Sing & Play: How to Use Instruments with Your Children's Choir

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Do you use instruments with your children's choir?

Playing an instrument - even if it's just a few jingle bells on a pipe cleaner - is a great way to foster musical development in your young singers.

Here are a few of the primary benefits:

1. It helps children be actively involved in the music-making process.

Children learn by doing, by moving, by experimenting. Music is a form of play, for young children, especially, and interacting with it through playing instruments and singing only deepens their experience.

2. It gives children an opportunity to be creative and explore music in new ways.

Playing instruments gives children an opportunity to improvise and even compose their own rhythm patterns and short melodies in ways that are more challenging in a choral setting.

3. It broadens children's horizons and exposes them to new sounds and timbres.

In addition, it gives you an opportunity to talk about high vs. low sounds, loud vs. soft, fast vs. slow, and other musical contrasts.

Have I convinced you? If you're looking for ways to incorporate instruments into your children's choir, you're in the right place. 

Let's start by talking about instrument types.

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Types of Instruments

There are three primary groups of instruments: Orff, chimes/bells, and percussion. Here are some of the instruments that fall under each of these categories:

     
     

    Orff Instruments

    • metallophone (metal)
    • xylophone (wood)
    • glockenspiel (bells)

    The metallophone is great for longer note values (whole notes, half notes), since it takes a while for the sound to decay. Xylophones are great for melodies and ostinato patterns, as well as harmonic accompaniment patterns. Glockenspiel work well for introductions, interludes, and melodies.

     
     

    Hand Chimes & Handbells

    • colored handbells (for preschool children)
    • hand chimes

    For more on using colored handbells with children, see this post: How to Start a Children's Handbell Choir and this video.

    Rhythm & Percussion Instruments

    • claves or rhythm sticks
    • maracas
    • triangle
    • hand drum, tom, or tubano
    • tambourine
    • finger cymbals
    • shakers
    • guiro
    • wood block
    • sand block
    • jingle bells
    • rainstick
    • body percussion (snap, clap, tap)

    If your church doesn't have any instruments, this is a great place to start. Some of these you can make yourself: wood blocks, sand blocks, rhythm sticks (dowels), jingle bells, shakers (plastic eggs with dried rice), etc.

    For more on different types of percussion instruments, see this post: Classroom Instruments: Small Percussion


    How to Introduce Instruments to Your Choir

    When it comes to introducing instruments to your choir, there are a few things you should know. Here are a few helpful tips and teaching strategies:

    Practice First

    First, it's important to have children demonstrate the rhythm in their hands first (clapping or tapping). Then, have them pretend to play the instruments before they actually have them in their hands.

    Rest, Ready, Play

    Before you pass out the instruments, explain that there are three different positions: Rest, Ready, and Play (source). Have the children practice these before they’re holding an instrument.

    Rest = instrument on floor, sticks/mallets on shoulder or head (like antennae)
    Ready = instrument in hand, sticks/mallets ready to play, eyes on director
    Play = playing rhythm pattern, playing melody, improvising, making music!

    Demonstrate Basic Playing Technique

    Pull out the instrument you’re introducing, name it, and demonstrate what it sounds like and how to play it.

    If you’re introducing an instrument with mallets (e.g. metallophone, xylophone), demonstrate how to hold the mallets (hold between your thumb and forefinger, then wrap the rest of your fingers loosely around). Pass out mallets to those who will be playing (ask them to show the "rest" position until you give further instructions), then have them practice tapping a steady beat on the floor before playing the instrument. Feel the mallet bounce off the ground each time. (source)

    For younger children, consider removing bars you don’t need to make it easier for children to recognize patterns and play successfully from the start. For instance, you might start with C, D, E, G, and A.

    Divide the Group in Half

    Depending on the age of your singers, consider giving instruments to half the group while the other half sings, keeps a steady beat, and observes. Then, have them switch. Things are less likely to get out of control this way (source). 

    Give Them a Chance to Try it Out

    Once everyone has their instrument, give them an opportunity to try it out for themselves. Give them a set amount of time to experiment (maybe 15 seconds), then have them return to “rest” position. 

    Practice Following Directions

    Practice going from “rest” to “ready” a few times, then give them a simple pattern to play when you give them the cue. Give the other group instructions ("clap the same pattern as the instruments," "keep a steady beat,” or “tap this different pattern”) and give them a minute to practice. Then, try putting both parts together.


    Things to Do with Instruments

    There are lots of ways you can use instruments with your children’s choir, both in rehearsal and in worship. Here are a few ideas:

    Musical story-telling

    Tell a Bible story and have the children create their own sound effects in response. Come up with some ideas in advance - instruments that might portray certain characters or play when certain words are said. Some stories that work really well: Noah's Ark ("and the rain came down"), Jesus Walking on Water ("wind," "waves"), and the Nativity (try using different instruments to represent different characters).

    Underscoring

    Instrumental underscores are great for Scripture readings, narration, or rhythmic chants. 

    Here are a few video examples:
    Jesus Loves Me (The First Church Orff Kids)
    The Armor of God Scripture Reading (Country Club Christian Church)

    Accompanying

    Use a simple ostinato pattern, cluster chords for chimes or bells, open 5ths (melodic or harmonic), or the notes of the bass line to accompany a choral anthem, hymn, or song.

    Here are a few video examples:
    Mary Had a Baby
    Gloria (St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto)
    What Wondrous Love
    O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (Northwood Presbyterian Church)
    Hymn Medley (First United Methodist Church, Natchitoches, Louisiana)


    Music Collections

    If you’re just getting started, these collections might be helpful to you. Each one includes several songs/anthems for children’s choir with corresponding instrumental parts.

    Rejoice with Drum and Voice
    Kerri Lynn Nichols
    Includes: Do Unto Others; For God So Loved; God is Love; Jesus, Jesus; Somebody's Knockin' at Your Door; Kum Ba Yah/Amazing Grace; and more

    Children’s Orff Music for Church, Vol. I
    Michael R. Nichols
    Includes: Give God the Glory, The B-I-B-L-E, Let Your Light Shine Before Men, Jesus In the Morning, Thank You for Loving Me, Sing to the Lord a Joyful Song, God's Holy Spirit, Angels and Shepherds Come This Day, Easter Morning

    Praise and Honor: Six Anthems
    Michael Burkhardt
    Unison/2-part
    Includes: Ezekiel Saw the Wheel; Love Consecrates the Humblest Act; Oh, Won’t You Sit Down?; Praise and Honor; This Little Light of Mine; and Who Built the Ark?

    Come to Bethlehem: Five Carols
    Michael Burkhardt
    Unison/2-part/3-part
    Includes: He Is Born; Whence Comes this Rush of Wings; Come to Bethlehem with Me; On December Five and Twenty; Kling Glockchen


    Learn More

    Want to learn more about teaching instrumental technique and using instruments with your choir?

    Helpful video workshops:

    Make a Joyful Noise: Instruments in the Children’s Choir Rehearsal (Part I)
    Make a Joyful Noise: Instruments in the Children’s Choir Rehearsal (Part II)
    Make a Joyful Noise: Instruments in the Children’s Choir Rehearsal (Part III)
    Celebrating the Season: Advent & Christmas (Part I)
    Celebrating the Season: Advent & Christmas (Part II)

    An inside look at an Orff classroom:

    Learning music through Orff Schulwerk

    A doctoral thesis with several sample teaching plans:

    Teaching Children Hymns in the Church Setting Using Orff and Kodály-Based Strategies

    Do you use instruments with your children’s choir? What are your favorite ways to use them?