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Getting Started with Pattern Teaching: a Guide for Choir Teachers

By Andy Mullen 

MLT, Practical Applications, The Choral Musician

In one of my most popular blog posts, A Beginner’s Guide to MLT: How to "Jump Right In" to Musical Understanding, I explain some starting points for how to begin to integrate Gordon’s Music Learning Theory into your general music program. Since the launch of my new series, The Choral Musician, I thought it would be helpful to have a similar entrance point for choir teachers. 

In my blog post Choir Teachers: Teach Audiation, I outlined the steps to music literacy and successful sight-singing from my perspective. As a review, these were the steps:

Steps to Music Literacy

  1. 1
    Teach a Starter Musical Vocabulary
  2. 2
    Use and Apply the Vocabulary Before You Read It
  3. 3
    Begin By Reading Patterns
  4. 4
    Combine Tonal Patterns and Rhythm Patterns Into Musical Sentences
  5. 5
    Teach Students to Generalize Using Notation
  6. 6
    Lather, Rinse and Repeat with New Content

I would like to focus in this article on Step 1: Teach a starter musical vocabulary. This is a necessary prerequisite to reading. Remember: we learn to read familiar words before we learn unfamiliar words.

Music Learning Theory: The Foundation for my Approach

Music Learning Theory, or MLT, is the brainchild of the late Dr. Edwin E. Gordon who coined the term audiation. Audiation is the ability to hear and understand music in the brain, or, musical thinking. There is a lot that goes into MLT, much of which has been discussed in other articles. 

I would suggest spending some time getting acquainted with MLT by perusing some of my articles in the following order:

I will make references to these articles throughout, so feel free to also click the links as you read along. 

A Starter Musical Vocabulary

If we want our students to be able to speak the language of music, then we need to provide them a starter vocabulary. In my choirs (and in my general music classes), I start very simply in 6th grade with an audiation foundation in major, minor, duple and triple. This allows students sufficient opportunities to compare and contrast musical contexts, aiding in clarity of beat and the precision of intonation.  

Rhythm Vocabulary

I begin with patterns that combine only macrobeats and microbeats in duple and triple meters. Below are the only possible combinations (rhythm cells) of macrobeats and microbeats in duple and triple meters. They are shown below with notation for your reference, but I begin by teaching them to students aurally, first on a neutral syllable, and then with rhythm syllables. I prefer the Gordon/Froseth beat-function based syllables.  

Rhythm Cells in Duple and Triple Meters

I engage the students in pattern instruction (teacher performs, students breathe and echo) with patterns that are four macrobeats long. These are the patterns I use, but feel free to make up your own. These are the same patterns I use in my free student course, Rhythm Audiation 101

In addition to pattern echoes, I also engage students in inference learning activities, specifically generalization (I perform on a neutral syllable and students provide the rhythm syllables) and improvisation (students chant a different pattern in response). Again, see the Next Steps module in my Rhythm Audiation 101 course for examples of these activities. 

Tonal Vocabulary

Tonally, I begin with a short series of familiar tonic and dominant patterns in major and minor tonalities. I am a firm believer in using movable-DO with a LA-based minor because it encourages audiation development when the syllables change with each tonality. To begin with, students learn three patterns in each tonality. I refer to this as Tonal Sequence #1

Tonal Sequence #1, Major Tonality
Tonal Sequence #1, Minor Tonality

Like I did rhythmically, I begin at the Aural/Oral level and sing the patterns first on a neutral syllable. Then, I teach students the tonal syllables at the Verbal Association skill level. These are the same patterns I use in my free student course, Tonal Audiation 101. Additionally, like rhythm patterns, I give students the opportunity to engage in both generalization and improvisation so students own the patterns in a more fulsome way. See the final module in the aforementioned course for examples of these skill levels.

You can also see these skill levels play out in my series, The Choral Musician. You can download the free sampler, and try it out for yourself in your own classroom.  This will give you a taste of each of the workbooks. 

Click here to download The Choral Musician Sampler

Students also learn scale-based patters, and in my students' second year, I continue to build their harmonic vocabulary with additional tonic and dominant patterns. 

Teaching Techniques: Breaths, Pauses and Gestures

To effectively teach rhythm patterns and tonal patterns, you need to be conscious of a number of things, name, as the heading suggests, breaths, pauses and your teaching gestures. I have a teacher course available in the Faculty Library called Introduction to Learning Sequence Activities which goes into great depth on these topics, and much more. To get you started, watch this video called Teaching Tonal Patterns and Rhythm Patterns.  

Assessment

Then, of course, we need to discuss how you assess your students on these patterns. If you do not hear your choristers sing individually, you have no idea who is hiding, and who is "split-second singing" (Thanks to John Feierabend for that great term!). If your classes are small, and you have the time, you can include pattern teaching as part of your warm-up routine, and listen to each student sing or chant the patterns. 

When I have larger classes, I prefer to harness the power of technology, and, after a few classes of group singing, and students are comfortable with the patterns, have students sing directly into the microphone of their iPads, and I assess them individually and offer feedback after class. I will also sometimes send students out of the room for 5 minutes, have them play a video like this, and screen-record themselves. They can turn the short video in on Google Classroom, and I have an excellent assessment. Then, I know how not only the whole choir is doing, but the individual members, as well.  

Interested in The Choral Musician?

The Choral Musician is a self-paced series of digital workbooks for students to use which includes not only the audiation of tonal and rhythm patterns, but also the reading as well. There are many buying options. Most notably, The Choral Musician is included as part of The Faculty Library subscription. So if you're a member of The Faculty Library, log in, and you'll already have this series at your fingertips to use with your choirs today!

For those interested in buying a bundle, or each of the workbooks individually, head on over to the main page to find out your options. 

About the author, Andy Mullen

Andy Mullen is a teacher, folk musician, multi-instrumentalist, recovering singer-songwriter, and lifelong learner. He has taught all levels of students in a number of subjects, and is currently a middle school general music and choir teacher in Burlington, Massachusetts. Mr Mullen holds Masters degrees in Music Education and School Administration, and serves on the faculty for the Gordon Institute of Music Learning (GIML) in Elementary General Music and Choir. He is the author of "MLT Any Music Teacher Can Du...De," "The Literate Musician" and "Fifty Tunes for Teaching," and the composer of the children's album, "Chucka Chucka Wawa."

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