Getting Started

Beginning a VOICE for LIFE program may at first seem like a daunting task. A good place to begin, either for the seasoned choir trainer who may or may not have had experience with RSCM training materials or for the choir trainer who may be beginning his or her first position, is How To Use VOICE for LIFE. This book, along with the VOICE for LIFE Guide to Musicianship, is laid out to correspond with the White, Light Blue, Dark Blue, Red, and Yellow levels.

In the Purchase Materials section of our web site you will find links to three American companies that offer RSCM materials at a discounted price to RSCM members. The yearly cost of membership in RSCM America will quickly be offset by the discounted price of materials either to begin or to sustain your VOICE for LIFE program. This link in no way indicates a preference of one company over another, but will give you an idea of the cost of individual materials.

VOICE for LIFE is designed to be a flexible program adaptable to your individual situation. To that end, we have gathered responses from RSCM America members presently using the program that describe how they implement it to their best advantage.

Basic Questions Answered

Q: What's the bare minimum I need? I have almost no budget!

A: If you haven't already joined the RSCM, do that first! Then, look at this page to find anyone else around you, and invite anyone you see for a cup of coffee and a chat. You'll learn so much from others who have implemented an RSCM program in their own church or school. Then, spend the money to buy How to Use VOICE for LIFE or the Guide to Musicianship, which is not only full of great ideas for training your singers to their fullest potential, but also has listings that describe what your choristers need to achieve for each level. After that, you'll want to buy the appropriate medals or badges so that your choristers are motivated to work to achieve the next level. If you have a bit more money than that, invest in the workbooks for each level. Choristers love learning on their own, and each workbook is full of great information for them.

Q: There's no one within a 100-mile radius of me, so it's hard to find anyone to talk to over a cup of coffee. What can I do?

A: First, don't hesitate to contact anyone on the Board of Directors. Everyone who is using the VOICE for LIFE (VfL) curriculum is happy to talk about their programs and how VfL works for them, and would be glad to give you ideas for your program. But even better is to take a week and go to one of the Summer Training Courses. There are nine of them from the end of June through the beginning of August all over the country. You'll spend a glorious week in the company of others who share your enthusiasm for choral music at a high level. Many choir directors have come back from a course full of ideas from other directors, and find their own batteries recharged.

Q: So I've got the book, the medals and ribbons, and the workbooks. But I don't have any music. Where can I get quality stuff for beginning choirs? I don't have a cathedral program!

A: The VOICE for LIFE songbooks are a great beginning, and great for the budget, since you have permission to make the copies you need, no matter how many choristers you have at any given time. There are two books to get you started, with lots of variety for everyone, no matter whether you are in a church that uses the lectionary or not, or if you are starting a school curriculum with specific educational requirements.

Q: What are some things you suggest to get my choir members motivated?

A: One thing that you can do is to have a joint choir festival with other RSCM-affiliated choirs. This can be as small as one afternoon together with yourselves or a clinician, or you can plan a full weekend, with a small service or concert together at the end. It's a real motivator for your choristers to see other choirs also wearing the ribbons and medals, and can be a great pick-me-up for you too. Send or take choristers to a Summer Training Course -- they'll come back so enthusiastic and ready to help you build a first-rate choir!

Q: My choir is tiny. Can I use VfL effectively?

A: Absolutely! In fact, when you use VfL with even just a small number of singers, they get so enthusiastic that they bring their friends -- and your choir might not be so tiny any more!

Q: I don't know when to use the workbooks or how to incorporate VfL into my regular rehearsal. How do others do it?

A: Below is a compendium of answers from a survey we did asking just those questions. You'll find a range of answers about how others fit VfL into their rehearsal time. Some set up specific times just for workbooks, others just know the concepts they want to reinforce and take time from rehearsal for those. You'll find all kinds of ideas below.

How VOICE for LIFE is Used and Implemented

The following details were gathered from 39 responses to an online questionnaire sent to the entire RSCM America membership. Click on the links below to navigate to the corresponding responses.

