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Dr. Lucas Tappan is a conductor and organist whose specialty is working with children. He lives in Kansas with his wife and two sons.
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I want to say one thing to you strongly, especially today: virginity for the Kingdom of God is not a “no,” it is a “yes!”
— Pope Francis (10/4/2013)

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Bertalot's 5 Wheels (Part 1 of 2)
published 12 March 2015 by Lucas Tappan

LMT 7 N MY PREVIOUS POST on John Bertalot’s 5 Wheels to Successful Sight-Singing, I wrote about the Great Secret, namely, “every moment of all practices must be geared to sight-singing.” Today I would like to write about the Five Wheels themselves (the actual 12 steps he outlines on how to teach sight-singing come after the Five Wheels, so please be patient). I will list them below with a little commentary following each wheel (Bertalot compares these to the wheels of an automobile. You will see in the next post where the 5th wheel enters).

Wheel One—Passion It sounds rather like a cliche to write that one needs to have passion for what one does, but it is true. If you are going to teach your choir to sight-sing, it has to be an obsession with you. This determination will force you to make decisions about what your choir will sing and how you will teach those pieces of music. If you don’t make this an over-riding priority you will not succeed at it. I have personally reached the point where I am not willing to compromise on this issue with my choristers, even if it means cancelling a motet they don’t have time to learn by sight. I will not go back and you mustn’t either.

Wheel Two—Small Groups Bertalot believes that ideally one would teach one student at a time (he feels that two students take twice as long to teach as one student) so that no chorister falls through the cracks or get by using another chorister as a crutch, however, he takes four students at a time because of time constraints. I find this wheel difficult because the choir master never has enough time in his day and training 10 new singers individually doesn’t fit into his schedules. I currently have 13 new students that I see as a group, and while it goes much slower with this many students, it is what works for my schedule. You will have to figure this out for yourself, but smaller is better.

Wheel Three—Teach One Step at a Time I remember the exact rehearsal with my choristers when I finally slowed down enough (I wanted my kids to sound like Westminster Cathedral as soon as possible) that I taught only one concept at a time and made them figure out the music on their own. We made it through only 4 measures of a new hymn in 15 minutes (unison only), but those minutes flew past and every child was thoroughly engaged and enjoying himself. It was great! So… what did it look like? First they figured out the key and time signatures, then they clapped the rhythm until they had it right. Next, they sang through the hymn in solfege without worrying about rhythm. Then they put pitch and rhythm together, after which they added text. It sounds tedious (and it is), but two years later it goes much faster.

Another thing to remember is not to skip important steps or concepts you take for granted. Think of the grand staff. How many directors teach the staff as having 5 lines? That is true, but only half true. The staff also has 4 spaces, which are just as important as the lines. You would be amazed how long it takes to stick in the minds of some choristers that the scale moves from line to space (or vice versa), rather than line to line (rarely ever do they think it moves from space to space). Make sure you are teaching only one step at a time and that your steps build one on another in a logical sequence. And don’t skip important concepts!