Sunday, September 18, 2005

Los Alamos Homeschool Chorus

One of the hats I wear is as the director of the Los Alamos Homeschool Chorus. This group, begun by another homeschool family in town, has been part of my life for the past 10 years. It is a non-auditioned choral arts program for students grades K-12. The chorus is run by the director and a small board of parents who work to aid parents in the training of their children in the following ways:
  • To train voices and develop musical skills to aid in life-long worshipping of God, telling others about Him, and using and enjoying the gifts of music and creativity that God has given each of us.
  • To provide a variety of educational and performance experiences designed to broaden knowledge and experience with music, increase confidence, and spark interest.
  • To create an atmosphere where the biblkical ethic of the preciousness of others is maintained, modelled and reinforced in relationships and discipline.
Our goals, then, are:
  • To proclaim Christ and model godly behavior wherever we go
  • To represent the excellencies of home education in all we do
  • To minister to others in our community through outreach
  • To train our children for participation in ministry to others
At the start, the chorus had between 25 and 30 students. Currently, our registration generally runs anywhere between 75 and 110 students each semester. The children rehearse for an hour and a half once a week, and present programs twice a year. Some music is done by the younger children alone, some by the older students alone, and much of it all together. We sing four-parts as a group, so the younger children are given mostly the melody, wherever it occurs.

Along with the other homeschool moms that form our board, we began asking, "How would we approach this chorus from a classical perspective?" In answer to that question, we began organizing around the history, content and skill areas appropriate to address in a choral setting.

Our youngest group, who we call our "Junior Choir", spends about 20-30 minutes in the middle of our rehearsal with another teacher away from the older students. This time allows for some special focus with the younger children (grades K-3) as well as with the older group (grades 4-12).

The Junior choir needs some time to move around and work out their jitters, but we decided there was no reason for this to be time "lost" to play alone. Instead, we have three lesson sets, each taking a year to complete, that we work through with the children on a rotating basis. Each set of lessons includes games and movement to give them "wiggle" time. Our three focus areas are:
  • Vocal technique basics: We work here with tapes and visuals to discuss and practice the basic elements of good singing: posture, production, diction, following direction, tempo changes, etc.
  • Rhythm reading and note identification: We introduce the basics of rhythm reading and note reading. At the end of the year, all these students can identify the names of notes on the treble clef and can read the rhythm of their chorus peices.
  • Music History/Composers: Here we place music in its context by looking at great composers through time, and learning a little about their music. The composers we study are Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky.
Each of the students who enter our program in grade K, repeat that year's lesson in grade 3, and are well prepared to step up into our "Senior Choir".

Our Senior Choir, similarly, has a two-year rotation we cycle through:
  • Sight singing: We work on all the basic skills of solfege sight-singing, including rhythm and melody, unison and part-singing.
  • A cappella singing: Here, we put oursight reading ability to work and sing without accompaniment, working on our reading, intonation and balance.
When we began implementing these skill cycles we hypothesized that we might see a chorus better able to sing parts and more mature than what we had experienced. That has proven to be true! After about 3-4 years of this sort of emphasis, we saw great improvement in our student's abilities to sing more complex part music, and greater success in their performances. We began to see the need to continue to challenge some of our students. That was when we introduced an auditioned Ensemble for students in grades 9-12.

This small Ensemble (usually 4-12 singingers) performs a cappella music only, and music that is more difficult than the chorus at large could tackle. It also give that intimate ensemble experience to our students. The Ensemble has added more depth and joy to our choral programs.

If you are in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in mid-December or mid-May, come to one of our concerts. You will be treated to children in K-3 who can sing in unison and two parts, four-part singing from the whole group, and some lovely a cappella work. We usually present a 1 hour-plus performance of music, all from memory, and with a variety of styles and time periods represented.

If you are interested in the nuts and bolts of how this group works, leave me a comment or send me an e-mail. I love to share what we have learned!