Making Biblical Stories Come Alive through Song:  Sing the Stories of Jesus

One of my favorite collections of songs for children is the book Sing the Stories of Jesus by John Horman and Mary Nelson Keithahn. It is chock-full of songs based on various stories from the Gospels, some well-known stories and some that are often overlooked.  Several songs are simple enough to be used for Sunday School groups, but all are perfect for young singers in choirs.  They cover events of Jesus’ life from the angels’ Gloria at his birth to Breakfast by the Sea after the resurrection. Instructions for teaching are included for each song as well as an accompaniment CD if you need it. Over time, I have taught and directed many of these songs, but I’d like to share the way I have taught, embellished, and performed four of my favorites from this collection.

Jesus Is Baptized

Jesus was baptized by John, * down by the riverside. This is an echo song.  Each phrase is sung by a leader then echoed by the choir. I sing the Leader part and have my singers respond in echo, making it instantly easy to teach notes, to model good singing, and to model good diction. (Be sure to not sing an ending R on ‘river’.)  This song is rhythmic and has a bouncy, happy accompaniment that keeps the movement going forward. We add a clap at the beginning of the second phrase of the song on the rest ( * down by the riverside).  I suggest teaching the clap first and separately – speak in rhythm over and over.  This next embellishment makes my singers smile! We extend the song’s ending; the piano repeats the final measure an octave lower and then another octave lower — going down, down, down – as low as you can go. This creates visual and auditory text painting.

The Storm

Storm winds blew, the waves rose high.  “Save us, Jesus, or we’ll die!”  Jesus woke and said, “Be still!”  Wind and waves obeyed his will. We use a 2-octave set of choir chimes and colorful scarves (or wide ribbons) to bring this story to life.  Choose D minor notes ( D, E, F, A ) to create a cluster chord.  Have some children play the cluster chord on the 3rd beat of each of the opening measures.  Repeat the opening two measures to make a longer intro. The other children each hold a scarf at a corner (tell them to pinch a corner) and sway in half notes side to side from the beginning of the introduction.  At “save us” the children swish the scarves over their heads as if signaling for help.  Next they slowly bring the scarves to the front and on the word “still!” they hold it straight out, frozen. After the word “will” they slowly lower the scarves and on the final chord they drop the scarves to the ground while the cluster chords play again on beat 3. Very effective.

Teach Us How to Pray

“Jesus, teach us how to pray,” asked his friends along the way.  “Help us find the words to say what is in our hearts today.”  When learning this song, we talk about the disciples’ question to Jesus and his answer to them – the Lord’s Prayer.  First we sing through the song and then our accompanist replays the entire song quietly (and improvises a bit) while we speak the Lord’s Prayer together over the music.  We add hand motions for each petition of the prayer, ending with an Amen.  I have used this in worship and in a choir camp performance.  To avoid having the listeners and other worshipers applaud at the end  (‘yeah, good prayer!’), I keep my conductor’s hands raised at the ‘Amen’, and we go straight into another song of similar mood and tempo or the accompanist continues playing as the children settle. Another meaningful way to use these motions is to pray silently and just pray with the motions.  Powerful.  Email me for a short video of the motions.  karolkimmell@allsaintsatlanta.org

Jesus Heals Ten Lepers

Ten who had a bad disease called to Jesus “Help us, please!”  Jesus healed them all that day, sent them on along their way.  Only one returned to say “Thank you, Jesus.  Thank you!”  But where were the other nine?  “Thank you, Jesus.  Thank you!”  Children love to count and to ask questions in songs.  A unique way to introduce this song is to give choir chimes or handbells, one to each of 11 singers or double up with 6 singers. You are counting and naming the characters in the story.  Select 11 bells going up the pentatonic C major scale:  C, D, E, G, A, C, D, E, G, A, C. Line the children up in order, low to high notes, and as an introduction have each chime ring (low to high) while all the children count:  ring C “1”, ring D “2”, ring E “3”…all the way to ring C”10″.  After the last chime (the eleventh), all say “Jesus!” At the end of the song, all chimes ring in a giant cluster chord.  Embellishing this way includes more children, lengthens the song, and helps endear the story to your singers.