  • Youth and adults
  • Boys' and girls' choirs of varying names and ages, including:
              St. Cecilia
              Ages 8-14, 9-14, 8-15
              Grades 4-6, 4-8, 3-6, 3 through voice change, 2 through high school
  • "All St. Paul's choristers use VfL, including boys and girls in grades 3-8. Beginning last fall we offered VfL to our adults as an option."
  • "I use VfL with all treble choristers. I have used it with individual adults also. It gives a comprehensive source for voice training and theory."
  • "I work in a school, grades 4-12. All singers work to move through the levels, but not all choose to do the individual work I require to actually achieve the ribbons."
  • "We are starting a chorister program for 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders at the parish school attached to our church. I will be teaching them during the school day in their music classroom time. The choirs will be vested (traditional cassock and surplice) and will follow the colored ribbon part of the scheme as well. I have also used elements of VfL in my adult parish choir, but they do not follow the ribbon part of the VfL scheme."

How many singers participate in VfL?

  • Responses collected ranged from 5 participants through 40, with most being in the 10 to 20 range.

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How often do they sing and rehearse?
  • As there was a broad variety of responses to this question, from the very detailed to the very simple, all have been included in this PDF in order that as many possible permutations of rehearsal and service schedules can be viewed.

What have you found to be most useful in the VfL workbooks?
  • "The questions/answers in each section are a good starting place."
  • "The review at the end of the workbook is a chance to be sure that the concepts have been absorbed by the chorister."
  • "I think the books are set up in an easy-to-digest and understandable way. The graphics are helpful and engaging to the choristers. The questions asked are often a good launching point to delve more deeply into points of music, particularly knowing the strengths/skills/interests of particular choristers, so that the learning is tailored a bit to the individual. I then try to reinforce concepts being worked on in the workbooks with questions/discussions in rehearsal."

