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Counterpoint Activities: Singing Rounds

Module by: Catherine Schmidt-Jones. E-mail the author

Summary: For teaching counterpoint concepts, a variety of rounds appropriate for students.

Introduction

This lesson contains suggestions for using round singing to teach students about counterpoint. You can find an introduction to the subject in Counterpoint and a lesson plan for a counterpoint listening/discussion activity in Counterpoint Activities: Listening and Discussion.

Goals and Requirements

  • Goals - The student will understand and be able to describe round (canon) form and participate in round singing.
  • Grade Level - P-12 (adaptable)
  • Teacher Expertise - Teacher training in music education is not necessary to present these activities, but the teacher should be able to sing the melody of the round accurately and with confidence, and should be able to clearly and accurately indicate when each group should enter.
  • Objectives - The students will learn the melody of a round and sing it, first all together as a single group, and then broken into smaller groups, with each group singing one part of the round.
  • Music Standards Addressed - National Standards for Music Education standard 1 (singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music).
  • Student Prerequisites - The student should be able to sing a tune, as part of a group, with accurate pitch and rhythm.
  • Time Requirements - If the students are learning a new tune, this will work best if spread over several short (5-15-minute) sessions over the period of a week or two. Early sessions should concentrate on learning the tune and singing it with confidence. Introduce and practice the round aspect only after the students know the song well. The number of sessions will depend on the students' ability and experience, and the length and difficulty of the music.
  • Evaluation - Assess students on active participation in the singing and ability to remain on their part when other parts are introduced.
  • Extensions - You may wish to note that the text of "White Sand and Gray Sand" is very simple, only 3 lines with five syllables in each line. This makes it a good candidate for a writing exercise in which the student composes a poem (3 lines of 5 syllables each) to be set to music. After learning the tune, the class can sing each poem in turn, together and as a round.
  • Follow-up - Discuss counterpoint and music texture concepts. Continue throughout the rest of the school year to introduce music with counterpoint for the students to listen to and perform.

Rounds

Materials and Preparation

  • Choose the round(s) to be taught. For very young students, it's hard to beat the old stand-by's like "Row, Row, Row your Boat", "Three Blind Mice", and "Frere Jaque" (see below for copyright information about these tunes. For older students, there will be some rounds to choose from in almost any children's sing-along book (for example, those published by your church or scouting organization, or the "Sing Along" book in the "Wee Sing" series).
  • You may use the rounds here (see below for copyright information about these tunes). "White Sand and Gray Sand" and "Merrily, Merrily" are simple rounds suitable for young or inexperienced singers. If either of them seem too high, simply sing them in a lower key. If the range of "White Sand and Gray Sand" is too large, sing it in a lower key and sing the final note an octave higher than written. Because "Prairie Revery" is based on the melodic minor scale and begins with a rest, it is probably more suitable for more experienced singers.
  • Have copies for the students of the words only, or of the words and music, if you think they are needed. You can find printable PDFs here of White Sand and Gray Sand, Merrily, Merrily, and Prairie Revery.
  • If you will be uncomfortable singing or playing the melody by yourself, provide a recording for the students to listen to and sing along with. If at all possible, find a version that includes the melody in unison (everyone singing all together without the round).
Figure 1: Melody of "White Sand and Gray Sand".
White Sand and Gray Sand
Figure 2: Listen to "White Sand and Gray Sand" as a round on three instruments.
White Sand and Gray Sand Round
Figure 3: Melody of "Merrily, Merrily"
Merrily, Merrily
Figure 4: Listen to "Merrily, Merrily" as a round on 4 instruments.
Merrily, Merrily Round
Figure 5: Melody of "Prairie Revery"
Prairie Revery
Figure 6: Listen to "Prairie Revery" as a round played by three different instruments
Prairie Revery Round

Procedure

  1. Most students will need plenty of practice on the tune before trying to sing it as a round. Introduce the song and practice singing it in several different sessions over the course of a week or two. When the students are singing it together with confidence, introduce the idea of singing it as a round.
  2. Ask the students if they know what a round is. Let them explain how a round works if they can; if not, you explain. (See Counterpoint.)
  3. If appropriate, introduce the term counterpoint and/or canon. Explain that in counterpoint, there is more than one melody happening at the same time. Tell your students that a round (or canon) is a special type of counterpoint: all the melodies are actually the same, but since they start at different times, at any particular time they sound different.
  4. Have the students sing the tune all together first.
  5. Once everyone is singing with confidence, try breaking into two groups and singing the song as a round. Group 2 starts singing at the beginning when Group 1 reaches the "2" marked in the music. If that goes well, you can try breaking into more groups. Group 3 starts singing at the beginning when Group 1 reaches the "3" marked in the music. If the round can be sung in 4 parts, Group 4 starts singing at the beginning when Group 1 reaches the "4" marked in the music.

Acknowledgments and Sources

Playable scores were created using Noteflight.

"Row, Row, Row, Your Boat," "Frere Jaque," and "Three Blind Mice" are all in the public domain. This does not mean that you are free to copy and use any versions of them, since some versions may be copyrighted. I have not included any of those tunes here because they are so easy to find, but if readers express interest, I will reproduce the public-domain versions that I have found in J. E. NeCollins' 1911 Glee and Chorus Book (New York: American Book Company) and J. B. Radcliffe-Whitehead's 1903 Folk-songs and other songs for children (Boston: O. Ditson). Here is the information about public domain sources for White Sand and Gray Sand and Merrily, Merrily.

"Prairie Revery" is an original round published for use in this lesson. The text is based on a famous poem by Emily Dickinson. One word of the poem was altered to make it more singable; the original poem begins "To make a prairie, it takes a clover and one bee." I offer the round under the same Creative Commons attribution license as the rest of the original materials in this module. Feel free to copy and use it in classes and performances, but make sure that all uses include appropriate composer attribution.

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