Thursday, December 15, 2016

Tips for New Primary Choristers - Singing Time!

When I ran three legs of a 24-hour race several years ago, the second leg was a seven-mile stretch at 2 a.m., by myself, in the dark. I was tired but I loved the experience. I sang Primary songs in my mind for the whole of that stretch of running. It was a wonderful, uplifting way to make those miles go by quickly. 

In honor of today's #lighttheworld Christmas initiative (, I've posted about being a new Primary chorister and the wonderful opportunity it gives us to worship and teach through song.

I have had the honor of serving in the Primary as a Primary teacher, a Primary chorister, and then currently, as Primary president. This has given me the opportunity to observe this calling from different perspectives. Every chorister that I have observed has had their unique traits and been wonderful in different ways. This post is for new choristers on some of the things that I have observed and experienced, about how to jump into this calling and be successful. 

What to expect, on a high level:
> You'll sit in the front of the room where you'll be prepared to help with opening exercises, which could possibly entail an opening song, a birthday song, a welcome song, and an Article of Faith song.
> After opening exercises you'll teach music for 20 minutes, focusing on the song that was assigned by the First Presidency, for that month. There are some optional months.
> You'll have a break during Sharing Time but could be asked to help with songs.
> You'll lead a closing song.
> You'll repeat this same arrangement in Senior Primary.

If you have any additional tips to add, or questions, I'd love to see them in the comments!

11 Tips for New Choristers

1. Don't stress
First, welcome to one of the best callings ever. According to the church handbook, you have 20 minutes for singing time, vs. the presidency only having 15 minutes for sharing time! At first, those 20 minutes will go by very slowly but don't stress about it. You'll get the hang of things, and soon you'll be wishing you had twice as long. Now, sometimes it will be less than 20 minutes because sacrament can get out late, things happen during Primary, etc. Prepare to be flexible with your time. If you do everything with the spirit, it will all work out.

Also, every chorister messes up - sings the wrong words, forgets a line, forgets that song repeats, forgets a kid's name, etc. It's totally normal and nobody is judging you for it. So don't feel dumb, don't feel bad, just have fun! Also, memorization will come naturally with preparation and faith. I found that I naturally began to memorize the song as I prepared lessons around them, especially if I was building a flip chart or putting together objects or actions to represent the words of the song. You'll also be able to put your music on a podium and refer to it. I also used my keyboard and to practice and sing to the songs before my lesson each Sunday. Our chorister that was just released mentioned she downloaded an app that played the songs so she could listen to them wherever she went.

2. Prepare your pianist
Make sure your pianist is prepared and knows what songs you want to work on, Plan out which songs you will be working on each Sunday at the beginning of the month and give them a one-month lookahead song list. That will really help them be able to help you during Singing Time. They have to learn a lot of songs, and even if they are super talented musicians, some of them find it frustrating that they do not get enough notice to practice their songs properly. We are lucky in our ward that we have a lot of pianists so we had two assigned to Primary. They were my support system when I was starting out in my new calling.

3. Don't try to teach the same way in Junior Primary as in Senior Primary.
A three-year-old in Junior Primary is going to bored to tears by an activity that involves a ton of reading, for instance, that is meant for an eleven-year-old in Senior Primary. And a Senior Primary child is going to roll their eyes at some of the things we did in Junior Primary! Some choristers have combined primary so they have some different challenges (and should be applauded for having to be extra creative!). But, when you are preparing your lesson, think about how you can adapt it for the other age group. You don't have to come up with two totally new things but you should be conscious of their ages.