What parts of VfL do you incorporate into rehearsals?
  • Responses included sight-singing, theory, musical terminology, score study, posture, elements of good vocal production, reading skills, religious and liturgical training, teamwork, social skills, personal and community responsibility, and respect for and value of resources.
  • "We review the targets while in rehearsal."
  • "Sight-singing. I try to do a sight-singing exercise at the beginning of every rehearsal."
  • "Nearly every element in some way. Much of it is deliberate, focusing on a particular element, but after using RSCM materials for over 30 years, I’ve incorporated it into my teaching methods so that snippets are thrown in regularly."
  • "I use most of the elements, and try to incorporate them throughout the rehearsal. Specific time is set aside for individual VfL work before and after rehearsal."
  • "Practically everything. Vocal concepts, theory, understanding the music we sing, singing as a part of a choir. Choristers are given 'standards' at each rehearsal and service. They can pass targets through their participation and leadership in rehearsals and services."
  • "I always relate what the choristers are learning in their workbooks, such as rhythms, key and time signatures, note values, etc. directly to their anthems, hymns and liturgical settings."
  • "We don’t use VfL as much in rehearsal as we do in lessons and outside rehearsal. Each Choral Scholar works through the levels as a means of advancing from one ensemble to the next. They also need to make progress through the levels in order to make an honors-level (85+) each quarter, until they reach Red. Each quarter while at Light Blue and Dark Blue they must do at least one of the following: 1) complete the sight-singing and aural skills section of their next level; 2) complete the music theory portion of their next level; or 3) complete Module A of their next level, in order to be eligible to score above an 84 for the quarter."
  • "Much from Using the Voice Well and Musical Skills and Understanding; basic principals from Repertoire when meeting a new piece or reviewing an old one; segments of Belonging to the Choir."
  • "The main things we incorporate as part of rehearsal are vocalizing/breathing/posture exercises. We try to use examples from the VfL program as often as possible. Also, on occasion, we will use 'question and answer' about a particular work or composer, which, in essence, supplements the workbook requirement for Understanding the Music We Sing."
  • "I incorporate all of the elements of VfL in my rehearsals. I often quiz the children on key signatures, time signatures, musical terms, liturgical significance, etc."
  • "As many as possible. We set aside 15 minutes a week on VfL instruction."
  • "We do a lot of the ear-training material in the warm-ups at the beginning of rehearsal, and scattered through the rehearsal—things such as echoing rhythms or singing back short melodies, at all levels of ability (Light Blue, Dark Blue, Red.) When someone appears to be ready, I will call on them to try it alone. If/when they pass, everyone applauds and is very supportive. And most of all, the group has become one in which people feel safe to give anything a try, even if they don’t get it right. They know that their friends (and I) will remain supportive, and that they will get it right eventually."
  • "I try to reinforce as many elements of the various modules through each rehearsal."
  • "General Training: basic conduct and behavior in rehearsals and services
    Musical Skills: training in rhythm, intervals, sight reading, ear training
    Vocal Skills: posture, breathing, developing head voice, diction
    Repertoire: core of hymns, service music, anthems, etc.
    Christian Formation: knowledge and understanding of the Lord’s Prayer, Choristers’ Prayer, Creed, parts of Bible, conversation with priest"
  • "I incorporate sight-singing (using scale degrees on hymns) and music theory (asking questions about meter, key signatures, intervals, etc.), ask lots of questions about text meaning, and attempt to emphasize texts of our founders, Charles and John Wesley."
  • "Suggested vocalises. Easy sight-singing examples for skill building."
  • "We have worksheets and training during each rehearsal. Sight-singing at least once a month."
  • "As this is my first year with the program, I use the repertoire, certificates and medals, and the music theory and proper singing instruction ideas."
  • "Using the Voice Well, Musical Skills (elementary theory), aural memory, some sight-singing with solfège (moveable ‘do’), Belonging to the Choir, Choir in Context."
  • "The warm-ups are good and add some variety to the rehearsal. The songs are mostly easy and offer a nice change of pace. The songs are especially good when you are short on singers (i.e. if you only have two men on a certain Sunday.)"
  • "I teach a concept each rehearsal, and I have them work in their workbooks once a month. We work on all the basics (breathing, posture, tone, etc.)"
  • "General behavior and attitude, joining in, and setting an example to the younger choristers. I award one to three points for each time they are here depending on their following the above. This is all part of Module D, Belonging to the Choir. When they have amassed the required number of points (for me it’s 120 - about 1½ to 2 months of perfect attendance and perfect behavior) they pass that Module."

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What supplemental materials do you use, from the RSCM or otherwise?
  • "We have designed our own cards that expand the targets within the books. These cards encompass knowledge of solfège and liturgy, the latter largely reflecting the expectations of the RSCM awards. This upcoming season we are also planning to use Kodály sight-singing materials."
  • "Hymns on transparencies using an overhead projector and music-type games for the younger children."
  • "The Ward Method for teaching Gregorian chant."
  • "A variety of published music, most of it English, but some American composers each year, as well as at least two or three pieces in Romance languages and/or African languages."
  • "St. James Music Press's Viva Voce series."
  • "We perform several RSCM-published anthems. I often use repertoire that the children have learned at various RSCM Summer Training Courses."
  • "I use a sight-singing book, mainly as a tool for learning solfège. After that we use the hymnal, and I often have choristers read other parts than their own."
  • "The Chorister's Companion, which is given to all choristers."
  • "I have made my own 'stair-step charts' with a little 'piano keyboard' at the bottom, and have duplicated them in quantity. We seem to need very much more practice with this than what is given in the workbook."
  • "I like to use Scalesthenics by M. J. Milford -- the best tool I have. The materials can be downloaded at no charge, except for the price of paper. I primarily use the companion resource, sight-singing exercises."
  • "We use the Kodály rhythmic syllables, and depend on these for learning rhythmic notation, largely ignoring what is in the VfL books on this subject except as a supplement to what we are doing."
  • "I am planning to make extensive use of the new free White Level materials as we begin the new chorister program. I am also planning to use the RSCM Season by Season book and other anthem literature I have in our choral library."
  • "I write many of my own materials and use some of the Alfred theory sheets with permission to duplicate."
  • "An old sight-singing book in the church's library."
  • "An early edition of The Church Anthem Book that has solfège syllables written over the notes."
  • "Group Vocal Technique by Haasemann/Jordan."
  • "For sight-singing I use Melodia, a rather ancient book published by Theodore Presser."
  • "I find Melodia incredibly useful in teaching rudimentary sight-singing. The first 80 pages are nothing but mostly-diatonic scale movement exercises that also incorporate different keys, accidentals (which add some chromatic movement), and singing in two parts."
  • "I use Sunday by Sunday, the various magazines, as well as music editions from the RSCM. The music is contemporary but still has strong texts and musical lines that challenge each singer. The songs are NOT dumbed-down versions."

