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Music theory for HS Choirs

What are the concepts that you feel are the most important aspects of music theory to address in high school choir? 
Replies (11): Threaded | Chronological
on March 12, 2016 4:14am
You can find sample tests and curriculum guides for the AP music theory exam on the official AP website.  College music department websites also often include lists of topics that applicants should have mastered to pass entrance exams.  Both of those would probably be good starting points for pulling together a curriculum.  Frequent topics include the ability to take rhythmic and melodic dictation accurately, sight singing, identifying different types of modes and scales by ear and on paper, intervals, chords and their functions, chord inversions, realizing figured bass, identifying cadences and nonharmonic tones, the circle of fifths, reading keys and constructing key signatures, identifying and reading in the more common clefs, as well as the obvious musical vocab words for tempos, what different accents look like, reading time signatures and identifying simple vs compound meters, etc.  
If your school offers a separate music theory class, lucky you!  Most of this can be covered there.  But if not, and you have students thinking about studying music in college, they need to know what will be expected for admission, even if you don't strictly need to use all these topics in chorus to teach the music for your concerts, so they can have realistic expectations and seek out resources on their own time.  
Bravo for thinking about this!  And for those battling the administration to prove the relavance of music as a "real" class that requires formal study, theory is a good angle to approach the discusion.  Print out a few sample theory test questions, plop them in front of an administrator, and ask them if they can answer them for you.  
Have fun!
on March 13, 2016 12:28am
Things that would be covered in a beginning theory course in college - key signatures, time signatures, major and minor, etc. Cover enough that when the students graduate - if they move on to a community/college choir/band/orchestra or music major/minor - they'll know of the basics. It shouldn't replace a beginning college theory course, but supplement it, so to speak.
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on March 13, 2016 4:42pm
My thoughts on this change from year to year? Yes, it'd be nice to prepare kids for college, in case they want to study music there. But, realistically, few of my students do so..
Mainly, I want my kids to learn theory skills that are going to help them read and learn choral music.
The older I get, the more I think ear-training is very important. INTERVALS. Even when I was in college, I used to say, "You can never know your intervals too well." A knowledge of intervals--by ear and on the page--allows singers to hear and see where their part fits in. I think that it's a crucial and often under-utilized tool in music-reading for singers.
SOLFEGE. There's a reason why we use it: as singers, we don't have a concrete thing--like a key or valve--that corresponds to pitch, so our ears need something as a reference. Solfege and intervals are time-tested tools for this.
ERROR DETECTION. Some older theory books used this quite a lot, but it's not really popular these days. I don't know why: if we can't self-correct or know when we're wrong, we are severely hampered as musicians. Kids can listen and "practice" all they want, but if they don't know when their singing is accurate or not, how much are they truly learning?
TONAL CENTER/CHORD TONES  Essential skill for us singers, I think. If we can hear "do", we've got a good start; it's empowering, and, really, we need to know where we fit in chords, or we won't know how to sing a part accurately, let alone sing in tune.
I find that scales are somewhat important, but not as important as theory books and courses make them out to be. If you're an instrumentalist, yes, but as singers, I find that solfege is more useful than specific scales. Certainly, just memorizing the notes (on paper) in different sclaes is not that practical for singers. That said, knowing how different scales and modes sound can help us in learning specific pieces, and it can help with intonation. And, of course, knowing how scales are built (i.e., where the whole- and half-steps are), that does help with music reading.
KEY SIGNATURES. Important, but I would argue that, without the tools listed above, they don't mean a lot. I definitely do use them with my middle- and high-schoolers, so that they can find "do", and then find the pitch of their part relative to that.

