Teaching Three-Part Harmony

Choir rehearsal for "Robin Hood" musical at Xiuzhong

Teaching three-part harmony in China is like teaching three-part harmony in America—it’s difficult! Here at Xiuning Middle School (Xiuzhong for short), the only music the students produce is either in the shower or in their weekly “arts” class (and these classes are only scheduled for freshmen and consists of unison singing only). As part of an annual extracurricular tradition, the four Teaching Fellows here at Xiuzhong are preparing a musical, “Robin Hood,” which is set to go on stage in mid-May. After our first rehearsal last month, I realized that we had a fairly practical distribution of sopranos, altos, and basses among the 12 chorus students. I decided to try teaching individual parts to the three vocal sections.

What I learned was that when students have not had exposure to singing in sectionalized harmony, it is much easier to begin by feeding students their vocal lines in a call-and-response style. This kind of rote memorization and repetition of melodies was an effective way of teaching harmony quickly.

This past weekend during our annual spring teaching conference, I worked with some visiting Teaching Fellows from Changsha and Hong Kong to try to employ a more self-sustaining method of singing. We rehearsed one of our songs without the crutch of a piano, and we discovered that a cappella singing (without accompaniment) was perhaps not as easy as those singers at Carnegie Hall make it seem! The moment I took them outside of the music room—and therefore outside the comfort of hearing their lines with the piano—their polished harmony collapsed, as well as their confidence. Nevertheless, I expect the students to rise to the occasion, as students from previous plays have done.

Opening night is just a month and a half away! We started with students who were just headshots and names in our computers, and now the actors have become the characters. On top of everything, all of the students are using only English! We’re so proud, and we can’t wait to share more stories about these amazing students!

Check out these two audio samples from our “Robin Hood” choir rehearsals.

Two Tigers–the students sing “Frere Jacques” in Chinese in a round at the first rehearsal.

Happy Birthday–the students sing a version of “Happy Birthday” in three-part harmony. This is their second time rehearsing this song with all three parts. They learned this in 15 minutes.

About Annie

A native speaker of Mandarin Chinese, Annie Lin joins the Teaching Fellowship with experience as a tutor and as a music teacher. She was a reading tutor for the Yale Reading Corps at Wexler Grant Community School, and a member of the Yale Concert Band, Yale Precision Marching Band, and Ezra Stiles Wind Ensemble. Annie has also worked as an assistant marketing coordinator and event coordinator for the Performing Arts Center at California Polytechnic University and as a development assistant for the San Luis Obispo Symphony. Annie has taught piano lessons, directed music for plays, and played in pit orchestras for musical theater. After her two years in China, Annie hopes to pursue a career in arts administration or non-profits based on her passion for music.
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