Friday, January 17, 2014

How To Lead Music

I've seen the question come up several times recently,  

Do you need musical talent to teach Primary Singing Time?

My answer is: not necessarily.  The most important part of being Primary Chorister is helping the children to learn the principles in the songs we teach through the Spirit.  We can show respect, reverence, and love without an ounce of musical ability.  

Before I was called, I was a symphony musician and private music teacher, but I was terrified of singing and had a lousy voice.  In my first week,  I related the story of President Heber J. Grant's attempt to learn to sing.  I loved his attitude that Heavenly Father doesn't care about our talent nearly as much as He cares about our enthusiasm for worshipping Him.  I told the children that I can't sing well, but I will always try my best because it shows love for my Heavenly Father.  Admitting that I'm not perfect gave the children permission to try even when they thought they weren't doing a great job.

With that said, I do think it's good to show the children how to follow a chorister.  But don't worry- directing music doesn't have to be difficult.  Below is a basic overview of how to conduct almost any song.  Admittedly, it's not the best guide for an in-depth understanding of conducting, but it's the easiest way I know to get you leading songs quickly.  I've used it many times with my Primary kids and it always works.  Once you understand the basics, practice with every song you hear on the radio, on television, in the grocery store, etc.  You'll be a pro in no time!

1.  First, you'll need to understand what a measure is.  Most music is divided into small sections of 2,3,4 or 6 beats each.  These sections are marked by vertical lines through the staff.  This is what one measure looks like:

2.  The first beat of each measure is called the "down-beat." This beat is usually stronger than the others.  You should be able to hear it when you listen to a song.  For example, if you were to listen to the song "I am a Child of God," you might hear a slight accent on certain syllables:

I am a child of God,
And He has sent me here,
Has giv-en me an ear-thly home
With par-ents kind and dear.

These accented words fall on the down-beats.  Try singing or listening to several songs and tap the table or your lap when you think you hear a down beat.  90% of leading music is directing the down-beat.  If you can't direct every beat, focus on hearing and directing the down-beats. 

3.  To lead the down-beat, begin with your right hand directly in front of your face and lower it, ending at chest-level on the beat.  Every down-beat you direct for any song you ever sing will be conducted this way.

4.  Next, you need to understand time signatures.  The time signature is found at the beginning of each song.  It looks like a fraction.  In order to direct music, you will only need to pay attention to the top number- it shows how many beats are in each measure.  

The two time signatures below, for example, each have two beats per measure.

5.  To direct a song with two beats per measure, the first beat is directed with the downward motion we just learned.  Most choristers will curve this line slightly to the right, as shown, but it's not necessary if that's too hard.  The last beat is directed by simply returning your hand to the beginning position in front of your face.   In every time signature, the last beat in a measure is directed by sweeping your hand back up to the beginning position. 

As you sing the beats 1 and 2, think "down, up, down up."  

(These pictures are mirror images so that you can follow along.)

6.  Songs with three beats per measure will have a time signature like this one:
As always, the first beat is down and the last beat is up.  On beat two, you'll move your right hand outward from mid-chest to your right.  As you sing beats 1, 2 and 3, think "down, out, up, down, out, up."  

Again, if this is too hard, focus on the down-beat.

7.  A four-beat time signature will look like this:
The first beat is conducted "down."  The last beat is "up."  And the beat before that is "out."  These are all the same motions as in a 3-beat time-signature.  For the second beat, add a movement across your body.  When you sing beats 1, 2, 3 and 4, think "down, across, out, up, down, across, out, up."

8.  A 6-beat time signature looks like this:

Faster six-beat songs can be conducted with the same movements of two-beat songs.  Divide the beats as shown:

Slower six-beat songs are directed almost exactly like a 4-beat signature, but with small bumps in the "across" and "out" movements.  As you sing 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, think "down, across, across, out, out, up, down, across, across, out, out, up."

This one looks intimidating, but I almost never have to direct six beats this way in Primary.  

9.  Once you know the basics, all that's left to do is practice, practice, practice!  Try conducting along to some of the recordings available in the church's primary music library as you follow along with the Children's Songbook.  And keep in mind, directing music is like riding a bicycle- it feels awkward and difficult at first, but in time you'll do it without even thinking.

For more information, be sure to check out a more in-depth description and advanced techniques on the church's music training page!


  1. THis is very helpful! I've been Primary chorister for about 5 months now and feel strongly like I should take a better step towards learning to lead music. I am meeting with our ward chorister this week for some lessons, so this will give me a heads up. I also love your testimony about not necessarily singing well, but loving the worship and the music. That's me in a nutshell. I love this calling so much, but don't ask me to sing a solo! Thanks again.

  2. This is great! I'm working on a lesson for activity day girls. Do you mind if I use this and print your visuals as a handout for the girls?

    1. I think I replied to you directly, but in case anyone else wants to know- YES you can use this for anything at church or at home. If you're not selling it, you're ok. :)

  3. 2 years later, still very helpful! How to you close the song? Flick your wrist in some fashion?

  4. 2 years later, still very helpful! How to you close the song? Flick your wrist in some fashion?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. You want to show them that this is the end. If you have a baton, a flick works. If using just hands you can close fingers to thumb to show when they touch the sound ends. Remember, don't end the song with hand or baton and keep singing - both end together

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this. I've just been called as Primary music leader and conducting music was one of my biggest fears about it. But the way you have explained it has really helped and I feel like just maybe I can manage this! :)