Tips for leading singing
August 4, 2012 4:45 PM   Subscribe

I need tips for leading a group of about 30 youth, ages 11 to 18, in singing (hymns, contemporary Christian, camp songs, et cetera). Most of the youth know these songs already but some don't like to sing. Lyrics will be projected on a wall. I will be playing guitar and maybe ukulele. I am 17 and introverted, but I think I can do this!

The ukulele is my main instrument, but without the rich sound of a guitar I don't know if it would work for group singing even if I amplify it.

The guitar is a cheap old 12 string, tuned from E to C to prevent damage. I can only play chords in the key of G, since I haven't developed the strength in my wrist for barre chords. This leads me to a related question, which is: Does it matter what key a song is in? As long as it doesn't stretch more than an octave, I would think not but I've heard other musicians claim that some keys are harder for groups to sing in.
posted by gray17 to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (14 answers total)
The biggest tip I have is: form a conspiracy. There was a 12-year-old boy in my church's children's program who his parents/teachers convinced it was really important to get the rest of the boys to sing along, so he made sure to sing loudy and sometimes he even bribed the other kids to join in. Just one or two kids on your side (especially if they're the "cool" kids, in the sense of having a lot of influence) will be a HUGE help. Try to mix up the group so that the folks who are inclined to be quiet don't all stand/sit together. If you can get adults who are willing to play along, have them sit among the youth as well.

Make sure there's plenty of stuff to drink, too. Particularly if it's hot where you are - dehydration equals quiet voices and grumpiness.

Oh - and kids have a tendency to respond well to "you get to pick what we sing next" style motivation.

(Be sensitive to the boys; some of them will be having issues with their voices, depending on their ages, etc.)
posted by SMPA at 4:58 PM on August 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Run thru the songs ahead of time to make sure the melody isn't too high or low in G. That is a pretty common key so you should be able to find lots of stuff to fit. But yes, sometimes a particular song won't work and you want to know ahead of time.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:02 PM on August 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

It absolutely matters what key a song is performed in. (Try singing the same song in C and then G if you doubt this).

See if any of the kids in the group have had lessons/own instruments. Some of them might be delighted to take a turn playing accompaniment. Or another person from your -- church? whatever group? -- might help with accompaniment. You can also have them sing some thing a capella or with a tape. I think you're going to be really hindered in creating an enjoyable singing experience if there's only one key available.

For the rest of it just be patient and structured, and don't force the non-singers to sing. Maybe they'll start singing when they relax a bit and see that everyone else around them is singing anyway. If they never sing that's ok too. For some people singing is a really embarrassing and nerve-wracking experience. For the people who loooove singing and are happy to do it, find ways to let them shine. Solos, small ensembles, etc.

Keep finding something that sounds good about the sound they're making and tell them that.

Relax and have fun with it, and allow them to have fun too.
posted by bunderful at 5:04 PM on August 4, 2012

For whose benefit is the singing? Have you polled these kids to see if they want to sing? I understand if singing is the function of this group and there are just shyness issues at play, but that's a fundamentally different question than you're asking, in my opinion. I think the best way to get them to sing is to convince them that it's in their interests, either personally or altruistically. Once you have their buy-in, they'll join in with no prodding required.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 5:05 PM on August 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with TheNewWazoo, ask them what they want to sing before you run the program/service/etc. If they don't know the songs, or think they're stupid, no amount of prodding is going to encourage them to sing.

Some songs will work on ukulele (Examples: Light the Fire, Amazing Grace, etc.) but for others the "rich sound of the guitar" would definitely help. (Days of Elijah, I Will Not Be Silent) If you can play the songs on the guitar in G without any un-sing-able range issues, go for it! If not, maybe have a CD or tape with background music, but no singing. There's got to be karaoke versions of praise/camp songs out there.

Re: getting everyone to sing: Is there someone in the congregation/audience that you can count on to really belt it out and engage the rest of the group? If you can convince the 'popular kid'/a peer someone will listen to and want to emulate that singing is awesome, it'll be easier to get everyone to participate. In the 11-18 year old age bracket, there could be some people who have been counselors in training at camps, or lead after school programs you could talk to and get feedback from.
posted by Guess What at 6:15 PM on August 4, 2012

Nthing the idea of some "plants" in the audience, perhaps with some additional topspin. The way you get a group to sing is to make them assume that they're all gonna sing. Don't falter. Get 2-3 others in on the act and then just whale into it. Can you pass out some lyric sheets? That seems to make it seem more official somehow.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:22 PM on August 4, 2012

I don't know when your event is, but I my main ukulele is a tenor strung low-G and it sounds quite rich. If there is time, you might want to string your ukulele low-G.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:28 PM on August 4, 2012

To get them to sing, you could divide them into teams and give a prize to the group who puts the most effort in. Candy or soda ought to do it, especially if this is a camp and they can't easily get that stuff.
posted by that's how you get ants at 8:16 PM on August 4, 2012

You could ask for volunteers during the session for kids to come up to the front and be leaders of a song - if you do it just after the song has started, it might sound less scary, so you start playing/singing the intro (or the first line) so they know what song it is, quit singing and just play that again while you shout out "who wants to come up and help with this one??" then start the song over when you've got a volunteer or two.