I encourage you to learn and teach all the songs in this collection to your singers.  Each provides an excellent opportunity for teaching good diction, phrasing, and tonal quality as well as important moments from the life of Jesus.

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Karol Kinard Kimmell

Karol Kinard Kimmell, a life-long Lutheran, is Director of Youth & Children's Music at All Saints' Episcopal Church in downtown Atlanta, directing four singing choirs (PreK - 12th grade) and three ringing choirs (4th grade - Adults). Karol serves as co-director and clinician at the summer music experience, Lutheridge (NC) Music Week (20 years). She serves on the faculty of the Choristers Guild Institute, a 3-year certification program for children's church choral directors, and has recently accepted the co-director's position for the CG Institute. Karol was on the task force and faculty for ALCM's Young Lutherans Sing. She attended Wittenberg University and Lenoir-Rhyne University, graduating from LRU with a music education degree/organ. She sang in the NYC Riverside Church Choir in the 1980's and the Atlanta Bach Choir and Atlanta's Baroque Camarati in the 1990's. She received training in Orff Schulwerk, KinderMusic, and Rhythmically Moving. Karol has presented for GA ACDA, ALCM, Augsburg Fortress, and Choristers Guild, directed the NC All State Elementary Chorus (2009), and led children's choirs at various summer music camps: Massanetta Springs, Lutheridge, Bonclarken, and Mabel Boyter Choir Camp.

Evaluating Your Choir Program: Children’s Choirs, part 2

[Editor’s note: Last week we heard from Karol Kimmel on building your youth choir program, with ideas about scheduling, worship suggestions, and continuing education. This week: more ideas from Kimmel on choir visibility, rehearsal punctuality, recruitment, and team-building.]

REACHING OUT: As church-wide events are planned for the next year, look for opportunities for your choir to sing at a non-worship event: Rally Day, Fall Festival, Halloween Carnival, Reformation observance, men’s meeting or women’s WELCA gathering, stewardship event, Christmas pageant, church picnic, golden-agers luncheon, mother-daughter banquet, men’s barbecue, visit to those in a nursing home. Think outside the box; along with some of your best anthems, perform songs you may not sing in worship. Use movement, claps, and kazoos or reenact a short Bible story through song– have fun! Take your choir Christmas caroling. They will appreciate learning the words to carols and the people you visit will be touched by your thoughtfulness. Finish the afternoon or evening with a choir party at someone’s house and don’t forget the hot chocolate!

INVITE: Plan a Bring-A-Friend Day at choir. Be ready to WOW the visitors with interesting warm-ups, songs with movement, a simple song in another language, a beautiful anthem. Choose a month to allow parents to visit your choir rehearsals. Arrange chairs so the parents can see the children. Plan to include parents on a song. Let the children teach them a song!

IDENTITY & VISIBILITY: Design and print a choir t-shirt. Wear during the musical or on designated days at church. Design and printing costs (1 – 2 colors) on a good quality t-shirt is affordable – less than $10 a shirt per singer. Take photographs of the children on Sundays in their choir robes or choir shirts, during rehearsals, and at other choir events. Maintain church and choir room bulletin boards. Chart out when to submit notices and articles for the church newsletter and congregational emails in the upcoming year.

PUNCTUALITY: Have trouble getting children to arrive on time? Start your rehearsals on time and have a not-to-be missed activity first. Assign a special task (light a candle, play a choir chime or drum, lead a singing game) and allow children in weekly rotations to help– they won’t want to miss their turn. Devise a system, something simple that rewards those who make it in the door on time. I buy a roll of raffle tickets and let each child who arrives on time put their name on a ticket and put the ticket in their choir’s bucket – an ice cream bucket covered in colorful contact paper. (The act of signing a ticket and putting it through a slot is fun for the children.) Each month we have a drawing and provide simple prizes (pencils, fancy erasers, small Playdo canisters, etc.) for five children whose names are pulled from the bucket. On the same day, we provide a simple snack (cookies, crackers) for the whole choir. One has a better chance of winning a prize if consistently on time for rehearsals, yet everyone has a chance and gets a treat!

