Beliefnet
Excerpted from his book "John Bertalot's Immediately Practical Tips for Choral Directors."

Cast of Characters:

  • The director of the church choir
  • A new choir parent, Mrs. McArthur
  • Eight-year-old Shelton McArthur, who feels nervous about joining the choir

    Director: "Mrs. McArthur? Welcome to our church! And this is Shelton?" (He shakes the boy's hand.) "Hi, Shelton! Thanks for coming. Let me show you our super practice room." (He asks the choir librarian to show Mrs. McArthur around the church so that he and the boy can get to know one another.)

    1. Take an interest in the boy's interests.
    "Well now, Shelton," said the director as he led the boy towards the grand piano at the end of the room, "that's a bright T-shirt you're wearing. Where did you get it?" He sat down on the piano stool so that the boy would be less intimidated by him.

    "My Mom bought it for me after I'd won a game of tennis at school."

    "You play tennis, do you? That must be exciting."

    "Yes it is. We're playing a match against another junior school next Saturday."

    "How often do you do that?"

    "About once a month."

    "Do you win?"

    "Sometimes." He paused and the director waited for him to continue. "I'm starting piano lessons this term," he added.

    "That's terrific! You're pretty busy then?"

    "Yes! I sing in the school choir, too."

    2. Start unthreateningly by asking the boy to sing just one note.
    "Since you sing in the school choir," the director said, "I'm sure you can sing this note for me." The director played middle G and modeled an "Ah" vowel for the boy. What came out wasn't very good, but at least it was on pitch.

    3. Don't tell the child what to do. Ask questions.
    "When you sing, should your mouth be open or closed?"

    "Open!"

    "Yes! Put two fingers in your mouth, like this," and the director again showed the boy what he wanted. "Now that's an 'Ah' mouth! Try that note again with a super mouth."

    4. Introduce the singing of sustained notes for exact numbers of beats at the first lesson.
    Most children's choirs can't do this, but your kids will if you show them how simple it is."Okay," says the director, "now sing the same note while I count to four, like this." The director sang the note for four counts, coming off on the fifth as he pointed rhythmically to the fingers of his left hand, coming off when he reached the thumb. The boy did it, but stopped too soon.

    5. Let the child figure out what he does wrong.
    "Was that wholly right?" asked the director.

    "No."

    "What did you do wrong?"

    "I stopped too soon."

    "Yes! If a note is four counts long, on which beat should you finish, the fourth or the fifth?"

    There was a pause while the boy thought. "The fifth."

    "Well done! Let's do it again."

    He did and it was right.

    6. Show as much pleasure when the child tries hard but doesn't get it right as when he does.
    "That was the right length--well done!" said the director with a grin. "But how was your mouth?"

    "Oh, it was shut."

    "Let's try three fingers in your mouth this time for a really good 'Ah.'" The boy grinned and tried it, then sang the note as the director counted on his fingers so that the boy could see exactly when to start and when to stop. "Was that right?"

    "Yes!

    Yes, it was indeed."

    7. Gradually extend the range of notes upwards, and add to the number of beats to the notes so that the child is challenged.
    For the next couple of minutes, the director led the boy in singing G and a few notes higher, for five, six and even up to ten beats in length, always counting on his fingers so the boy was challenged, but not threatened. Occasionally, Shelton forgot to open his mouth as much as he should, or he sustained a note for too long or too short a time. Each time the director followed the pattern of telling him what he had done right, then asking him what he had done wrong. (e.g. "You're making a great sound, Shelton, your mouth's super, but did you sustain that note for its full five beats?")

    8. Start with a song the child knows.
    "Do you know 'My Country, 'Tis of Thee'?" asked the director, opening a hymnal. "Yes, we sing it at school," answered Shelton, becoming more talkative now that he was getting to know this man. "Oh, good! Then let's sing a stanza," and he played the opening chord lightly on the piano.

    The performance wasn't good; the boy's mouth was almost shut again, the enunciation was barely discernible, and Shelton also breathed every other measure. Despite this, the director said, "Good!" a couple of times as the verse was being sung. "Do you know how many beats there are on the last note?"

    The boy looked at the music and said, after a pause, "Three!"

    "Yes, well done. And so if there are three beats on the word ring, on which beat will you stop, the third or the fourth?"

    "The fourth!" beamed the boy.

    "Good--then do it." And he did, unaccompanied, as the director counted the beats on his fingers again.

    9. Give the child an out.
    "Well, now then," said the director, taking the hymnal from a rather exhausted but exhilarated Shelton, "you don't know if you want to join the choir yet, because you haven't heard them sing, have you?"

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