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Building Literacy Within the Choral Rehearsal

Jeanne Wohlgamuth
OCDA President
Greetings from the Ohio Choral Directors Association! This article focuses on a topic close to my heart – fostering literacy in the choral classroom. I've observed that when my singers can interpret the content on the written page, my role becomes significantly more manageable. Rather than teaching each note through constant repetition and bearing the entire load myself, I can transfer the learning to my singers and step into the role of facilitator.
In every educational subject, there exists a literacy component that can be referred to as the "language" of the disci-pline – the skills we cultivate to communicate effectively and intelligently. In mathematics class, one acquires the language of mathematics, and in science class, the expectation is to grasp the language of science. Shouldn't we sim-ilarly expect that our singers become proficient in the language of music?
For me, the answer is yes. As I finish the year with my singers, my vision goes beyond them merely performing their parts in the songs we've worked on during their choir journey. The goal is for my singers to develop the capacity to read, write, create, and communicate, with proficiency, using the language of music. I believe it is a vital, lifelong skill.
In this article, I propose building music literacy through a process mirroring a child's natural development during their preschool-age years and initial formal education. Literacy acquisition initiates at birth, as our parents engage us in conversations, read to us, and sing to us, establishing a repertoire of sounds and setting the groundwork for our ongoing literacy growth. Upon entering school, our literacy skills are refined through methods such as phonics or the whole language approach, ultimately enabling us to independently pick up a book, read it, and comprehend its con-tent.
I will briefly touch on the correlation between phonics and the whole language approach to music literacy. To be clear, the best way to teach music literacy is to blend both approaches to provide our singers with the greatest tools for fluency. Knowing musical elements (phonics) helps our singers to identify, isolate, and fix problem areas that may occur when reading. Being able to identify melodic and rhythmic patterns within the context of the octavo (whole language) will help them become faster readers.
First, it is essential to note that the development of music literacy does not occur overnight or with the occasional use of sight-reading materials during the warm-up portion of a rehearsal. It requires a deliberate and continuous ef-fort to weave literacy into every rehearsal. Just as we didn’t acquire language by sporadic exposure once a week or at our parents’ discretion, we instead were immersed in it daily from the moment we entered the world.
You must have a system when building your toolbox of musical elements or sounds as they relate to musical sym-bols. It can be numbers, letter names, fixed “do," moveable “do.” It does not matter. What does matter is that you are consistent with your process. For my purposes, I use solfege syllables, moveable “do,” “la” based minor, and rhythm syllables.
I begin my “whole language” journey through the teaching of an octavo by performing the following multi-step pro-cess. Through this process, I can break down the music into its smallest components and gradually layer each ele-ment until we return to the whole.


Devote time to thoroughly examine your musical score. It is essential to have a comprehensive understanding of your music. Personally, this process involves annotating all the solfege, aiding in internalizing the music, and grasp-ing its harmonic structure. It also enables the identification of potential challenges that singers may face in navi-gating the octavo. Using a moveable “do” solfege system, I pinpoint places where there might be an implied modu-lation. Recognizing these modulations informs me that transitioning to the implied tonal center will facilitate the students' reading of that specific section. Afterward, I compile a list of the melodic and rhythmic motifs/patterns present in the song. This can include identifying all of them or focusing only on those that are repetitive and condu-cive to effective teaching.


In this phase of preparation, reflect on the following questions. What knowledge do my singers need to know for successful reading, singing, or performance of this piece? Consider the choir’s vocal proficiency, literacy skills, and maturity level. List all of the melodic and rhythmic elements in the octavo. Once noted, assess what aspects of the octavo your singers can independently execute, identify aspects of the octavo that surpass their current knowledge and skill level, and determine which aspects can be taught through the octavo. This analytical process enables you to deconstruct the music into its smallest components, providing a clear roadmap for sequentially layering these com-ponents to reconstruct the entire octavo.


This is the fun part of your preparation, the time when you can be creative and pull from the many different philos-ophies of teaching (Kodaly, Orff, Dalcroze, etc.) to create engaging lessons for your singers. Develop three to four possible scenarios/activities for teaching a piece to your choir. Be sure to address melodic and rhythmic ele-ments/patterns in your teaching. Show a progression from sound to symbol, concrete to abstract, known to un-known.
This is the creative aspect of teaching! Work to balance skill learning and building their “literacy toolbox” with prep-aration for the musical performance. Include in every rehearsal one or more activities to help develop the following literacy skills; music reading, writing, improvisation, composition, memory, inner hearing (audiation), form, listen-ing, conducting, and terminology.