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Do you know about the new White Level? Have you used it, and if so, how?
  • "We use the White Level with our younger choristers as a way of introducing them to the structure of VfL, which they'll encounter in earnest when they reach middle school age."
  • "It encourages the new members to work toward a first/second-year goal. The parents support the ribbon levels and are proud when their children achieve them."
  • "I used it for those that didn't finish their Light Blue books in time for ribbon awarding, and for those I knew had at least a modicum of musical and liturgical knowledge but were as yet untested formally."
  • "My entire beginner's class each year goes through the White Level materials before receiving the surplice."
  • "I have used this level with new singers in the choirs (probationers) as well as with children in our feeder program during the second half of grade 3."
  • "All of my children are currently at the White Level. Since I had to start a new choir, this was a perfect place to start, with children of no prior singing experience outside of their work in elementary school music classes."
  • "Teaching the fundamentals [as presented in this level] has been key to the successful beginning of my program."
  • "I have used it for some of the lessons. I have printed some of the worksheets as extra material."
  • "I have used it with probationers. It is a very good introduction to VfL and allows me to get choristers started without the expense of buying the Light Blue books. This is particularly helpful for those who are giving us a 'test drive.'"
Not yet:
  • "We have not yet incorporated the White Level, but have considered it for our training choirs of children in grades K-2."
  • "I have not used the White Level at this time, but I hope to study it more and incorporate this level into my teaching beginning in the fall."
  • "I plan on incorporating it this coming year as preparation for the surplice test."

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Do you work with children and/or adults at times other than rehearsals, and if so, when?
  • Many responses listed before or after rehearsals or services, as little as 15 minutes and as much as one hour.
  • Others said they work on a day other than a rehearsal day or after school, and often with appointments scheduled individually with the choir director.
  • "Our children have one half-hour of time for VfL work as part of their weekly rehearsal time. Some children elect to work on their workbooks at home, and most complete projects as part of their cards (targets) as homework. The adults that have elected to participate in VfL work with me individually for one half-hour each month on a Sunday afternoon. In between sessions, the adults work at their own pace at home."
  • "I think individual or small-group work is essential! Because [we are at a] school, the boys come in early before school, during lunch, after school, or during a study hall. I require all of them to see me at least once a month for 10 minutes, whether individually or with a friend. This time is invaluable for individual progress, assessment, and confidence."
  • "Yes, as there is no way to properly cover the skills without extra sessions. Before or after rehearsals, and sometimes as a break in rehearsal. The singers are encouraged to sign up for extra sessions. I use our repertoire to reinforce skills."
  • "I work with the choristers sometimes after worship on Sundays, especially in the spring and summer prior to their attending an RSCM Summer Training Course, for which they need to have the music learned and rehearsed well in advance."
  • "All of our students are in grades 9-12. I work with them outside rehearsal time on a semi-regular basis. We work individually and in pairs during common free periods."
  • "Due to school and other rehearsal schedules, all VfL work must take place during the weekly rehearsal session, which has most likely caused our choristers to take longer to complete each level than most."
  • "For children and youth, we very rarely work outside of rehearsal. Sometimes I will ask two or three to stay for a few minutes at the end of rehearsal, or work with me during the mid-rehearsal break. This is especially useful for boys who are experiencing a voice change. For adults, when we were using VfL with them, the work was almost entirely outside the rehearsal. A group of about six singers stayed for a half-hour or 45 minutes after rehearsal (i.e. 9 p.m. to 9:30 or 9:45.) This lasted for a couple of years, and those who participated made significant progress, all of them earning ribbons. We need to find a better time, though; it proved to be too late in the evening at the end of a long day for everyone."
  • "I have a special time for VfL -- 6 p.m. on Tuesday evenings prior to our choristers' rehearsal. This 30 minutes of teaching is optional, but only singers who attend this teaching time along with regular rehearsals are able to receive RSCM ribbons/medals."
  • "From September to December, 4:30-5 p.m. is Youth Choir Beginners Orientation. Then, from January to May, it becomes a VfL time."
  • "During the summer and other school breaks I offer 30- or 60-minute sessions for any chorister, scheduled as they can work it in, for up to 4 hours.
  • "I only work one-on-one, having discovered years ago that working with two or more, as hard as I tried to match similar musical aptitudes, I invariably spent more time with one person than another."

