Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Making Music Live: A Guide to Weaving Music into Faith Development Programs

Rounds and Canons

"Building Bridges" from Singing the Journey, Hymn 1023

Rounds and canons are a joy to sing. Participants are required to listen very carefully while singing, and anything that makes us listen is beneficial. There is no single strategy for teaching rounds, but there are some simple guidelines.

Teach each round using the strategy that best fits the song. You can use the simple rote method to teach a round like "Go Now in Peace" (Singing the Living Tradition, #413), for example, having students repeat one line at a time and eventually put the whole song together.

It is essential for the group to be able to sing the song well, without your singing along and without instrumental accompaniment, before you break the group into sections for a round. If singers still need your help, they are not yet ready to sing the song as a round.

Alice Parker, the wonderful composer and song leader, is fond of teaching a song, then suddenly having everyone sing the song in a round. She doesn't say, "Now let's sing it as a round." She simply cues part of the room to refrain from singing (raising the palm of her hand in a "stop" signal), and then she cues another section of the room to sing the song again. When it's the right time, she brings in the next group. She does all this seamlessly. We are singing a song in unison, then next thing we know we are singing it as a round. It inspires awe. She is fond of taking a familiar song like "Amazing Grace" and suddenly singing it as a round. Unfortunately, most familiar songs don't work well as rounds (unless you like a lot of dissonance).

Here are some more tips for leading rounds:

Have everyone sing softly so they can hear the other parts. The second most common mistake when singing rounds, after trying to sing a round before the group can sing the song in unison, is to sing loudly. When we sing loudly, we cannot hear the other parts, a group's tempo becomes too fast or too slow, and the combined sound becomes competitive rather than cooperative. Have students sing softly and listen when they sing rounds. If the round falls apart—which they often do—turn the activity into a team-building exercise.

The goal is to have everyone work together through listening to each other. You can have the singers face each other or, if you want the extra challenge, you can use the mix-it-up strategy described in Chapter 2. If you are teaching a round and the singers cannot yet sing it as a round, don't quit and leave everyone feeling frustrated. They may not want to sing it the next time or, worse, they may not want to sing at all. (See Chapter 3, Guideline One: Make every group sound fantastic.)

Remember to position your strong singers well when you divide the group into sections for a round; they should not all be on one side of the room. Also be careful not to create a class hierarchy by identifying the strong singers; divide the group in a subtle way.

Always teach the last line of a round carefully; it is often the hardest line to remember when singing a round. Practice singing a round a few times through in unison first, so everyone knows when to return to the beginning. Cue each group to repeat the round each time they finish. When students sing a round well in two sections, try increasing the number of sections.

Some rounds end well when you have all sections end at the same time, even though they may be singing different lines when they end. Section one might be singing the third phrase, for example, while section two sings the second phrase, and section three sings the first phrase. Give the singers a clear sign that you are ending the round and they will all end at the same time. If you choose this approach, you may have to rehearse individual section endings.

A much easier way to end a round is to have each section stop after its last line, one section at a time. Cue each section to stop. This approach can be challenging for you, as you are required to pay attention to where each section is in the song. The type of ending you use depends on the song itself. Canons are often composed to end together, while rounds often end one group at a time. However, this is not a hard-and-fast rule.

"Building Bridges" (Singing the Journey, #1023) is a fun though challenging round. It becomes a downright happy song when it's sung in a major key, such as in the version I have adapted (below), instead of a minor key. In Sing and Shine On! I outline a way to teach "Building Bridges" with hand signs. Most children (not all) learn it much faster with hand signs.