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They're Singing it Wrong!

Although I have been teaching for several years, I am a first year director.
I have a problem in several of my choirs where I kow thye are singing an incorrect rhythm, pitch, whatever, but even after I correct it several times, they still persist in doing it?  When it gets to that point, I'm not sure how to fix it.  They are absolutely NOT doing it intentionally, but seem to lack the motivation and focus to put for the effort that it takes to do it correctly?
on September 30, 2014 9:05pm
Dear Julie:
 It is hard to see from your posting what age-group singers you are working with, but continuing to practice the suspect passage in its current state only reinforces the "bad" rhythm... Essentially, the several choirs are "practicing it wrong."
 I suggest that you whittle down the suspect passage(s) to just speaking the rhythm, or just speaking the lyrics... By having the singers "speak" the rhythms, and/or "speak" the lyrics, you can better understand how their minds are working it through, and can then correct the problem. Once the singers are speaking the rhythm or lyric phrasing correctly, then they can add back in the music.
 Now, if the singers are speaking the rhythms and lyrics correctly, but then singing the passage wrong, have them sing the notes using solfege syllables and the correct pitches. This should fix the issue... Reassemble and have them sing the passage correctly a few times, to ensure that the problem is corrected and does not revert to the old bad/practiced passage...
 And this is how you teach amateur musicians to practice!!
 Loads of luck... let us know how it works!!
Ron Isaacson
Germantown, MD
Applauded by an audience of 7
on October 1, 2014 5:53am
When I encounter this with my 4th grade choir, which happens with some regularity, I have them experience the correct rhythm or pitch in as many different ways as I can, visually, aurally, and kinesthetically.  Drawing steps on a white board with pitch syllables or scale degree numbers, echo-clapping the rhythm, stepping the rhythm, speaking the rhythm with Kodaly-based syllable, or Gordon's system, or traditional number-based counting.  Echo-singing on solfege while doing Curwen hand signs or just using both hands touching various parts of the body, i.e., head, shoulders, middle, knees to physically experience pitch location.  Of course, you have to use what is age-appropriate.  
Matthew Jenkins
Kings Mills, OH
Applauded by an audience of 2
on October 1, 2014 8:48am
I have a "Rule of Three."  If, after trying to fix the issue three times in one rehearsal, it doesn't get better, I move on.  I've found that trying to fix something over-and-over yeilds deminishing returns.  Instead, I create a warm-up exercise to use in the next rehearsal to address those spots out of context- and I don't make a reference to the material I am trying to teach...I want to "trick" them into learning it.  Then when we arrive at the trouble spot in the music, they've already learned it correctly in warm-up and now have to apply what they've learned.  I love seeing the lightbulb go off when students begin to realize what I have done to help them, and I've found that taking this sort of approach often keeps the students more engaged in warm-ups because there is a likelihood that that material will show up again in the rehearsal.  Also, doing this keeps warm-ups from becoming stale.   
Applauded by an audience of 7
on October 1, 2014 8:54am
Is it a pop tune, or something they're familiar with from another arrangement? If they've learned it wrong by singing it along with the recording, you would be better off changing it to what they are used to.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 2, 2014 6:49am
When I have mistakes with rhythm, I use staccato singing as a tool to fix it.  (Staccato on the words...staccato on "di"...staccato on "ta"...staccato alone...staccato in two-parts....etc.)  Once you've taught young singers about why we do that (to find rhythm mistakes and correct them), they enjoy doing it.  It makes them listen differently and that is always a good thing.
For pitch and phrasing, I use "legato on a vowel".  
Also, record them so they focus simply on listening.  Then, compare what they are doing to the correct way.
Whatever the technique is, it's all about teaching them to listen.
Dale Duncan
Creator of S-Cubed Middle School Sight Singing System
My YouTube Channel with Sight Singing Tips:
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 3, 2014 3:00pm
     Two suggestions. Suggestion one: "The Think Method." (much better than the one used in the music man, but not too different). after finding a spot where the rhythm/pitch is wrong, isolate a measure of it for the singers and go through the following script.
Conductor: We have a rhythm/pitch problem at measure X. I'm going to sing a section of the music for you three times in a row. While I sing, please do NOT sing with me out loud. However, please sing along in your head and look at the music while I sing.

(Sing the passage three times. If the choir begins to sing or hum, insist on the silence so they aren't practicing bad habits.)

Conductor: Okay, your turn.

The choir will probably sing it right. If not, repeat until the choir gets it, or move on to suggestion two.

Suggestion two: Actually, I'm talking to YOU!

For this to work, you have to have a good, solid rapport with your choir, a good ear, and a lot of tact.
Listen to the choir and figure out which one(s) of your ringers is leading the group astray. Your ringers are used to doing it right. They may assume that it is one of the other people in the choir singing the pattern wrong. If nothing else has worked, listen for the problem, move around the group and figure out who it is coming from. Chances are it is one of your leaders.

Then, try this.

CONDUCTOR: Okay, after listening, it seems like the first row of altos are singing the wrong notes. Would you all sit and listen this time while the rest of the altos sing the part? (HINT: it's probably not the entire first row that has it wrong, but this protects the ego of your ringer. After the other altos sing). Thank you, that's right. Now, first row, please join me.

If your ringer persists in singing the wrong notes, move to phase 2.

CONDUCTOR: I am about to give someone a compliment, but it comes with a little bit of constructive feedback. Someone in the alto section is singing the wrong notes and I have to tell them because they are such a strong singer that they are taking the rest of the altos with them. This person is a leader, and I know that they'll take my comment to heart and fix the problem. (Smile!) Suzy, it's you. Here is what you're singing. (Sing the error) Here's how the part really goes. (Sing it right). Can you hear the difference? Good. Let's try it again, altos.

The problem will start to fix itself or will fix itself completely.

CONDUCTOR: Thanks, Suzy. I really appreciate your leadership and ability to take constructive feedback. You've got the part down.

Be aware that if you don't know Suzy well, this could backfire, especially if you're not incredibly kind and understanding in your presentation. Most of the time, I've had a great response from kids when I've done this as long as I have a preexisting positive relationship. It also doesn't hurt to throw a compliment Suzy's way later when she gets her part right really fast.

PS-Let the record state that I do not in any way wish to imply that altos or people named Suzy sing wrong notes. Let's be honest. It's usually the tenors' fault. :-)

Applauded by an audience of 1
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