Best wishes. And, by all means, if you find useful ideas and/or resources, please share.
: )
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on March 14, 2016 6:28am
How does one teach error detection? I would love to know more about this!
on March 15, 2016 10:36am
So encouraged, this is totally my approach, Eric.  With kids who are thinking about a music major, in their senior year I've given them some extra time and gone through some basics in an intro to Music Theory book. And most of those kids also take lessons on an instrument or play in band and get some of the things that aren't as useful to singers there. But in my situation Choir is only 2 days a week, I don't have time to go so far into depth with all of the students. I do what I can, and what Eric listed is all on my priority list.
on March 13, 2016 6:18pm
I'll admit this topic makes me a little sad.  Public education makes a promise that a student's background should be no impediment to higher education and a career in any field for which that student has a natural aptitude, as long as they are willing to work hard.  We promise to prepare them.  But we only actually follow through on that promise with math, sciences, and languages.  There's always going to be a bit of an uneven playing field, but calculus is generally calculus wherever you go.  In contrast, the education gap between rich and poor when it comes to the arts is just huge.  So few public schools ever discuss music theory at all.  The mismatch between what colleges and conservatories expect for an incoming music major and what the public schools provide feels absolutely insurmountable.  I was talking with some colleagues recently about how their public school education prepared them for college and later, careers in music.  One said, "my parents told me I could be anything I wanted to be.  They weren't musicians, and they didn't know any musicians, so they just didn't know how unprepared I was for music school."  There are students in your public school choirs right now who have heard the message that they can be anything they can dream up if they work at it.  But they don't know what the next step along the road is going to look like.  You do.  You owe it to them to take a hard look at what colleges are looking for, and make sure any student who sticks with you for four years has a decent shot at meeting the standard.  Because the private school students can.  If 4 years of english at your school can prepare the best of the student body for college level english literature courses, and a few to be english majors at top schools, then 4 years of music with you should prepare your best students for college level work as well, and your administration should allow you to work toward that standard.  
on March 14, 2016 9:54am
I definitely agree! This is my first year at the high school I am teaching at, and I know some theory has been taught in the past, but I really want to strengthen that side of my program to make sure students are prepared if they choose to go on with music, and that they understand the mechanics of the music even if they don't plan to move on with music in their lives. 
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on March 15, 2016 6:54am
When I teach high school, I use the Fun Music Company's theory books to have my students do theory outside of class.  They provide assessments if I want to use them as well.  The books are digital, and I get unlimited copies for life (I think it was a one time $60 subscription fee, or something like that, for each book.  Theory 1 includes note names, note values, meter, expression terms, four key signatures (C, D, F, G), basic intervals.  Theory 2 delves into the circle of fifths, minor scales, all key signatures, all intervals, more expressive terms, and the beginning of chords.  Theory 3 & 4 go on from there.  I had students complete 2-3 pages every two weeks, and I graded it formatively.
Every student that has entered college in my program was able to pass the entrance exam to go right into Theory 1 and skip the remedial bonehead theory class.  By the time they had graduated high school, they had completed Theory 2 and they took the digital Theiry 3 to do on their own the summer before college.
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on March 15, 2016 7:39am
There is little time available to teach music theory in many of the lower grades in public schools, I learned to assume that many knew nothing when they began in the ninth grade.  Usually the best prepared students took instrumental lessons away from school.  So I began to teach music at the most basic level level: “sing an A”.   You can imagine the chaos that ensued.  I turned the board around to show what an “A” looked like on a treble staff.  Then I sang an “A”.  I challenged them a bit  by saying “That’s what I think when I’m looking at that note.  And if you want that skill, I can help you discover that skill as well.”  “You have just discovered what music theory is about” I repeated the “A” and then motioned them to sing it. “Now remember that note!”That concluded the first theory lesson.  But during the class, I repeatedly asked the to sing the “A.  When they came in for the second time, I had locked the piano, and they had to figure out the “A”.  If someone had a perfect sense of pitch, then they were weeded out for that lesson, or a part of it, with lavish praise.  They had two pages of theory a week, starting with the difference between a bracket and a brace, how the clefs came about, the lines and spaces of each s staff (first line on the bottom), the keyboard, etc.  When they sight-sang, they used the names of the notes.  If they saw a “C”, they sang a”CEE”, a c#, CEES, a G Flat GEEF, etc. They eventually went through the keys and finally analyzing a song harmonically to secondary dominants.  If they failed they could not audition for one of the top two choirs, but were asked to repeat the choirs.  Actually, a few did anyway, especially the ones who wanted to major in music ed, at my suggestion, or on their own.

The text I used was my own.

Believe it or not, because I taught theory, the classes all started learning music very rapidly: the rehearsals were efficient.
on March 16, 2016 4:43am
I hold undergrad and masters degrees in theory (undergrad: theory/comp).  I read the first post and thought it might be a little excessive for high school-ers. Sure, it would be nice if incoming freshman could realize figured bass, recognize modes aurally and sing in soprano clef, but I believe that's a little unrealistic. The basics would include key signatures, circle of fifths, chords in inversion, and maybe some basic sight singing and ear training. Today, high school students are exposed to more eclectic choral music and thus, have a much more comprehensive knowledge of compound meters and mild dissonances than I did growing up. But, to throw out proverbial Schenkerian analysis to a 16 year old is pushing. I'm writing my dissertation, even as we speak, and I noted in my chapter about conducting the piece, that turning choir into "theory class" can sometimes cause singers to tune out.  I love theory. We could analyze Webern's Kantate II all day and I'd be happy, but I'm an anomaly. I'm also a composer. I'm a bit of a strange bird. Just my two cents worth. While not technically "theory," memorizing Italian and German musical terms would be a wonderful tool for high school. I struggled with that as a youth.
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on March 16, 2016 4:52pm
I hate to pipe up again and feel like I'm monopolizing the conversation, but I felt like the figured bass recommendation needed a justification.  
I put that on the list because if I recall correctly that was heavily featured in the practice tests for high schoolers taking the AP exam on the official AP website.  It surprised me too!  I suspect the test creators felt that it was a skill that allowed them to test that multiple more basic theory skills were really mastered.  Or else a major music school is testing for it in their weed out exam and the AP test wants to go with the flow.  
And Jay, the fact that you are a composer is EXACTLY why I feel like these skills should be tucked into regular choir and band classes in high school as much as possible.  How many students in high school choirs are secretly harboring dreams of becoming composers and working away on composition in the privacy of their bedrooms?  It's rare for public schools to offer theory or composition classes, so choir or band may be the only formal theory education those aspiring composers and song writers can get before they go off to college.  And for many college programs you have to have something to show for yourself before you are admitted.  They want you to already be a bit of a composer with a bit of theory knowledge before they will admit you to the composer track.  There is so much to memorize and absorb with theory, they don't think you can realistically succeed at the advanced topics if you are starting from square one the first day of class.  
What percentage of us actually needed calculus for any course we took in college or for our later lives?  How many of us tuned out in math class in high school because we felt like there was no point in learning the material?  But we were still required to take upper level math courses in case we needed them.  To hold the door open for the percentage of the student body that would walk through it.   Those who were interested didn't tune out.
Do I think all kids would get a kick out of theory in choir or need to use it later?  No.  But when it isn't offered it potentially slams a professional door.  I seem to know a lot of people who got to college only to find they didn't have the preparation to take advantage of their time there in the ways they had hoped.  To let kids pay thousands of dollars for college, assuming that they will be able to succeed as music majors when they can barely read music going in isn't fair to them.  That's like sending someone with a second grade reading level off to be a creative writing major or someone who has just been introduced to fractions off to take differential equations.  It doesn't seem fair to expect a student to pay for private study or to try to find the resources to study on their own to be prepared for a college subject, but that seems to be where we are with music in our public schools.  
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