This is your rehearsal/lesson plan. Make every moment of your rehearsal count, from when your singers enter your rehearsal space to when they leave. Develop ways to smoothly transition from one octavo to another. These activi-ties will set your singers up for success by front-loading or reinforcing their learning while keeping them actively engaged. Some techniques that could be implemented are as easy as asking your singers to listen and repeat as you sing several phrases taken from the octavo. These phrases can be sung and repeated on a neutral syllable or using your system of sight-reading (numbers, letter names, solfege). Alternatively, you can challenge your singers by ask-ing them to interpret or decode the melodic or rhythmic phrases you sing or speak. Activities like improvisation and error detection also serve as effective transitional tools.
Below are some ideas that have been collected over my teaching career. These suggestions can be seamlessly inte-grated into your lesson plan or serve as transitions between different octavos. Many of these concepts are versatile and can effectively reinforce both rhythmic and melodic patterns within your octavos.
Poison Pattern: The Director presents a pattern to the singers that becomes the “poison” pattern. This pattern can be either one that you will introduce or a known pattern to be practiced. Singers echo the pattern. Once the “poison” pattern is known, the singers are instructed only to speak the pat-terns different from the “poison” pattern. The Director begins to speak different patterns, and if a student repeats the “poison” pattern, they are “out.”
Isolate Pattern: The Director asks the singers to clap a specific rhythmic pattern pulled from the oc-tavo. Each time the pattern occurs in the song, they clap that particular rhythm or pattern as they sing.
Ping Pong: Using rhythmic elements from the octavo, the director speaks a pattern. A selected sing-er is tasked with improvising a fresh pattern that begins with the final beat of the director's pattern. The choir is then asked to repeat the new pattern. The next singer then takes the last beat of the first singer’s pattern and improvises a new rhythmic pattern.
Audiation: The Director sings or speaks a melodic or rhythmic phrase, and the choir is asked to re-peat singing or speaking aloud only certain parts of the phrase. For example, they might be instructed to sing or speak aloud only the first beat, while audiating the remaining beats. Alternatively, they may be asked to vocalize only the notes do, mi, and so, with the other scale tones being audiated.
Which pattern am I performing? The director selects melodic or rhythmic patterns from the octavo and displays them on the board, assigning each a number. The Director speaks or sings a pattern us-ing a neutral syllable, and the choir indicates their response by holding up the corresponding number of fingers. The choir is then asked to sing the correct answer using solfege or speak the right rhyth-mic pattern using rhythm syllables.
Interval Arrows: The singers decipher a melody using solfege, given only the starting pitch/solfege and directional intervals. These numbers indicate an interval size, not quality, such as major or minor
Chord Chart: Use a chord chart to prep chord changes in an octavo. Below is the chord chart for the first page of Music, When Soft Voices Die (SSA)

Modal Exchange:
The Director sings a pattern in a particular modality, and the choir sings it back in a different modality. For example, change major to minor, minor to major, major or minor to modal, modal to major or minor. This activity can be implemented during the transition from one modality to another, facilitating a smooth shift as you switch between different octavos.

Improvisation: Ask the singers to improvise new patterns using the melodic elements or rhythmic el-ements found in the octavo.
Create activities that can be implemented quickly as you move from one octavo to another. These activities can be short and engaging and will help build your singer's ears and decoding skills.
Investing time in developing singers' music literacy is a gradual process, but the long-term benefits are substantial. Through dedicated preparation, singers gain musical independence, read and sing scores independently, grasp new repertoire quickly, and reduce the need for constant corrections. This approach enhances student ownership, pre-venting boredom and classroom management issues, allowing more time for interpreting and conveying the essence of music in performances.
As I wrap up this article, it wouldn't be complete without sharing some of the exciting events taking place in OCDA. Hopefully, you had the chance to attend some of the OCDA-sponsored sessions at the OMEA Professional Conference. We are thrilled to collaborate with OMEA and present three reading sessions. Our R&R Chairs have put in considerable effort to offer a diverse selection of difficulty levels and genres within easy voicing.
We are excited to return to Capital University June 24-26, 2024 for our OCDA Summer Conference, themed “From the Inside Out.”. Our headliners include Dr. Julie Yu, (Oklahoma City University), Dr. Derrick Fox, (Michigan State University), and Dr. Kelly Miller (University of Central Florida). We are also excited to announce the addition of a one-day middle school track on June 26 and the addition of an early music interest and reading session.
Kindly consider recommending your students in grades 4-8 to participate in our Treble Honor Choir. I am confident that they will have an enjoyable and educational experience under the guidance of our guest conductor, Dr. Libby Hainrihar from Wittenberg University. For your high school singers, there is an opportunity to audition for the High School Honor Choir. They will have the privilege of spending their time with the exceptional Dr. Jordan Saul from The Ohio State University.
It's worth noting that recommending teachers or instructors do not necessarily need to be OMEA/ACDA members, though joining these organizations is encouraged.
You can find all the relevant links in the Winter 2024 Edition of the OCDA News on the OCDA website.