By Anna Wentlent, Managing Editor of School Choral and Classroom Publications
Middle school. Those two words convey so much: energy, attitude, emotion, potential, change, diversity, development, acceptance, sensitivity, drama, peer approval, curiosity, creativity . . . the list could go on and on. Today, let’s focus on just one of those words: potential. While this age group can be difficult to work with, middle school is where future choral musicians are born. Here are a few resources to help you along the way.
Warm-Ups and Sight-Singing
As you know, this is the most important part of your choral rehearsal. There comes a moment in every school year when the calendar suddenly shrinks: there’s only a month left until the concert, and two rehearsals are going to be taken away by assemblies, not to mention the possibility of snow days! In those moments of panic, it’s easy to breeze by sight-singing and dive directly into note-learning. But the note-learning will happen much more easily if your students are properly prepared to read music, and to sing that music with healthy technique.
A choral rehearsal is no different than any other practice. Think about a basketball team: a good coach doesn’t spend two hours of practice playing full-court five-on-five games. Instead, they use that time to develop the skills, strength, and agility necessary to play the game well. So it should be with a choral rehearsal. (And if your music is causing that much stress, it’s probably too difficult. Don’t forget about unison and 2-part literature—setting up a successful and musical performance is far more valuable than slogging through music that is too advanced for your singers).
So take time at the beginning of rehearsal to completely warm-up. The Choral Warm-Up Collection and The Complete Choral Warm-Up Book are indispensable resources. Focus your students as they walk in the door with a few familiar exercises, and then move on to specific warm-ups that address issues from their performance music. End with a few rounds or vocalises. Round We Go and Rounds for Everyone from Everywhere are both teacher favorites. And Andy Beck’s new collection, Vocalize!, offers 45 accompanied vocal warm-ups that actually teach technique. A few clever titles: “Drop Your Jaw,” “Take Time to Breathe,” and “Listen and Blend.” This instructional book is just right for middle school singers.
Then devote as much time as possible to sight-singing and rhythm exercises. In addition to the standard method Sing at First Sight, consider supplemental exercises from Ready, Set, Rhythm!, a collection of 80 sequential lessons that teach the elements of rhythmic notation through movement-based class activities—perfect for breaking up the middle of a long rehearsal! Each 10-minute lesson is presented in lesson plan format with National Standards.
Middle school boys arrive at the choir room door dealing with two important issues: changing voices and motivation (which really boils down to confidence). Middle school students desperately want to be good at something. Help them to sing their best by assigning them to the correct voice part—soprano, alto, or baritone. If you don’t make a big deal of it, your students won’t either.
If you have time, single out some time to work with the boys by themselves, whether it’s during scheduled lessons, monthly afterschool rehearsals, or sectionals during regular class. This will allow you to focus on their particular needs, monitor voice changes during the school year, and work without the distraction of the opposite gender. Jill Gallina’s For the Boys is a fantastic collection of songs for boys and young men. It includes classics such as “Buffalo Gals,” “The Drunken Sailor” and “John Henry” in singable arrangements for developing male voices.
Attention spans are low in middle school, and that means that you have to come to rehearsal prepared with a detailed plan. Leave very little down time with your middle schools singers: start class on time and quickly transition from one activity to the next. University of Florida professor Dr. Russell Robinson models rehearsal techniques on his DVD Middle School Singers: Turning Their Energy into Wonderful Choirs. It includes examples from a convention appearance and regular classroom.
No matter what, end every rehearsal with a positive musical experience. On the first day of the year, that may be as simple as singing a four-measure unison phrase in tune. Later on, it may be the performance of a passage of harmony with shaping and dynamics. You know your students; set achievable goals and work towards them, bit by bit, taking pride in each success along the way. As your students walk back out into the hallway after class, they should take with them a feeling of accomplishment and self-worth. And that feeling is what creates lifelong musicians.