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How to teach a choir song: The basics

Updated on September 14, 2014
Photo of the US Navy Praise Gospel Choir practicing aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stenn.
Photo of the US Navy Praise Gospel Choir practicing aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stenn. | Source

Best practices for how to teach a song to a gospel choir.

Teaching songs well is the most important skill a gospel choir director needs. Everyone sees you standing in front of the choir, waving your arms to give them direction, but the real work takes place before that, in rehearsal.

When you’re a beginning choir director, preparing and teaching songs may be an intimidating task. But with practice, it gets more natural and comfortable.

The article (minus the videos and polls) is also available for download as a FREE e-book. Here's the link:

How to teach a choir song

To be ready to teach a song, you have to know it.

1: Study the song thoroughly.

The choir director should know all the parts!

To be ready to teach a song, you have to know it. Study the song until it becomes a part of you, until you know it backward and forward. Some gospel choir songs have sheet music you can learn from, but most do not. You’ll usually be studying the song by listening to a recording. If you’re a beginning choir director, you may need to spend a lot of time training yourself to hear the individual soprano, alto, and tenor parts in the music.

Listen to the song and sing along with it. Practice singing the soprano part until you can sing the entire part correctly without stumbling. Now repeat the process singing the alto part until you have that down pat. Now do the tenor part, and then the bass part if there is one. Yes, you will be listening to the same song over and over and over. Yes, you will drive your family nuts. Even if you use headphones you will still test their patience because you’ll be singing along, over and over and over.

I wrote a little more about learning this skill on my blog. Here’s the link: Learning to hear choir parts.

If you have a higher voice, like most females, you probably can’t hit the lowest notes on the tenor and bass parts. Likewise, if you have a low voice, like most males, you would not be able to reach the high soprano notes. Just sing the part an octave higher or an octave lower when you need to. The important thing is that you have full command of the part.

For extra insurance, you might want to write down some kind of notes that you can use as a reminder when you’re teaching the song in rehearsal. If you know a little bit of music theory, you can make note of the scale tones that each part starts on.

When you stand before the choir you want to be fully confident that you can teach every part. Your goal is to be able to do this yourself without having to ask the musician, “What’s the alto part on the chorus?”


WANT TO PRACTICE?

Try singing along with the parts on this L.A. Mass Choir song, Make a Way. Try to perfect your understanding of all three parts.

By the way . . .

If there's a song you want to teach and the parts are hard to pick out, give me a holler at ChoirParts.com. I'll do the parts for you and give you individual practice tracks for the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass parts.

For a sample of what the tracks are like, look here:

What is ChoirParts.com?

Source

The recorded version might be just right for your group and your purpose, but if not, adjust things to meet your own needs.

2: Decide on your arrangement of the song.

Are you going to do the song exactly the way it is on the recording? The recorded version might be just right for your group and your purpose, but if not, adjust things to meet your own needs.

You might decide to do the song in a different key, based on the vocal ranges of your choir members. Or you might want to speed the song up or slow it down to get a different feel. Decide if you want to make any changes to the vocal parts or the words.

Some good tips from a choir director friend of mine: In some cases you might need to simplify a song. If you are going to have a limited amount of rehearsal time, you could leave out a complicated passage or stick with only one vamp (repeating chorus) when the song might have two or three of them. And if you’re working with a choir of less-experienced singers, you may also leave out key changes andinversions (that’s when the tenors jump to the alto part, the altos go to the soprano part, and the sopranos go up into the stratosphere).

If you don’t have a lead singer, you might leave out the lead verse. Another option when there’s no lead singer is to have a whole section of the choir sing the lead verse. Our choir has a couple of songs where the whole soprano section or the whole alto sections sings a verse that was done by a soloist on the record. This works best if the verse has a very straightforward tune and rhythm that don’t need a lot of embellishments, otherwise you’re better off just leaving out the verse.

On the flip side, if you’re going to be singing for a special occasion, you might decide to add some extra flourishes to a song. Add a dramatic introduction. Give it a more elaborate ending. Whatever you feel.

