20 Tips for Working with High School Youth Choirs

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As a youth choir director, you know what it’s like to balance the responsibilities of being a teacher and a friend, a spiritual leader and confidant.

You know the challenges and rewards of building community and creating a safe, supportive environment where all can be seen and heard and valued.

But how do you approach musical growth and development at this age? How do you handle the unpredictability of changing voices? In the age of smartphones and short attention spans, how do you keep them focused and engaged during rehearsals?

Here are a few helpful tips for working with 9th-12th grade singers:

Breathing Exercises

  1. Help your choir members learn to take full breaths, deep and low in the body. Remind them to stand tall, but relaxed. Encourage them to put their hands on their sides (above their hips) to feel the expansion around their mid-section as they breathe in.

  2. Use a variety of quick breathing exercises at the beginning of your rehearsal to get everyone relaxed on focused. Breathe in for four beats and exhale on “sh” for four beats. Then, try breathing in for four and out for eight, then sixteen, then twenty.

  3. Experiment with tempo and dynamic levels, encouraging your choir members to breathe a full, deep breath each time and exhale completely in the allotted number of beats.

  4. Chant the rhythm of a familiar hymn or song using consonant sounds like “ch” or “sh.” Or, use a different consonant sound for each phrase. Focus on creating a steady stream of air that is consistent and even and lasts throughout the phrase.

For more breath exercises, see Breathing Exercises for Choirs of All Ages.

Vocal Warm-Ups

  1. Warm-ups help prepare us to sing, but they’re also a great way to develop vocal technique, especially for those who are experiencing voice change. For your reference, the upper register of an unchanged voice should be bright and flute-like. The middle register is often full, though a little more breathy. The lower register should be rich and resonant. Choose warm-up patterns and keys that use all three registers, but focus on the upper register.

  2. The best warm-up exercises for youth singers are patterns that descend, helping your singers learn to carry their head voice down into the middle and lower registers. A simple 5-note descending scale using different vowel sounds is a go-to choice. Use long, sustained notes or short, repeated notes, but strive to incorporate that descending pattern as much as possible.

  3. Always encourage your choir members to sing with their best voice, even if it feels a little outside of their control.

  4. A good rule of thumb for the warm-up range is G below Middle C to G above Treble C, ideally working the octave D-D within this range.

For more vocal warm-up exercises, see The Ultimate Guide to Children's Choir Warm-Ups and 50 Awesome Choral Warm-Ups for Church Choirs.

Working with Changing Voices

  1. All singers experience voice change. Though it’s more obvious with male voices, girls also experience voice change, often resulting in a breathier tone and inconsistencies between registers. Be patient and kind, flexible, and supportive, but most of all, encourage your singers to sing through their voice change, not shy away from it.

  2. Voice your choir at the beginning of each semester, assigning parts based on what you hear in each voice.

  3. Have the girls in your choir sing a familiar hymn or song together in a few different keys. Listen for good tone and those who can sing comfortably and confidently in all parts of the range and divide them into sopranos and altos based on this. Repeat this process with the guys in your choir, dividing them into tenors/unchanged voices and baritones/basses (changed voices).

  4. Listen to the guys in your choir sing often and make adjustments to their parts on particular anthems, as needed. Their voices may change dramatically in just a few weeks.

For more practical suggestions, see Tips for Working with Middle School Youth Choirs and Tips for Working with Changing Voices in Youth Choir.

Choosing Anthems and Other Music

  1. Students in 9th-12th grade are soaking up lots of new experiences - things that will change their lives and empower them going forward. The music you sing in choir can offer words and meaning to go with some of those experiences - things that will stay with them long after they graduate.

  2. Choose music that offers a musical challenge (and a choral challenge), but also informs their faith, in some way, and helps them learn about who they are and who God is.

  3. Look for music written for SATB choirs or 3-part mixed (rather than SAB). Sometimes, the baritone part in SAB anthems is written right around the break and can be challenging for those whose voices haven’t fully changed.

For a few age-appropriate anthem suggestions, see Top 50 Favorite Anthems for Youth Choir.

Building Engagement

  1. Encourage your singers to stand or sit with a tall back, take deep breaths, open their mouths, etc. because it will help them sing better. Even if their voice feels unpredictable today, remind them to think about these things, keep trying, and give it their best effort.

  2. Create an environment where youth feel welcome, accepted, and valued. Ask lots of questions as you teach and encourage your singers to take risks and experiment.

  3. Build community among the group by asking a "question of the day” sometime during your rehearsal. This can be something as simple as “Who’s your favorite superhero?” or “What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?” Ask the question, have your singers raise their hands to answer, and move quickly around the room to hear people's responses. This is a fun way to learn about each other (in 30 seconds or less!) and take a quick break in the middle of rehearsal.

  4. Walking is a great way to reenergize your rehearsal. Invite your choir members to get up out of their seats for a minute, sing and step in time with the music or with the rhythm of their specific part.

  5. Give your choir members ownership and autonomy as much as you can. Ask for volunteers to form a planning committee for Youth Sunday or a devotional committee or a Choir Tour committee. Invite a few artistically-inclined members to help design choir T-shirts. Ask for their ideas about outreach and ways they'd like to be involved in and give back to the community. This will help them feel involved, connected, and valued.

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What are your best tips for working with a high school youth choir? I’d love to hear!