TEAMWORK: Do your singers get opportunities to work together as a team, mixing up possible cliques and abilities. Establish groups within your choir; mix up friend groups and ages. Rotate opportunities by groups to play instruments, lead a silly song or game, sing a harmony line, or lead choir devotions. Provide several group opportunities in each rehearsal… they won’t want to miss their turn.

THEMES & PLANNING: Take some time to study the lectionary for next year; Sundays and Seasons is a tremendous help in this process. Pay attention to the lessons for possible singing dates. Jot down anthem, psalm, and hymn ideas for your choirs. Refer back to these notes as you look through repertoire and/or attend clinics throughout the summer. Is there a particular statement of faith or theme that you can explore through music? This year my choristers are singing several hymns and anthems that honor the Holy Trinity. So far we’ve learned the anthems “Tunaomba Mungu Atawale” (CGA 1171) and “God of the Universe” (CGA 821) and the hymns “Now Thank We All Our God” (ELW 840) and “Come, All You People” (ELW 819). We are also identifying symbols of the Holy Trinity. Helping our choristers make connections between Biblical texts, Christian beliefs, traditional hymnody, and choral anthems encourages active participation in their own worship and Christian journey.

GIVE THANKS for the opportunity to train young musicians and be a guide on their faith journey. You are an important part of your church’s ministry and an important person in the lives of your choristers.

TAKE TIME: Be sure to take time to rest and relax so that you return in the fall rejuvenated and excited about another year of singing God’s praise.

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Karol Kinard Kimmell

Karol Kinard Kimmell, a life-long Lutheran, is Director of Youth & Children's Music at All Saints' Episcopal Church in downtown Atlanta, directing four singing choirs (PreK - 12th grade) and three ringing choirs (4th grade - Adults). Karol serves as co-director and clinician at the summer music experience, Lutheridge (NC) Music Week (20 years). She serves on the faculty of the Choristers Guild Institute, a 3-year certification program for children's church choral directors, and has recently accepted the co-director's position for the CG Institute. Karol was on the task force and faculty for ALCM's Young Lutherans Sing. She attended Wittenberg University and Lenoir-Rhyne University, graduating from LRU with a music education degree/organ. She sang in the NYC Riverside Church Choir in the 1980's and the Atlanta Bach Choir and Atlanta's Baroque Camarati in the 1990's. She received training in Orff Schulwerk, KinderMusic, and Rhythmically Moving. Karol has presented for GA ACDA, ALCM, Augsburg Fortress, and Choristers Guild, directed the NC All State Elementary Chorus (2009), and led children's choirs at various summer music camps: Massanetta Springs, Lutheridge, Bonclarken, and Mabel Boyter Choir Camp.

Evaluating Your Choir Program: Children’s Choirs, part 1

[Editor’s note: This week begins part 1 of a 2-part article by Karol Kimmell about children’s choirs, with applications for all ages: this week part 1 includes attendance/scheduling, liturgy and worship suggestions, and continuing education ideas.]

In one choir year, you have seven to eight months of directing rehearsals, training young singers, leading worship, and building community. As you look back over the year and look ahead to the next, which questions should you ask yourself? How do you effectively evaluate a newly established or long-running choir program? What worked, what didn’t? How should you spend your planning time? Below are some specific questions (italicized) and suggestions.

SING OFTEN ENOUGH? TOO MUCH? DIFFICULT MUSIC? Take a look at the overall schedule. Did the children’s choir sing too often or not enough? Did it take them longer to learn anthems than you anticipated? Schedule more or less rehearsal time next year between singing dates and/or adjust the difficulty level of chosen music. Don’t frustrate them by presenting anthem after anthem that is too difficult. Find ways to challenge your singers but choose music that makes them feel successful along the way. Make simple anthems more interesting with use of instruments; be creative. Choose weekly warm-ups that advance their singing ability: simple 2-part fun songs that strengthen singing in harmony, rhythmic chants that improve accuracy and flexibility, and vocalises that encourage a wider range. Over time your choristers will be able to tackle more difficult repertoire.

