How should I teach literature? Moving away from "rote" teaching...

I often get questions like the ones listed below from teachers who are using S-Cubed, the program I created to help teachers learn to teach sight singing to their beginners:

*When do you start teaching literature to your students?  
*When do you actually "make them read"?   
*How do you introduce a song?  
*What do you do with your students in terms of teaching literature until their sight singing skills match their abilities to learn songs? Do you just teach them from rote?

I've written and spoken about it before and that is why I included the links to the videos above (just click them!), but I realized that I haven't actually written about it yet!  So, here we go!

Let's start by answering the questions right up front and then I'll do some explaining.  The answers are in blue:

When do you start teaching literature to your students?  
My students begin holding folders in their hands sometime during the first two weeks of school.  When I give them the music for the first time, I use my Smartboard to project the music they are holding, and I teach them about staffs, systems and measure numbers so they can properly follow along.  I also teach them how to follow "part 1" and "part 2" because beginners struggle with this. If they get lost while holding the music, mass hysteria can break out!  So, we must take time to help them unravel the mystery of staffs/systems/measures so we can cross over and begin to teach literature.  

How do I introduce a song? 
During the first two weeks of school, I teach rounds from rote as a part of their daily lessons.  This gives me the chance to focus on proper vowel production, breath support, tall mouth position, and singing posture, and it also helps them learn how to watch me.

I use solfege when I introduce the melodies to their first songs.  It helps reinforce the use of the hand signs and it gives them the outline to the main melody of the song they are learning.

I use "form" to teach songs later on as well.  I have shared some creative ways to do that in this link.

I combine these techniques and many more as time passes so I get to vary my daily approaches as they begin to assemble the tools they need for their toolbox in order to learn songs more quickly and more independently.  

Until their sight singing skills catch up to their ability to sing difficult songs, do I just teach them by rote?   When do you actually "make them read"?

This is where we all have to really be careful.  If we push too fast with how we teach repertoire, our beginners will get frustrated and disengage.  

We must remember that becoming musically literate is a process that takes years and years just like learning language.  During my first years of teaching, I was completely insensitive to this important fact.  I took piano lessons at age five.  I sang in boys choir at age 10.  I would get so frustrated with my beginners.  Why wasn't it innate for my students to be able to follow the music and successfully interpret the hundreds of various dots, curves, and symbols in a single song?!

Over time, I learned!

With 8 months of work on S-Cubed, my students are able to sight sing an 8 measure two-part melody with skips as wide as an octave and rhythms that include dotted quarter eighth note combos a capella within in five minutes.  

...But I don't expect that sort of work in an actual 10 page piece of literature until much later.  First, I have to build the skill sets required for them to do so and that takes time, tenacity and patience.

I think of it like this: When we were first able to speak a full sentence, we had no idea what a noun and verb were. 

We just did it. 

In S-Cubed, I purposefully don't introduce many of the details of music theory until Level TWO because it would be like trying to teach a 6 year old how to diagram a sentence.  Teaching noun/verb/predicate is the easy part because by the time they are ready to learn it, they are experienced enough to really understand it. 

So, here are some thoughts to consider:

When teaching literature, you apply what you can from the sight singing technique of your choice...whatever that is.  When your teaching of that method intersects with the literature you are teaching that day, use it. 

Do some rote teaching for sure...especially in the early days of the teaching the program.   Don't beat yourself up over it or feel guilty about it!  As I mentioned above, when teaching by rote, you are also teaching some valuable skills: Listening, connection between conductor/student and much more.  ...Just don't plan to teach by rote forever!  Doing so would be the same as reading a book to an 8th grader rather than teaching him to read it himself over time from K-7th!

Until the sight singing skills catch up to their ability to sing songs, we must constantly brainstorm about ways to teach literature that are engaging including:

*Using solfege to teach melodies
*Teach them to listen for FORM...melodic/rhythmic/thematic. I let them draw pictures of the form of the song when they are working to learn a new song. ABA can look like "duck/dog/duck". It doesn't matter what they draw as long as they are listening and hearing differences in patterns both rhythmic and melodic. 

We have to meet them where they are. If we get too focused on connecting the dots directly from our sight singing method of choice to the literature, we limit ourselves and we frustrate the students who simply don't have the tools yet in their toolbox.

Final thought:  

If you move to France for one year, you may become quite well spoken in French by the time you return to your native country, but if we are totally honest, most of us wouldn't be able to call ourselves completely fluent. Fluency takes years and years of work and requires speaking, reading, writing and comprehension on a very high level.

Daddy-Candy pwease
Daddy-May I candy pwease
Daddy, may I have candy please?

And to have them write it brings an entirely different set of challenges:  

Learning to read music follows the same process. The idea is to make the process of the learning of the literature valuable and enjoyable for the students who are "early and mid-process" and that is what I strived to create with S-Cubed.  We want to keep them engaged and excited to come back to sing the next day!

That's what middle school chorus should be all about!

If you have ideas to share about ways that you introduce a song, "connect the dots" between S-Cubed and teaching literature or anything else related to helping your students on their journey toward becoming competent, fluent readers of music, please comment below!  Let's help each other!

Check out my blog!