Also make plans for the instruments. On some songs you might want the full band. On others, maybe just a couple of instruments. Or you might begin the song with just the piano and then bring the rest of the instruments in. Do you want the drummer to use the sticks or the brushes?

Once you’ve decided how the song is going to be performed, then you’re ready to present it.

POLL - What does your choir like to sing?

What kind of music does your choir like to learn the most?

See results

3: Present the song to the musicians.

Your choir rehearsal will go much better if the musicians already know the music. Trying to teach both the singers and the instruments at the same time makes for a long rehearsal. And the singers will have a much harder time learning their parts if the instruments are still trying to figure out the song and making mistakes along the way. So bring the song to the musicians ahead of time so they’ll be ready.

How do your musicians learn best? As you know, your gospel musicians probably don’t read sheet music. With some, you can just hand them the CD and they handle the rest. (We all love musicians like that!) Others may need a paper that shows them the chords. This is called a lead sheet or a fake sheet. If you’re familiar with chords, you can write out a fake sheet yourself. If you need help, there are some websites that provide chords for many well-known gospel songs. One very popular site is the Chorded Songs page provided by Earnest and Roline Ministries. There is also a collection of chorded-out songs that was done by Val215 at learngospelmusic.com.

Talk to your musicians about how much advance time they need before a song is going to be taught to the choir.

POLL - How do your musicians learn best?

What is the most effective way to teach music to the musicians you work with?

See results

4: Think about how you want to teach the song to the choir.

What’s your “lesson plan”?

When you’re teaching the singers, you want them to start getting an understanding and a feel for the song as soon as possible. Decide beforehand what you think will be the most effective way to teach the song so that they’ll grasp it well.

For a lot of songs, it will work fine to just start singing the first part of the song and proceed from there. But with some songs you might want to take a different approach. If a song has a lot of words, you should probably present the words first before the tune. If there are complex rhythms, talk through the song with them, at a slower speed if necessary. Once they have the rhythm down, then teach the melody.

And which vocal part will you teach first? Usually in gospel choir songs the sopranos have the melody which makes them a natural first choice. But if the altos or tenors are the part that really holds a particular passage together, start with them.

If a song is long or complicated, consider just teaching a portion of it at one rehearsal, then teaching the rest of it the next time.

And here’s another tip from the choir directing community: If you’re going to be doing the song about the same as the original recording, you may want to play the recording for the choir when you first present it. The choir can hear the finished product and perhaps sing along with it. This can give them a boost of confidence and generate some excitement about the song.


For this Joe Pace song, Hallelujah Anyhow, think about how you would approach teaching it to a choir.

Be prepared to take questions at any time.

5: Start teaching!

OK! You’re all prepared, the musicians know the music, the choir is here, let’s go!

My motto for choir teaching is “Drill, baby, drill!” You’ll notice as you read that I use words like “repeat” and “again” and “over” a whole lot. This is an important point. Since gospel choirs sing from memory, parts must be repeated until they’ve been internalized. Drill, baby, drill.

Give the choir a little bit at a time. Whichever part you’re starting with (usually the sopranos, but not always), give them one line at a time. You demonstrate it first, and then have them sing it back to you. Let them repeat the line until they look and sound like they’re comfortable with it. Then add the next line to it and repeat that until they’ve really got it. Then bring the two lines together and make sure that they can sing them smoothly. Keep adding a line at a time until they have learned the whole verse.

It is important to deal with mistakes right away.

After they have the whole verse, move on to the next group of singers and repeat the process. When they have learned the verse too, you may want to have the two parts sing it together, or you may want to move on to the third group of singers right away. When all the parts have learned the verse, have them sing it again together. Make sure that everyone is able to keep on their part even when they’re hearing the other parts singing. If anyone seems unclear on their part go back over it. It is important to deal with mistakes right away. If you let someone sing a part incorrectly several times, it will be difficult for them to unlearn those wrong notes.

Practice your transitions from one portion of the song to another!

After the choir learns one portion of the song, go on to the next portion (the chorus or bridge or whatever). Teach it the same way, a part at a time, a line at a time. Be sure to practice the transitions from one portion of the song to another! Some choir directors make the mistake of teaching each portion in isolation and the choir has trouble figuring out how to get from the chorus to the bridge (“Do we wait four beats, or do we come straight in?”).