ATTENDANCE: Everyone worries about attendance, but no one wants to analyze it! Glance over your roll book and look for trends. Did you take attendance consistently? Don’t rely on your memory. Decide on a strategy to keep weekly attendance and stick to it. Did you contact absent singers? In my roll book you’ll see a check mark for “present”, a dash for “absent” and a circle around that dash if I sent the child a postcard. If you send postcards, replenish your supply over the summer. Did one of the seasonal sports affect attendance more than another? Do you have more indoor roller hockey players than you thought? Was there a Sunday morning singing event that was poorly attended? You may have discovered a big sports tournament weekend or a favorite scout camping weekend. Avoid scheduling your singers on that Sunday next year. Use what you glean to help with next year’s scheduling.

MUSIC NOTEBOOKS: Did your method of providing music for each singer work; was it efficient, or do you need to make a change? Do you need assistance in rehearsals when you pass out or collect music? Think through your system. Some choirs have assigned 3 ring binders with numbered tabs (we call our tabs “door #1, door #2, etc.) or colorful folders without tabs. Some choirs pass out music each week, unassigned, or have singers pick it up from a table as they enter. Whatever your method, check last year’s supplies and replenish as needed…torn binders, etc. What else needs to be replenished…pencils, nametags, choir room hymnals?

HYMNS & LITURGY: Did your choristers learn hymns and liturgy selections as well as anthems? Did you find a creative way to teach hymns to them? Start investigating new hymns to teach next year. Glance through your hymnal and resources (Sundays and Seasons) for suggested hymns. Talk with your clergy and worship planning committee about parts of the liturgy that your choristers have mastered. Can the choir serve as cantor? Are there new liturgies or hymns to be introduced that the children can help teach to the congregation?

HYMN DESCANTS: Keep a list of hymn descants your choristers have learned and plan to teach more next year while repeating the ones they know. Within three years your young singers can master at least 10 – 12 hymn descants. Be sure to include descants to favorite Christmas hymns. Collect descant publications, check SATB anthems based on hymns (many of those end with a great descant that can be used in congregational hymns), and try to write you own. For children, the simpler the descant, the better it is. Just singing a descant on a refrain is a great way to get them singing high and understanding what a descant is. Good hymns with refrains for descants:

ELW 289 Angels We Have Heard on High, GLORIA
ELW 288 Good Christian Friends, Rejoice, IN DULCI JUBILO
ELW 283 O Come, All Ye Faithful, ADESTE FIDELES
ELW 424 Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones, LASST UNS ERFREUEN
ELW 430 Rejoice, for Christ Is King!, LAUS REGIS
ELW 471 Let Us Break Bread Together
ELW 641 All Are Welcome, TWO OAKS
ELW 705 God of Grace and God of Glory, CWM RHONDDA
ELW 731 Earth and All Stars
ELW 815 I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light
ELW 817 You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore, PESCADORE DE HOMBRES
ELW 879 For the Beauty of the Earth, DIX

RENEW & RECHARGE: Need new teaching ideas? Need ideas for new repertoire? Would you like to talk to other children’s choir directors? Do you need a conducting tune-up, a chance to work on your directing skills? Take advantage of summer music clinics, conferences, and music weeks. Many directors hone their skills and work towards advanced certification through Orff, Kodaly, Choral Music Experience, or Choristers Guild Institute. Augsburg Fortress has a series of free summer clinics that travel around the country. These two-day events have choral reading sessions, handbell workshops, children and adult choral sessions, organ/keyboard sessions, and an evening hymn festival (providing ideas for innovative ways to use hymns in worship) as well as on-site music and worship materials to peruse and purchase. Many church camps have a week devoted to church music for all ages; North Carolina has several: Lutheridge (www.llmi.net), Montreat (Presbyterian), and Lake Junaluska (Methodist). Regional and national conferences for ALCM (Association of Lutheran Church Musicians) and Choristers Guild provide opportunities to learn from clinicians, read through music, worship together, and talk to other directors. Urge your church to provide monies in their budget for continuing education opportunities for you and the other music staff. Your choirs and congregation will benefit.

OBSERVE: Find another director to observe, even if it is a director of an adult choir. Again, the summer clinics and week-long conferences provide great opportunities to watch others at work. You will be affirmed in your own work and possibly see a technique, hear a phrase, or notice a conducting gesture that you would like to adopt yourself.

