Surviving School Chorus

Choral survivor: how to make it in the musical wilderness


Find yourself in a choir class but you’re not quite sure how you got there? Confused about this whole “music” thing? Worried you can’t sing? Stop stressing. Chorus isn’t as complicated as you think. The following is a simple guide to the world of school choir. Sit up straight in your chair, take a deep breath, and read on.

Head Game: Rethinking Chorus

The first step to getting through chorus is to think of it as a class. You’ll succeed in chorus the same way you’d succeed in any other area of school: by staying focused, studying hard, and doing your homework (yup, that’s right, homework!). No one expects you to be a great musician or have the prettiest voice in the world; you just have to show you’re trying.

Here are a few basic pointers:

Don’t talk. This may come as a surprise, but you can’t talk and sing at the same time. Treat your classmates and your teacher with respect and don’t chat during class.

Put the electronics away. Choir class can be a fun and exciting atmosphere, but don’t let yourself get too comfortable. Remember, you’re not in your living room. As with any class, give chorus your full attention. Shut off all cell phones, iPods, and Blackberries. No texting, no tweeting, no facebooking–– just music.

Practice good posture. Make sure your body is always prepared to sing. Even when you sit down, try to make sure your back is straight (not rigid, just straight) and your shoulders don’t lean too far forward. Also, always try to hold your music half way between your head and your hips. Don’t hide your face behind your choir book.

Watch your volume. Try not to sing louder than everyone else. Chorus is a joint effort, so play nice and be considerate. Unless you’re singing a solo, blend in as best you can.

Go for some extra credit. Get yourself pumped for class by doing some research on the songs you’re singing. Find out if the lyrics are from a poem or based on a book. If the song is from a musical, try listening to the whole show. All this background knowledge will help you with your performance and probably really impress your teacher.

Be physically prepared. Now that you’re using your voice on a regular basis, take good care of it. Don’t talk or scream too much during the day. Also, try some exercise—this will help with your breath support when you sing.

If you follow the steps above, who knows? Chorus may become your favorite class of the day. At the very least, you’ll probably have a lot of fun, which is a big part of making music.

First Timers

“But what if I can’t sing?” – Tips for the Choir Newbie

Here’s a little known secret: pretty much everyone can sing. Odds are, you’ve probably done plenty of singing in your lifetime without even realizing it. Ever sung “Old MacDonald”? How about “Happy Birthday”? Those songs may seem silly, but practice with that kind of stuff makes you an ideal candidate for a chorus. Experienced choral director and author Jean Ashworth Bartle writes that “early exposure” to simple musical tunes and rhymes is a perfect way to get “ready” for choir class. You’re already more prepared than you thought.

Still feeling nervous? If you find yourself feeling musically insecure, try these problem-solving techniques:

Problem: I can’t find the notes and I sing off pitch.
Think of singing as something you do with your ears as well as with your voice. Listen carefully. Ask your teacher to sing your notes first and then repeat them back to her as best you can. After class, try practicing with a piano. Play one note over and over and see if you can match it with your voice. You can also get some friends together for a rehearsal. See how well each of you can listen to each other. Can you all hold the same note for an extended period of time? If not, don’t worry. This type of practice may not work the first time out. The key is to keep at it.

Problem: My choral songs are too hard to learn.
Take your music piece by piece. Songs, like sentences, have natural breaks and can be divided into “phrases.” For example:

Phrase 1: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” (break)
Phrase 2: “How I wonder what you are” (break)
Phrase 3:
“Up above the world so high” (break)
Phrase 4: “Like a diamond in the sky” (break)

If your song seems too long or too difficult, take it home and review it one phrase at a time. Not sure where your phrases begin and end? Experts like Ms. Bartle say it’s helpful to “feel” phrases by doing something physical while you’re singing. Dance around as you sing. Did you feel the urge to stop at a certain point? That’s probably because you hit on a musical pause and you’ve completed a phrase.

Problem: I keep getting lost in the middle of the music.
When in doubt, watch your teacher. Your teacher is responsible for giving you enough clues to keep you on track. Their arm motions will help you keep a steady beat and they will always cue you when it’s your time to sing. Don’t just follow your classmates. In musical situations, the conductor is always in charge.

Problem: Rhythm is too scary for me.
Rhythm is a tricky business. Here again, it may also be helpful to try and “feel” your rhythms, that is, make them a physical rather than a mental thing. Try clapping (quietly!) in rhythm as you sing. Gather a few classmates after school and see if you can all stomp your feet in time with your choir music. You can also find some recordings of the songs you’re singing in class and clap along at home.

Problem: My throat hurts after class.
If your voice is hurting, do not sing. Instead, talk to your teacher and make sure she is aware of how your voice sounds and what notes (high, low, middle) are the most comfortable for you. Don’t think once you’re assigned to a voice part you have to stay with that part no matter what. Voices are funny things—today you might be a bass, but tomorrow you could be a tenor.

How Chorus Helps

“What’s the point of all this, anyway?” – The Advantages of Chorus

Choir class is just another boring school assignment with no benefits whatsoever, right? Wrong! Consider these thoughts on how chorus can help you both during school and after the last bell rings:

It’s a confidence builder.

Studies show that students feel better about themselves once they’ve performed with a chorus. Think about it: You’re able to dress up and perform in front of all of your friends and family––that takes guts. After that, a book report or a class presentation should be no sweat.

Chorus is a social network.

Ever seen Glee? Nothing beats the feeling of togetherness you get from singing in a group. Experts even say choral singing creates a special “family” atmosphere. Jocks, math whizzes, cheerleaders, science geniuses—when the lights go up, you’re all just part of a team of performers. Chorus will most likely introduce you to some new people and expand your group of friends.