After you’ve taught the whole song, sing it again from beginning to end. If the choir is hearing the song for the first time, they may have forgotten the beginning parts by the time you get to the end. Go over the whole thing to refresh their memories.

Let your choir members know that they can ask questions at any time during the rehearsal. If there is a part they are unsure about, you want them to ask you immediately. Otherwise they might forget the question. And every time someone asks a question there are probably two or three other people who were wondering the same thing.

POLL - Which vocal part struggles the most in your choir?

Which singers have to work the hardest to learn their parts in your choir?

See results

6: Do it again at another rehearsal!

Don’t expect the choir to remember a song perfectly after only one practice. Once they leave the rehearsal, they will start to forget. You will need to rehearse the song at least two or three times before you can be confident that they will be ready to sing it in a church service.

There are very few songs that are easy enough to learn completely in only one rehearsal. If you need suggestions for super-easy songs, you can check out my one-rehearsal songs page. Otherwise, plan to practice a song several times before you sing it.

At the second rehearsal, try having them sing the song all together just like it was a performance. They might be able to do it, or they might be shaky on their parts. That is normal. If you need to teach the parts again, go ahead. It won’t take as long as it did at the first rehearsal.

More tips for more complex songs

After you know the basics about teaching a choir song, the web page below takes it to the next level with information about teaching more complicated material.

How to Teach Difficult Songs to your Choir

I hope this gives you some ideas and some inspiration for teaching your choir.

I'd love to know that you came by. Feel free to leave a comment or a question.

Greetings!

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    • profile image

      Ashley 11 months ago

      My choir auditioned for a kraken the show, and we won! We sung I Heard It Through the Grapevine by Marvin Gaye.

    • JoanTheChoirLady profile image
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      Joan Hall 4 years ago from Los Angeles

      @anonymous: Good question! I wrote something about this and posted it on my blog. It's here: http://the-church-choir.blogspot.com/2013/05/learn...

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      How do you find the voice parts on piano

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      @anonymous: I am no expert but "I'm gonna wait on the Lord" and "Shut de door" are nice and relatively simple acapella gospel songs that can be worth looking in to. Also "we pray" by Joakim Arenius and the Praise Unit is easy and fun!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Hi Joan, I live in Scotland and was in a Gospel choir briefly at College in the States.I have done bits and pieces of gospel singing over the last few years. I've been asked to lead some gospel singing in my church and have more experience than anyone else there in this but not enough!!! I am finding your website a Godsend.Thank you so much. At the moment we have no musicians so and are singing a capella. Can you recommend some simple songs to start with so far I am doing "wade in the water" and "over my head I hear music in the air" ML

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Thank you so much for this. been struggling a lot. but i'm grateful

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      this article was a great help to me i'm not a director just a choir singer.how to get choir members to work as group to teach each other different parts ? i'm a soprano getting the right volume and range is hard for me holding notes i have been doing vocal workouts need help in that area.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      Our choir is having the hardest time with the alto part on Hezekiah Walkers Grateful, I just can't separate the different parts, any advice?

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      Greetings! I am the director of a women's chorus (12 - 15 voices) that is part of the Daughters of Isis. We have no musician at present. We are representing our Court in a musical competition in New Orleans in August. Can you suggest a show stopping piece that is suitable for a women's chorus - for the past 2 years the group that has one has done it with an a capella piece- Ride on King Jesus! About 20 - 24 voices. We had thought to do Hezekiah Walker's Grateful - you have to do 2 selections that do not exceed 8 minutes total. We need short piece that will complement Grateful.

    • PastorCher profile image

      Pastor Cher 5 years ago from United States

      Very well put together. I appreciate you sharing this with us. Just making a section for you in my files. You've been a great help.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Great resource for a dynamic director.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Hi

      Thanks for the info. I am going to use this with the sole aim of improving my choir members and as many as are willing to learn.

      But I still need some info. I will send that request to your email.