Next week: more ideas from Kimmel on choir visibility, rehearsal punctuality, recruitment, and team-building.

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Karol Kinard Kimmell

Karol Kinard Kimmell, a life-long Lutheran, is Director of Youth & Children's Music at All Saints' Episcopal Church in downtown Atlanta, directing four singing choirs (PreK - 12th grade) and three ringing choirs (4th grade - Adults). Karol serves as co-director and clinician at the summer music experience, Lutheridge (NC) Music Week (20 years). She serves on the faculty of the Choristers Guild Institute, a 3-year certification program for children's church choral directors, and has recently accepted the co-director's position for the CG Institute. Karol was on the task force and faculty for ALCM's Young Lutherans Sing. She attended Wittenberg University and Lenoir-Rhyne University, graduating from LRU with a music education degree/organ. She sang in the NYC Riverside Church Choir in the 1980's and the Atlanta Bach Choir and Atlanta's Baroque Camarati in the 1990's. She received training in Orff Schulwerk, KinderMusic, and Rhythmically Moving. Karol has presented for GA ACDA, ALCM, Augsburg Fortress, and Choristers Guild, directed the NC All State Elementary Chorus (2009), and led children's choirs at various summer music camps: Massanetta Springs, Lutheridge, Bonclarken, and Mabel Boyter Choir Camp.

Good Diction: Start With Your Youngest Singers

Children have an incredible capacity to mimic sounds, so there is no reason why shaping good vowel sounds and giving detail to some consonants should wait until children are in upper elementary school. I have become a firm believer that we should model our best diction and be intentional about teaching and reinforcing good diction with our youngest choristers. I introduce diction awareness to my PreKindergarten singers the first day of rehearsals in August. We make choir fun, but infuse good diction training throughout everything we sing: warm-ups, singing and counting games, hymns, anthems.

Good choral diction does not just happen. It must be properly modeled, taught, and reinforced. The earlier we expect good diction, the sooner we hear it and the more it becomes ingrained in our children’s choral sound.

Where to start? What to do?

  • Are you a good vocal model? Record yourself singing one of the children’s anthems and be honest. Are your vowels tall? Do you sing ending or internal R’s? Do you sing the second part of a diphthong too early? Ask a colleague to evaluate. Be ready to make corrections in your own diction. What the children hear is what you get!
  • How does your choir sound now? Record your choir and listen with a discerning ear. I have discovered vowels that, to my ears during rehearsal, sounded fine, but when listening to a recording sounded less than desirable. Example: the “ah” in Gloria sounded more “uh” than “ah”. We have modified it so that we think a darker “aw” to get the desired “ah” vowel.

Which vowels and consonants should we address with young singers?

  • Begin with AH – as in ought, OO – as in moon or you, and the ending R – as in sister (sistuh). Your goals are to encourage openness within the child’s mouth and to train good listeners. Correct AHs OOs and Rs are easy to see and create.
  • Pure OH – as in Deo, short E – as in let, inner R – as in Lord (Lawd), and consonants. One must be careful when encouraging young singers to give attention to beginning and ending consonants. Exaggerations accompanied by some emphatic head movement usually occur! Use discretion when asking for more air on beginning K, P, H and ending K, T, P, D.

Which visual images help children understand and correct these important sounds?

AH as in ought

  • Alligator jaws: use your whole arms to mimic large alligator jaws opening up to sing “AH”
  • Tennis ball w/ mouth and eyes: Make your own tennis ball with a slit cut into it for a mouth or purchase the FUNdamentals Toy Box by Lee Gwozdz (includes this, and many, great teaching toys). Squeeze the ball to show a dropped jaw for the perfect “AH.” After the giggles, they will get it.
  • Flat/Tall vowels created with the palm of your hand: Place palm flat (parallel to the floor) in front of your mouth. Twist so palm is perpendicular to the floor, thumb on top, eyebrows raised, to demonstrate space inside the mouth.
  • Hands on cheeks: Ask singers to gently place the back of their palms on their cheeks, creating a tall AH. Keep the palms in place throughout a song.

