I think it’s fair to say that teaching kids to sing a round is pretty standard fare in elementary school music. Rounds are a fantastic way for students to develop musical independence, to perform and listen at the same time. In my program, we teach rounds in Grade 2 and then move into more challenging two-part music in Grade 3. Here’s how that looks:
Once the whole class knows a song really well, I ask them to sing through it twice. But first I forewarn them that I’m going to do something different the second time around. I usually say something like, “Stay on your track! Don’t let me mess you up.” The second time around, I sing in canon behind them–loud enough that they can hear, but not so loud that they get pulled into my part. Afterward, I ask what they noticed about my singing. Some classes get it right away, and others take a little longer, but eventually they will figure out that I’m singing the same song, just starting later.
At that point we label it as a round or a canon, we talk about what that is, and fill in their knowledge around that. Then we try it again, but this time I invite a few of the confident singers to join me. I make sure to stand close to these students, and we separate ourselves from the rest of the singers. When that goes well–and sometimes that takes more than one try–we repeat it with a larger first group. Sometimes I just add a few at a time, and sometimes I jump straight to splitting the class in half.
Once the groups are even, I give everyone a chance to sing all the parts. That means, if we have a three-part canon, we’re going to do it three times, so everyone has a chance to be in the first group, the second group and the third group.
After almost 20 years of teaching this age, I have to say that 150 Rounds is one of my absolute “must have” books. This collection is another great resource, along with this warm-up book. I don’t have it yet, but I’ve got this King’s Singers canon book on my wish list too.
Tips for successful canon singing
1. Prepare your classes with foundational partwork. This starts from tapping the beat while singing, to begin building that initial independence. Then move on to a percussive ostinato, then speaking an ostinato, and finally singing one.
2. When building up those foundational skills, start with a very simple ostinato (like “ta ta ti-ti ta” or “ta rest ta rest”) and gradually make them more complicated, or add additional layers.
3. Your class may find it helpful not just to have separate groups, but to physically separate even more clearly. Have them stand in two lines, or concentric circles. Some classes find it easiest to face away from each other, so they don’t get confused. Others prefer facing each other, so they can keep track of what’s going on.
4. Strategically spread out the stronger singers, so they aren’t all in one group together.
5. Some classes find it helpful to add simple movements to each phrase of the round, so there is a visual indicator of where they are in the song as well. Keep the movements simple. I find it most successful when consecutive phrases have contrasting movements, like moving hands up and down in phrase one, and side to side in phrase two. This also helps them see the independence in parts when you put the round together, and helps them to see who is singing with them.
6. Make sure each individual group can sing the whole song on their own before asking them to sing it as a round with the other groups.
7. Spread it across lessons. In most cases, I don’t recommend introducing and teaching the song in the same lesson as you try the round. After you teach the song, and make sure they can sing it without your support, let it sit in their brains until at least the next lesson. For a simple one like “A Ram Sam Sam”, I will usually try the round in the lesson after they learned the tune. For something more complicated, I would probably do some repetition and reinforcement in a second lesson, and then introduce the canon in a third lesson.
BONUS: My kids love this video for “Ghost of John”, which goes through the song twice, with a round the second time. For some of my students who need a bit more support in the round, seeing the lyrics helps them a lot.
Need inspiration? Here are some of my favorite rounds!
A Ram Sam Sam
Ah Poor Bird
Dona Nobis Pacem
Ghost of John
Make New Friends
Oh, How Lovely is the Evening
One Bottle of Pop
Zum Gali Gali
Your turn! What are your tips and tricks for helping students to start moving beyond unison singing?