best singing times are usually the ones that you make up as you go along.  If something gets off track, just wing it.  

Try to mix things up each week.  I currently work in Cub Scouts, and I'm in charge of the schedule.  In a typical month, we have pack meeting, an achievement day where we just work on stuff out of the book, a field trip day, and a belt loop day.  That way, everyone knows what to expect and it keeps things interesting so we don't get bored.  You could follow the same pattern in singing time.  Fast Sunday is introduction day.  Second Sunday is quiz day.  Third Sunday is game day.  Fourth Sunday is review day.  Fifth Sunday is Kid's Choice day.  If you can't find a pattern that works, just try to change things up as often as you can.

Issue #7:  Do I need to bear my testimony every week?  Sometimes I just don't have time.

Yes, bear your testimony every week.  No, there is not one way to bear a testimony, and you certainly don't have to make it formal or even recognizable.  Here are some great ways to bear testimony in primary that don't take any extra time:

1.  That was amazing.  When you sing that song, I feel the Spirit so strongly.  I am so grateful that the Spirit can come when we sing about Jesus.  Do you feel the Spirit?
2. Who remembers the song we sang in Sacrament meeting today?  It was one of my favorites because it talks about how much Jesus loves me.  I know he loves you too, and he really loves it when you sing!  
3.  I was wondering if you guys could help me bear my testimony...could you do that?  Can you sing "My Heavenly Father Loves Me" with me?

Well, there you have it.  The general idea of structuring a singing time.  Did that help at all?  What have I overlooked?  What questions do you still have about how to use your time?  Let me know so I can address every possible issue!
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  1. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!!! Exactly what I needed!! :)
    Red Deer, Canada

  2. Thank you so much for this! Especially seven - I am all tingly, my face is warm and I feel tears budding. I needed that.
    But one more question: I had no idea about the difference between music leaders and choristers. What IS the difference?
    Thanks so much!!!!!!

    1. You know, I don't really know the difference! a gal in my stake said it's because "chorister" actually means someone in the chorus; maybe it's because the handbook says "music leader." Either way you look at it, we do what we do! Toe-may-toe, toe-mah-toe, right?!

  3. Thank you so much for these answers. I love the 5-10-5 idea.

  4. What an amazing series of posts. These had to have taken so long to put together. Thank you, thank you for your well-put thoughts!

  5. Just called as the music leader, I haven't been able to sleep all week! I am feeling so out of my element. These are the blogs that have SAVED me and my sanity. THANK YOU!

  6. Thank you so much for this. I'm at the age that I'm repeating callings now and have been called to this position for the 2nd time in my life. This has helped me to know that I don't have to be too serious about the program songs (or OCD :o) ). That I can have fun and the Spirit will do the rest. I'm grateful for your insights. Love the 5-10-5 and weekly theme ideas.
    Gina, West Virginia

  7. Thank you for this post! It was very helpful. I find myself so curious about the game you referenced as "laundry." What is this? Do you have another post with it somewhere?

    1. That is a good question! I guess I have never posted that one...I'll have to do that. In essence, you hang a string from one side of the room to the other. Cut items of clothing out of construction paper, with songs listed on the back. Kids choose a piece of clothing out of a laundry basket and hang it on the string to "dry." A simple review game, but super fun!

  8. What if you routinely get 15 minutes and sometimes even less? Getting the whole 20 minutes is something that doesn't even happen once a month. I've talked to the presidency about it and that hasn't helped either.

    1. Lindsay,
      First of all, that's a total bummer. I wish there was some way to get presidencies to value singing time as much as they should. Other than trying to have singing time first (which you may have tried already), the only thing to do is prioritize your time. Spend a few minutes on the program songs, and a few minutes on something fun. Definitely stay away from extensive, complicated, or very involved activities. Focus on repetition, and be VERY efficient when using helpers. I find that choosing helpers is the biggest time-sucker. If that's the case, ask a lot of questions so you can call on kids to answer, but don't do a lot of "Bobby, can you come up to the front and..." If it continues to be a problem, teach only 1 verse of each song - don't feel obligated to over-teach. When it comes time to plan the program songs, just sing the ones you learned that were in the outline and then a few that they know well from previous programs, or just tried and true songs (I Am a Child of God, Give Said the little Stream, etc.) Virtually every single song in the songbook can be tied together somehow in the program! So don't feel like you're locked into just outline songs! Above all, try to remain positive, keep things very simple, and use the time the best you can. Oh, and never underestimate the power of opening and closing songs - that's a great way to teach simple songs without using too much time! If you have any other questions, just email me and we can exchange a few more ideas :) Good luck!

  9. What!!! This is my third month in primary and this post was the first time I finally started to understand what my calling is all about! Thank You soooooooooo much!!!

  10. Thank you soo much for posting this!! it was very helpful!!!

  11. Thank you THANK YOU! Although I am excited to sing and teach, how to structure things has been totally overwhelming. Thanks for a totally awesome cheat sheet!!

    Edmonton, Canada

  12. I just got called. I had no idea I was supposed to bear my testimony each time! That explains why the previous chorister would do it so often. It wasn't in the handbook. Thanks!


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