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If you want to facilitate a singing group you will have to develop a method for teaching a new song. This is something I have struggled with over the years.  I have attended far too many sing-a-longs where the song leader just

Ruthie leading a song

Ruthie leading a song

expects everyone in attendance to know every song and makes no attempt to teach it to those of us who don’t know it.  Now this laid back approach might work if the songs are very short and repetitive AND you have a critical mass of people who already know it to carry the song as newcomers pick it up.  I find this approach to song leading to be extremely annoying and frustrating.  On the other hand, when I have been the one leading the singing I hate to come across as ‘too bossy.’  I have tried to just play a recording of a song and have singers learn the song that way. But in my experience that technique doesn’t work either because invariably people will start trying to sing along with the recording, even if they aren’t singing it correctly. And that muddles the water for everyone.

When I have a piano present I have found it effective to play a line on the piano, sing that line myself (along with the piano) and then invite others to join me in singing. But, alas, pianos are not always available and further, not all aspiring song leaders know how to play the piano. What to do then? I was at the Swannanoa Gathering this week at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina.  One of the classes I took was Matt Watroba’s “Community Singing” class and most of the class focused on teaching a song.

There are three basic techniques: 1) Sing a line — then have the group repeat the line back until everyone has learned it, 2) Have the song leader gesture with one hand to show whether the pitch is going up or down and, relatively speaking, how FAR up or down the pitch is going in the next note,  3) When people know the basic melody but are only lacking the words (think “Lavender Blue Dilly Dilly”) shout out the words to the next line while people are singing the previous line.  It goes without saying that the song leader must thoroughly know the song for this to be successful.

I chose to teach a song I have taught dozens of times — “Cauldron of Changes.”  Using the piano technique has worked for me in the past. But the last time before Swannanoa I had tried to teach the song it had fallen flat. I was teaching a group of people who were experienced singers and had gathered together for a reason other than engaging in singing meditation.  As a result I lacked confidence and was worried I might come across as ‘too bossy.’ So I just kind of sang a line once, had them repeat it back once, and when it came to dividing up into a round I just vaguely said something like, “This song can be sung as a round, so just come in at another time if you want to.” I didn’t even designate where the second part should start. So, as I say, it fell flat.

This time, I decided to take the bull by the horns. I wrote the words on the black board. I underlined the syllables that need to be emphasized. I circled and starred the word showing where the next part of the round comes in. Lacking a drum, I used a tambourine to emphasize the rhythm. (Lacking a tambourine I could have slapped my thigh.) I used an app on my iPad to get the correct starting pitch (I like to start on middle C).  I sang each line and had them repeat each line. I moved my hand up and down to give an idea of where the pitch was going. I’m happy to report the result was a success.

And I learned something very valuable in the process. If you are going to undertake to teach a song, you are NOT serving anyone by worrying about ‘being bossy.’ You need to be directive if you are going to teach a song, even if your group is one of accomplished singers. So if you are going to teach a song then don’t try to make yourself ‘small’ — take charge and teach that song!

If you would like to hear Cauldron of Changes, go to YouTube and search on “Ephemerata Singers” or go to this link.

 

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