Empowering School Choirs – Arranging Modern Pop Charts for Vocal Music Ensembles

Rebecca Sensor • May 2024UpClose • May 5, 2024

In the dynamic landscape of music education, school choirs are continuously evolving to engage students and audiences alike. The fusion of contemporary repertoire with traditional choral practices breathes new life into performances and offers students valuable educational opportunities.

Vocal Range and Accessibility
Considerations must extend beyond melody and lyrics when arranging pop charts for vocal ensembles. Vocal range plays a crucial role, ensuring that parts are suitable for singers of varying abilities. However, when performing with live student band members, careful consideration must also be taken to ensure that final keys are guitar-friendly or capo-ready. Directors can create engaging and cohesive performances by carefully selecting arrangements that accommodate students’ vocal range and accompanying musicians’ capabilities.

Often, the voicing of a song can be changed to better benefit your ensemble. For example, harmonies that are originally lower than the melody can be voiced in the soprano or higher register to give your singers who often sing melody a harmony line or to create a lighter feeling. Last year, my treble ensemble did the opposite. Dolly Parton’s Jolene already has a harmony line higher than the melody; my altos created a lower harmony line they liked better than the original, and we used it instead.

Student Involvement in the Arranging Process
One of the most rewarding aspects of arranging pop charts for vocal ensembles is the opportunity to involve students in the entire process. From selecting songs to crafting vocal harmonies and instrumental accompaniments, students can actively contribute their creativity and musical insights. This collaborative approach enhances student engagement and deepens their understanding of music theory, composition, and performance techniques. Start by listening to the chosen song. Then, have students transcribe what they hear. For younger students who may not be able to transcribe entire works yet, find a lead sheet for the song that includes lyrics and chords and start with this as the first draft of your arrangement. Use voice memos to record harmony ideas and to map out solos.

It’s important to recognize that student involvement in arranging pop charts may look different at various levels of proficiency and experience. For younger or less experienced ensembles, directors may guide students through simplified arrangements, focusing on fundamental concepts of harmony and structure. Students can gradually take on more responsibility as they progress, eventually leading to more complex and sophisticated arrangements. Often, I will present my students with two or three options for harmony lines or chord structure. Then, I ask for feedback and sample the students to tell me how they think we should proceed.

Social Media’s Influence
Chances are your students spend a lot of time on social media. They are probably already hearing groups on TikTok and Instagram performing versions of the same songs they would like to sing for your school’s pop concert. Use these new versions as your inspiration. Even better, find a version that combines two songs and ask your students to figure out how they did it. One of my favorite examples of this is Pomplamoose’s version of The White Stripe’s Seven Nation Army combined with The Eurhythmic’s Sweet Dreams. My students ripped it apart, chords and all,w and put it back together to find out exactly how they did it. The song became the opener to our spring concert and a real hit for all in attendance and the choir.

Benefits of Student Engagement
Engaging students in the arrangement process goes beyond simply creating performance material; it fosters a deeper connection to the music and cultivates essential musical skills. Students develop a greater appreciation for the intricacies of harmony, melody, and rhythm as they explore different aspects of arranging. Moreover, collaborating with peers encourages teamwork, communication, and problem-solving, skills that are invaluable both on and off the stage.

Copyright Considerations
It’s imperative to acknowledge that, while arranging pop charts for school choirs can be creatively enriching, copyright laws must be respected. You do not own anything that you arrange or transcribe with your students. The music remains the property of the original artists/composer.

Student Ownership in Their Pops Performances
As we continue to embrace the intersection of traditional ensembles and modern music in choral performances, arranging pop charts serves as a testament to the limitless possibilities of celebrating song.


Rebecca Sensor is a middle school chorus and classroom music teacher in DuBois, PA.

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