    • mattseefood lm profile image

      mattseefood lm 6 years ago

      I used to sing in choirs when 4 years ago! Great lens :)

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      All the information that was given was greatly appreciated. I learned a lot from the information that you gave. I will be applying it all in allmy rehearsals and will be sharing it with the musicians. Thanks for all your help. I look froward to seeing other stuff that you make available to choir directors like me. I tell you now that I need help on giving out parts. That's not one of my strong suits.

    • ajgodinho profile image

      Anthony Godinho 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Beautiful and informative lens on teaching choir songs ~ what a great resource for choir directors and those aspiring to be. Happy New Year! **Blessed by a Squid-Angel**

    • joanhall profile image

      Joan Hall 6 years ago from Los Angeles

      @anonymous: Vocal experience is one of the tools that can help a director. Other things you need to have a handle on are selecting songs that will be a good fit for your choir, arranging the song and figuring out the parts, teaching songs, and conducting. This page right here covers a lot about the arranging and teaching part. I have a lot of other choir directing pages that you might also find helpful.

      Something else you can do is observe other experienced choir directors. Watch how they do what they do, and ask them questions when you can.

      When I was starting out as a director, one of the things I would do is "thin air" conducting at home. I would play my choir records and practice directing the songs and hitting my cues at the right times. It was really valuable in developing my conducting skills.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Hello this is a great site. I am the music coordinator of our Church (recently elected) I have been a soloist all my life, special events, churches etc. but we are in need of a Director for our choir and I am super nervous about doing it since i have never directed a choir. Can vocal experience help me to be a good director or should i find someone who has experience?

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I am a newly elected choir director. The choir wants more hand movements. What hand movements are major for a small Black church choir? Such as to hold or repeat a verse?

      Do you have pictures to show these movements?

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      @joanhall: Wow!, Thanks Joan, God bless you

    • KarenTBTEN profile image

      KarenTBTEN 6 years ago

      I am stopping back in this morning to give this informative and well-written choir lens a SquidAngel blessing.

    • joanhall profile image

      Joan Hall 6 years ago from Los Angeles

      @anonymous: The "Heroes" album by New Jersey Mass Choir is available on iTunes.

      Your questions about duet leads is an interesting one. I'd like to put some thought into it and write something on my blog. I'll try to get a post up about it tomorrow.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Dear Joan,

      God bless you for shedding light in a dark tunnel [so to speak].

      My Bishop is always asking for a duet lead for our ministrations. Most choir pieces i find nowadays do not even have lead vocals!.

      How can i go about this?,

      I also need to get new jersey mass choir's heroes cd. Is it available anywhere on this planet?

    • MartialArtsHub profile image

      MartialArtsHub 6 years ago

      I agree with Photahsiamirabel, you know your stuff for sure! This is some really deeeep lens. I can see how you got you're badges, well deserved :)

    • LisaMarieGabriel profile image

      Lisa Marie Gabriel 6 years ago from United Kingdom

      I think this is a great lens. It is obvious you really know your subject well. Whether you teach with or without notation, the key thing is to get the group to FEEL the music. You have left me in no doubt that your choir will! Blessed by a Squid Angel today and LRed to my choral music lenses :)

    • joanhall profile image

      Joan Hall 7 years ago from Los Angeles

      @anonymous: It's true that with gospel music the "natural" voice sound is usually preferred rather than the "trained" voice sound, so less time is spent talking about vocal technique (beyond the basic ideas of using some breath support and not straining). Many people find the untrained vocal sound appealing and feel that it is a part of what gives gospel music it's power, so teaching a different singing style would definitely change the feel of the song. Some people might like it, others might not.

      I don't know if you're familiar with an album that Elvis Costello did with the Brodsky String Quartet called "The Juliet Letters". One of the things about the album that I just adore is the way that Costello's rock-singer vocals meshed with the timbres of the string quartet and the style of the songs. But some classical music aficionados felt that his vocals ruined what would have otherwise been beautiful songs, and said that he would have done better to bring in someone with a Josh Groban-type voice to do the singing. So it's definitely a matter of different tastes.