OO as in moon or you

  • Drinking Straw: pretend your index finger is a straw. With lips in the OO shape point ‘the straw’ to the lips (not in the mouth!) as if to make room for a straw.
  • Pull the sound out of your mouth: While singing a continuous OO pretend to pull the OO out of the mouth, extending the arm.
  • Owls and wolves: hoot like an owl, howl like a wolf. Use these sounds rhythmically in warm-ups or at transition times in rehearsals.

Ending R as in sister (sistuh)

  • Learn a song with lots of ending R’s: Love, Love, Love by the Brokerings is the perfect song with the phrase, mother, father, sister, brother. Demonstrate properly when teaching. Draw an R on a dry erase board or paper and cross it out with one slash. Write out mother, father, sister, brother and invite the children to find the ending R’s; draw a slash through each one. This is possibly the easiest diction problem to fix. Your young singers will become “R Detectives!”

Internal R as in Lord (Lawd)

  • Demonstrate the difference in singing the internal R and then removing it with the word Lord. Our goal is to always keep the mouth tall on the inside, but when we sing that R our mouth closes on the inside and the tongue fills the mouth. When we remove the R something magic happens between the singers’ mouths and the listeners’ ears…the R is magically heard! Be diligent about correcting R’s. Over time your singers will automatically sing ending and internal R’s correctly.

Pure O as in Deo (no diphthong)

  • Sing simple songs and liturgical phrases in Latin and Spanish, creating the pure vowel sounds, especially the O’s. Singing these languages properly helps English vowels. Also, singing in foreign languages at a young age removes the fear of doing so later. Be very careful to model the correct pronunciations the first time the song is introduced. If you are unsure, check with someone who knows.

Short E as in let

  • ALLELUIA! The perfect word, yet in the South we can add multiple syllables by just saying ‘lay’ instead of ‘leh.’ Place your index finger in front of your mouth and give your singers a direction for each syllable: AL – finger straight up and down (tall AH), LE – finger points sideways, like you are brushing your teeth side to side, LU – the straw, point finger into mouth (lips forward, making room inside), IA – finger straight up and down again (tall). Keeping the index finger directly in front of the mouth reminds singers about good position of the mouth and lips, and especially encourages a non-diphthong LE on the second syllable.

Beginning and Ending Consonants

  • Encouraging crisp consonants may encourage young singers to overemphasize, occasionally adding a head nod for good measure, so be careful what you ask for! Just making them aware of the consonant sounds is a good start. Place a flat palm in front of your face and show them how air should hit your hand when pronouncing a strong T, P, K or H. When they get older, they will be able to successfully add crisp consonants without it being comedic!

How often will you have to correct your singers’ diction? OFTEN and FOREVER! It is consistency that makes the difference. Always be a good model, even if only singing numbers or nonsense syllables. Find ways to make reinforcement fun by creating warm-ups from your anthems and using a variety of silly voices to speak the words correctly (a Mrs. Doubtfire or Julia Child voice perfectly places voices in the head and improves vowels). Over time your singers will be critical listeners and automatically sing with beautiful diction needing only slight reminders.

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Karol Kinard Kimmell

Karol Kinard Kimmell, a life-long Lutheran, is Director of Youth & Children's Music at All Saints' Episcopal Church in downtown Atlanta, directing four singing choirs (PreK - 12th grade) and three ringing choirs (4th grade - Adults). Karol serves as co-director and clinician at the summer music experience, Lutheridge (NC) Music Week (20 years). She serves on the faculty of the Choristers Guild Institute, a 3-year certification program for children's church choral directors, and has recently accepted the co-director's position for the CG Institute. Karol was on the task force and faculty for ALCM's Young Lutherans Sing. She attended Wittenberg University and Lenoir-Rhyne University, graduating from LRU with a music education degree/organ. She sang in the NYC Riverside Church Choir in the 1980's and the Atlanta Bach Choir and Atlanta's Baroque Camarati in the 1990's. She received training in Orff Schulwerk, KinderMusic, and Rhythmically Moving. Karol has presented for GA ACDA, ALCM, Augsburg Fortress, and Choristers Guild, directed the NC All State Elementary Chorus (2009), and led children's choirs at various summer music camps: Massanetta Springs, Lutheridge, Bonclarken, and Mabel Boyter Choir Camp.