Or do something like: (start playing the song, then shout out: ) C'mon up if you have blue socks on today ..... if you've ever been to Disneyland, eaten a bug, played on a volleyball team, ... whatever. You can even make it so the last group gets to pick the thing for the next group, but that could get disorganized if your groups are too big.

If you have any songs that have parts, you can divide the room and get them in a contest against each other, again getting some kid to be the leader for each group.

I would caution, however, that you think really hard about forcing someone to come up if they don't want to. Some people think this is a way to encourage kids to get over their shyness and try something new, but I think it may cause some kids real emotional pain and I would let it go. "That's ok, you can sing from right where you are... Who else wants to come up?"
posted by CathyG at 9:46 PM on August 4, 2012

And, IMHO, you don't need to offer a tangible prize for the group that sings the loudest. Most groups like this that I have seen get their own reward just from the pride of being the winner. And if you offer lots of opportunities so that lots of kids get to feel like the winner, so much the better. Besides, how would you keep track of exactly which kid was in which group??
posted by CathyG at 9:49 PM on August 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you have a capo for the guitar? That will greatly increase your range of available keys. Also, you can do modified E chords without having to barre - E as usual (022100), modified A2 (002200), modified Bsus (x24400), modified C#minor (046650). As far as what key to sing in, I would say that the best thing you can do for the group is to choose a key for each song that you personally can sing very comfortably and confidently in, going along with randomkeystrike's "don't falter" advice. This might be kind of obvious, but practice in the same body position you're going to "perform" in - your voice range will be different!

If you're doing energetic songs, an audience plant who is clapping or shaking an egg shaker could be even more helpful than one who's just singing?
posted by SymphonyNumberNine at 5:56 AM on August 5, 2012

Rent "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song." That man could get Congress to sing along with him. And there are lots of songs, some of which might be appropriate for you.

Not suggesting trying to imitate Seeger, but a wonderful inspiration.

Good luck!
posted by kestralwing at 10:49 AM on August 5, 2012

Yeah, you need to work out what the specific issue is here. Possibilities:
  1. They want to sing but they have stage fright.
  2. They don't like singing, don't even want to sing at all, wouldn't sing anything under any circumstances if they had the choice, but their parents made them show up.
  3. They would enjoy singing if they were better at it, but they don't like the sound of their own voices.
  4. They would enjoy singing different material, but they don't like the songs you've chosen.
  5. They think singing is uncool, and they're ashamed to admit they like it.
  6. They think church music is uncool, and they're ashamed to admit they like it.
  7. They think singing is pompous and show-off-y, and they don't want to look like they're showing off.
  8. They like singing fine, but they don't like you.
  9. They like singing fine, but they don't like church.
  10. They like singing fine, but they don't like organized group activities.
Speaking as someone who loves to sing: there is enormous social pressure against it in a lot of the Anglo world. Nobody likes to sing in public. In the US, the only time you will hear a large group singing spontaneously in public is if they're doing Happy Birthday — and then, they don't do it in order to enjoy the music, they do it in order to humiliate the person whose birthday it is. The whole attitude is "Oh god, SINGING, this is so EMBARRASSING."

And I think there's two ways around that attitude. You can encourage people to get good at singing, to the point where they're proud of their voices, and get them through the embarrassment that way. Or you can take the summer camp approach, with icebreakers and overt silliness, where the goal is to do the whole thing ironically and make it so ridiculous that people end up enjoying it for the sake of the joke. ("Ha! Singing! What a stupid idea! Isn't that hilarious!") But teenagers may be immune to the second approach, and the first approach takes work.

But good luck! And don't kick yourself if it doesn't work right away! You're trying to overturn decades of unpleasant cultural baggage, and any progress you make is a step in the right direction, towards a musical culture that doesn't totally suck. We'll get there someday!
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:03 PM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: We're singing indoors with no audience (except for one Sunday per year.) Some enjoy it, some don't. I won't prod anyone. Anyway, thanks for the input.
posted by gray17 at 5:20 PM on August 5, 2012

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