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Do you have any great tips to share?

  • "Two aspects of the books can be confusing, particularly for children. These are the use of English music terminology with American terminology in brackets, and the scales on ladders. For our new choristers, we often go through together and cross out all the English music teminology, or I advise parents to do this for their child. I usually ask singers to write solfège syllables below the appropriate places in the ladder first so they can see the scalar patterns more easily."
  • "During part of our weekly rehearsal time, groups of choristers who are working at the same VfL level are gathered to be guided through their work by assistant choir leaders."
  • "I use Module E to teach about liturgy and hymnody. The Light Blue Level module consists of coloring in a church year calendar, singing a Sanctus from memory, singing the first verse of 3 hymns from memory (only 1 Christmas carol allowed), and saying the Lord's Prayer from memory."
  • "I try to encourage older choristers who are working on a higher level to assist younger choristers. It reinforces their own knowledge and allows me to help others. Always attempt to have choristers who have mastered a particular theory item to demonstrate in rehearsal. A visual concept of a piano keyboard is helpful."
  • "Our choir uses solfège. We do a lot of work with this throughout rehearsal, starting with scales in the warm-ups with hand signs, echo-singing short phrases in the rehearsal by "ear and hand", and then looking at the same phrase on the music page, ultimately getting to where we can sight-read to a fair extent on solfège."
  • "We have a composer of the month, and listen to music of those composers and talk about historical stylistic differences."
  • "Take enough time to read the suggested method for teaching a warm-up or song. I value all the suggestions in the various books."
  • "I would suggest to anyone new to VfL to try and find someone who has been doing this for years to speak to about each of the Modules. I rely so much on all I have learned over 30+ years of doing this that I rarely use any other part of the VfL workbooks other than the checking off of the parts of the Modules at the end."
  • "I have divided my choir into two teams (Team Treble and Team Bass) and pitted them against each other to see which can complete the most workbook items. Then, 3 or 4 times a year I declare a winner. The members of the winning team get to wear an extra pin on their ribbons (in addition to earning a little candy bar or something.)"
  • “In seasons when we are not overly pressured with preparing anthems, we devote twenty or thirty minutes to working in small groups. The children love this, though we are not always very efficient in our use of the time. For the most part, the more advanced choristers each work with two or three of the younger ones, going through the workbooks and doing other tests. I drop in on the groups and see how they are doing, and assist as needed. We also do the stair-step charts involved with learning half-steps, whole-steps, scales, and key signatures in these groups. A drawback is that the older choristers have limited opportunity to work on their own training, other than the fact that if you teach something, you know it much better after you have done so. I make an effort to slip in some of the more advanced materials into the full rehearsal, but must be careful to keep this in short bits.”
  • "By far the most important aspect of the RSCM is the Summer Training Courses. We have singers who attend every year (I do, too), and it is important in keeping them interested as they advance into middle school and high school (and beyond; we now have some college-age singers who still come with us to the courses.) I do not think that we could have a choir without the Summer Courses and what we bring home in terms of renewed skills and commitment."
If you have a great tip to share, please e-mail our office!

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