4. Be yourself.
Don't try to follow someone else's Singing Time plan just because they told you it was an amazing success if it doesn't feel right to you. The few times I tried to do someone else's "big hit" activity that didn't feel right to me were the only times I felt like my Singing Time ever bombed. You have to feel comfortable with it. For example, I tried "singing measles," which is very effective with some choristers. I thought it was kind of weird, and so did my kids. I know a different chorister could do the same activity and totally love it. That was the Sunday I realized I like to be creative and I was just going to stick to my own ideas - or use someone else's idea if it resonated with me and my personal singing time style. I've seen choristers that are very loud and engaging, choristers that tell riveting stories and hardly use any visuals, choristers that seem a little stern, choristers that aren't very musical - and they've all been totally awesome because they were just themselves and figured out what works for their personality.

For me personally, I also didn't like having competitions be a part of singing time. Kids got riled up, sometimes they said mean things to the other team, and I felt like it often drove the spirit out of the room. Some choristers love competitions so for me, that's an example of "be yourself" but with a note of caution that you really do need to be careful that you're not so focused on using competition to memorize that you are forgetting that the point of the music is to learn the gospel and feel the spirit. As Primary president, I would say, if you are going to use competitions to teach, minimize this approach. When I had the kids play games, sometimes I had the whole room try to "win" together, rather than splitting them in half, and that worked really well for me.

5. Figure out a set of resources that work for you.
After a few months in this calling I really didn't need to look elsewhere (than the sharing time manual and scriptures) for inspiration but I still checked in once a while and sometimes was inspired by others. When you're new, definitely look around and get ideas. Some resources:
a) You can practice all your songs, even if you don't play music, by using to play along! This link also directs you to other pages that help you to learn your calling.
b) This Facebook group started in 2012 while I was still actively blogging and in the chorister calling. It now has 15,000+ people on it. A LOT of the people that were commenting on my site, and fellow bloggers, are regulars in this group.
They have a lot of great ideas. But DON'T get sucked into the negative chatter that can sometimes emerge and don't join in. The best thing you can do to be awesome at your calling is to prepare prayerfully. If you're engaging in negative feelings it's going to make your calling a lot harder.

6. Do interact with the children and learn their names.
The more you involve them and encourage them to participate, the better the experience for everyone.  If you forget their name, call them "Brother --" or "Sister --" because chances are you know their last name. Keep a roster by you so you can start figuring out names that way, too. You can look at the names during opening exercises, between songs. The children will know you better than any member of the primary presidency. You are their "it" person!

To give them a lot of opportunities to interact, some of my favorite singing times were when I asked the children to help me make up motions for a song when we were learning a new song. They loved doing this and sometimes came up with interesting things (sometimes I modified their idea or took a second suggestion if necessary). The trick to doing this is that you need to remember what motions they came up with for the next time you have singing time. Or, I gave the children specific assignments like "Stand up every time you hear the word 'light.'" Or, I would have an object, like a picture of Jesus, that I would ask them to hold up every time they sang heard/sang his name.

When leading music, I would also walk up to children that weren't paying attention, or specifically call out children that were talking and perhaps have them join me up front, or ask them a question. They were great sports and happy to participate. It was my job to notice that something I was doing wasn't working for them, and try to figure out how to involve them, how to teach them the gospel through music, and how to make sure they knew that they mattered, and that I knew them individually.

7. Do share your testimony each week. 
This may not feel natural to you at first but you are teaching the gospel and this is a special opportunity to close each singing time with your testimony. I learned to this by attending the annual stake training sessions. It's important that you are not afraid to bear your testimony. Our chorister is really awesome because there have been several times where she felt prompted to add a comment before we sang the closing song, which helped children to recognize the spirit in the room.

8. Don't be afraid to repeat an activity once in a while.
It's easy to get excited about making new visuals and develop new creative lessons each week, and that is totally awesome, but kids like to do things they enjoy again. Try to remember to bring stuff back once in a while. I'm thinking maybe every few months. I tended to get too excited about a new idea I wanted to try to repeat very often but the kids really do like to see their favorites brought back. For instance, I did Erupting Cups once a year. I probably could have done it more often than that but I tried to make sure to do that one at least once I year. I brought in bells at least once a year. I taught using the Echo Chamber a couple of times a year. That one is kind of weird but it's a fun way to throw in repetition and the kids love to get out of their chairs! The kids enjoyed rhythm/clapping activities especially if I split the room into two sides. I did that probably a few times a year. That same post also talks about hiding pictures around the room, which I did at least a couple of times a year. Our current primary chorister has a very similar style as me but still managed to almost never overlap my activities despite years in this calling. EXCEPT, we both did the rhythm/clapping games and hiding pictures around the room. They were well received activities.