Music helps you perform better in school.

Lots of what goes on in choir class can be applied to your other school subjects. Because music is a product of history, literature, and math, you’re bound to pick up some helpful information while singing in a chorus. Not convinced? Take a look at this chart featuring various notes and their names:

w (1 whole note) =
h h (2 half notes) =
qqqq (4 quarter notes) =
rtty rtty (8 eighth notes) =
dffg dffg dffg dgfg (16 sixteenth notes)

Seem familiar? Surprise! It’s basic division. Just looking at music requires that you stay on your mathematical toes. Once you practice your rhythms, fractions will seem easy.

The more you know about music, the more you can impress your friends.

Stick with chorus, and you’ll be able to wow people with your musical knowledge. Picture this: You and your friends from the soccer team are listening to a song on the radio and you stop what you’re doing and say to everyone, “Hey, did you guys know this song was in 4/4 time?” Cue shock and awe. How cool was that? You just taught your friends something new and you looked like a total genius. Thanks, chorus!

Musical Vocabulary


Like any language, music has its own vocabulary. When you start singing with a chorus, there will be a lot of new words thrown at you. Don’t panic. These are just fancy terms that musicians use to get the job done, and they’re not nearly as scary as they look. Here is a small “vocab” list to help get you started.

Alphabet Soup:

On your first day of class, you may hear a lot of random letters thrown around. The teacher might say, “Please sing a C,” or “Can the altos start on an A?” Don’t sweat it. Those letters are just the names musicians give certain notes. And the cool thing is, there are only seven letters that are ever used:

A, B, C, D, E, F and G

That’s it. No more. What’s that? How can there be so many notes on a piano, you ask? Well, ever hear two notes that sound the same but one just seems higher than the other (like when a man and a woman sing together)? The notes sound similar because they have the same name. See? Most notes on a piano are just higher or lower versions of notes you already know.

The Basics:

Melody The tune of a song. Melody is the recognizable theme that takes the listener through the music. In a chorus, the sopranos and tenors usually control the melody. Need an example? Try humming “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Yup, you’ve just hummed a melody.

Harmony The notes that support the melody and add extra color and texture to the music. Any time you sing a note that’s different from the person sitting next to you, that’s a kind of harmony. For choral purposes, harmony is usually a job for the altos and basses.

Key The basic skeleton of a particular piece of music. The key determines what notes will be used in a song and provides a nice little structure for the singer and the listener. If your music were a painting, the key would be the brightest and most obvious color.

Scale Usually a set of eight notes that makes up the backbone of your “key.” Heard of “do, re, me, fa, sol, la, ti, do”? That’s a scale.

Measure A small segment of music that holds a specific number of beats. Measures are separated from each other using little vertical lines that look like this:


Still confused? Try thinking of a song like a castle made out of Legos. Each measure counts as one Lego block.

Beat A simple unit of rhythm. Ever clapped along with a song? Those claps were beats!

Major Does the song you’re singing make you feel happy? It’s probably in a major key. Major is just a special adjective for a specific type of key that usually sounds cheerful.

Minor Feeling depressed? Maybe it’s because you’re singing in a minor key. Minor is a word used to describe keys that often sound sad, spooky, or unsettling.

Voice Types:

Soprano The highest voice part in the chorus, usually sung by women.

Alto The second highest voice part, also usually sung by women. This part does a lot of harmonizing.

Tenor A middle-to-high range voice part, usually sung by men. Tenors often sing many of the same melodies as the sopranos.

Bass The lowest voice part, sung by men. Basses often sing with the altos.

Musical Symbols: 

Treble Clef (or “G” Clef)

The swirly symbol on the top line of any given section of choral music. Sopranos and altos will most often sing within the lines and spaces covered by this clef.

Treble Clef

Bass Clef

The slightly less swirly symbol with two dots on the bottom line of a section of choral music. Tenors and basses will most often sing within the lines and spaces of this clef.

Bass Clef

Sharp #

A symbol that tells you a note should be sung at a slightly higher pitch than usual.

Flat Flat Symbol

A symbol that tells you a note should be sung at a slightly lower pitch than usual.

Natural ♮

A symbol that indicates a note should be sung normally (not higher or lower, but just as it’s written).

Time Signature

Those little numbers at the beginning of each song. For example:

Time Signature

The top one tells you how many beats are going to be in each measure, while the bottom one indicates the type of note that will be used (a 4 means you’ll use quarter notes, an 8 means eighth notes, etc.)



If you see any of these symbols, it means it’s time to take a break. With a whole rest, you have an entire measure to just chill out. But be careful, if you see an eighth or a sixteenth rest, you only have a little bit of time before you have to start singing again.

Rit. Short for the Italian “ritardando,” this marking means that the composer wants you to gradually slow down until the end of the phrase.

Cresc. Short for “crescendo.” If you see this sign, it’s time to crank up the volume and gradually raise your voice.

Decresc. Extra points if you can guess what “decrescendo” means. That’s right––when this shows up, begin lowering your voice.



Eleni Hagen
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor


Gordon, Lewis. Choral Director's Complete Handbook. West Nyack, NY: Parker Pub. Co., 1977.

Granum, Doris R. “Planting a Seed: Singing in Tune” from Spotlight on Teaching Chorus. Lanham: MENC: The National Association for Music Education, 2002.

Works Cited

Bartle, Jean Ashworth. Lifeline for Children's Choir Directors. Toronto: Gordon V. Thompson Music, 1988.

Holt, Michele and James Jordan. The School Choral Program. Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2008.

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