      But in terms of how long it takes to rehearse, the fact that gospel choirs traditionally don't use sheet music means that everything has to be memorized. So there may be more time spent just on repetition so that the choir members can internalize and remember their parts. And I do occasionally teach a little theory to my choir, especially in cases where I think it will help them understand a tricky harmony or rhythm that they have to sing.

      The main thing is to know what kind of a sound you want to get for a particular song. Even for a gospel-type song, you might decide that you want to go for a more anthem-like sound. There's nothing wrong with doing your own interpretation.

      You mentioned an incident during a Convention rehearsal. I don't know the structure of your church conventions, but in the ones I am a part of the convention choir typically has to learn a lot of songs in a short period of time. When I'm going to teach at a conference, I try to choose "one-rehearsal songs" that have easy melodies and harmonies that I can teach quickly without having to get "deep". Another thing about conferences is that you're working with people from a lot of different churches and not every choir has the same tastes or the same kind of work ethic. It can be hard to navigate sometimes.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      During a Convention Choir rehearsal, I was told that when I teach songs I teach as if I am teaching a class....i.e. music theory, dynamics, ect as I go. This person shockingly told me that I have them sounding like my church choir who is known for their Anthems, Spirituals, Hymns ect...structured stuff. Suggested that I attend a workshop on teaching fast. Now, when I do Gospel Music yeah I go fast. It doesn't take long to learn Gospel Music. But, when it comes to trained stuff yeah I take my time to get it right. Is this wrong???

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

      Not a topic I know anything about but this is so well written and presented that it is certain to be of great use to choirs.

    • joanhall profile image

      Joan Hall 7 years ago from Los Angeles

      @anonymous: Hi! You're right that dealing with leaders can be tricky at times.

      I think a great place for you to explore a question like this would be the Music Ministry Forum at learngospelmusic.com. It's a great message board where lots of choir directors (myself included) talk about issues involving music ministry, both the technical/musical side, and the spiritual side. The good thing about the forum is that people can ask you more about the specific situation with your choir, how you've approached them in the past, what their specific responses have been, etc., and give their opinions about what they think would be a good next step. Also, you would be able to come back with updates about how things are going.

      It's a really nice group of people who care about each other's ministries. You're welcome to join us.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      I have directed church choirs (off and on) for about 20 years altogether, starting when I was only a teenager. In the last 10 years I have been in a church where the choir directors (2) do not teach as you describe here which is also the way I am accustomed to teaching and learning a choir song. I don't play piano, but neither does my two most recent directors. I think the difference between me and them is that I have grown up in church around gospel music to include having a mother who played the piano and directed. The two most recent directors that I have sang under didn't grow up in and around gospel choirs. They both are very talented; however, there early learnings of music came from the club scene - great bands. They both were mentored by renowned musical talents but not gospel. They were back up singers who got saved and brought their singing gifts to the church. That's commendable. However, I am so frustrated with how my current director teaches a song. They play the recorded song or ask you to listen to it on your own time before rehearsal, then at rehearsal the musician plays it and the choir is told to sing it. The question is asked, "do you hear your part"? If people say "yes", we move on. If someone says, "no", the director may stop and sing the part in question but many times the choir members fumble their way through. Believe it or not, the choir has good sound (not disciplined, though and very little expression and few dynamics, which should also be taught by the director) People enjoy us but the method of teaching often drives me to frustration as it takes way too long to learn a song. My suggestions have not been welcomed in the past. What do you suggest I do - grin and bear it or leave what I know is my calling as a worshiper? The director is very controlling and I perceive intimidated by the gifts of others so how do I handle this. Help?

    • joanhall profile image

      Joan Hall 7 years ago from Los Angeles

      @anonymous: Hi, betnich! So cool to see you here.

      And that's a very nice point! I'm adding that to the section on arranging the song.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Good tips for rehearsing choir.

      When rehearsal time is limited or it's a small or beginning (kids', youth) choir you may have to make the structure of the song simpler - leave out verses of you have no lead to sing them, omit the 2nd, 3rd vamps, etc...

    • KarenTBTEN profile image

      KarenTBTEN 7 years ago

      A good topic, as not all choir directors have extensive training in pedagogy.