9. Get creative with visuals.
At least for me it was tempting to make visuals for my singing time activity and/or lesson each week, but the costs add up quickly. While I could submit receipts most of the time I felt like it was an extraneous purchase and not a good use of ward money so I just paid for it myself for "fun" stuff I bought like a foam archery set (for an Olympic-themed singing time). To offset expenses (because I could easily spend $50+ a month on this and did once in a while when I couldn't resist, like the time I bought singing bells!), I started getting creative with cutting out cardboard from cereal boxes for my poster board and cutting out magazine pictures (instead of printing them full color), or going to the church distribution center to buy a packet of pictures for a couple of bucks. Or ask your presidency if they have packets of visuals available - turns out we have a ton in ours, and I had a know that, I could have saved money on the cost of ink! It was a fun challenge for me to make a bunch of fun stuff WITHOUT spending a lot of money. But, talk to your presidency because you'll likely need a few supplies.

10. When teaching a new song for the first time, try to repeat the song three times that day.
You don't always have to this but that's actually a proven magic number for learning things. Sorry, I don't have a source citation for you. It worked for me though. Refer to this post I shared in 2012 from our amazing stake chorister at the time, who came in during ward conference and taught a new song using many of the principles she had discussed with us in our stake training activity. You want to do activities that help children memorize the words of the songs so that they can have the benefit of the beautiful lyrics that teach the gospel and invite the spirit, readily accessible to them in their minds.

11. Don't bore your children trying to spend too much time on a song - but don't under-do it either.
You have one month to learn a new song every month from January through about August, because you have a new song to teach every month, and all of those songs need to be memorized in time for the Primary program. This can get a little intimidating, so it is tempting to just sing the song over and over for 20 minutes for four weeks straight, then start the next song the next month. Don't do this! Your teachers and children will get bored and stop paying attention.

The other temptation is to sing all the many fun songs in the songbook. You have to find a balance that works for you but pay attention to two gauges: If the kids and teachers are bored, you're probably over-singing the song. In my experience, 90% of the kids love singing time all the time. So if they looked bored, something is probably wrong. Don't be afraid to stop what you're doing and try a new tact. If the kids don't know the words to a song six weeks after you first introduced it, you're probably not spending enough time on it.

I tended to have a basic pattern:
a. Opening and Closing songs focused on the lesson for that day, unless I felt like they really needed to work on a song they were learning, and I knew we weren't going to work on it that day.
b. Spent Week 1 introducing a new song
c. Spent Week 2 ensuring they had truly learned the song
d. Week 3 was optional and fun and had less of a habitual ring to it. I might work on the song if they needed it, or I might focus on other fun songs.
e. Week 4 was used to review all the songs they had learned up to that point to ensure they hadn't forgotten the song they learned the previous month.

This wasn't a deliberate formula and I didn't follow this rigidly but I realized it tended to work that way as I balanced being fun with learning the songs (i.e., learning the gospel!). I read a forum where several choristers were upset because students and teachers had told them that they were boring because they just kept singing the same song over and over and over again. I never once got that complaint and the children knew the words of every song very well. So, find a mix that works for you, but that general formula worked for me. Our current chorister throws in quite a few extra songs every month. The children don't have time to learn each song as well but they are also getting exposure to a ton of songs so that's a worthwhile trade-off depending on your goals as a primary chorister, and as long as you make sure they are ready for the Primary program. They should NOT need to read from a poster, but should have songs memorized by the Primary Program!