Perhaps the most challenging issue facing middle school choral directors is finding appropriate repertoire for their choirs. No doubt the adolescent male voice change impacts middle school choruses more significantly than at any other level. Although many authorities have come up with specific ranges and labels, I find it more useful to think of voice ranges in practical terms as they relate to repertoire: what pieces and voicings will fit the variety of voice types found in the average middle school choir?
I like to think of adolescent male voices in terms of tessituras: high, middle and low. High voices include those boys who have voices that are unchanged or in the first stages of change. The A below middle C to the A above is a comfortable tessitura for most of these guys. I personally call them Tenor 1, even though they are actually more like altos. (I used to call them “cambiatas,” but over time, some of them came to think of that as a negative designation. Calling them a tenor took care of that, even though I know they are not really tenors!) There are also middle voice guys who are more comfortable around middle C, usually from the F or G below to the D or Eb right above. This is the range often referred to as Part III in three-part mixed pieces. I call these guys Tenor 2. Finally, there are those boys who have voices that have dropped lower, from around the Bb an octave below middle C to the A or Bb just below middle C. These are the Baritones.
There are also a few guys with voices that have changed quickly and have a hard time matching pitch, except for a few notes at the very bottom of the bass clef. Privately, I jokingly call them my “subterranean basses!” It is certainly difficult to consider these guys when selecting repertoire. They need individual attention and lots of encouragement! They often become great singers later, once their voices have stabilized.
When it comes to repertoire, one needs to make sure that there are parts for each of these broad categories. Unchanged voices can often sing the soprano part. However, I personally prefer to combine them with the beginning changed voices on the alto part. In my sixth grade mixed chorus, I often use specifically chosen two-part music in which the range of part II is generally A to A. With the voice change, two-part music with equal ranges just doesn’t work any longer.
But in most middle school mixed choirs, two-part music generally does not provide enough parts for the variety of voice parts present. One generally needs three or four parts. The higher guys can often still sing the alto part. And the beginning changed voices can comfortably sing the lowest part in most three-part mixed pieces. Too often, however, the new baritones get slighted in three-part mixed music. Fortunately, in the last several years, more and more of these voicings include optional baritone parts. This is the music I recommend most often for middle school mixed choruses.
I have also found it beneficial to actually separate the boys and girls at the middle school level. This allows the boys to go through the voice change without the potential embarrassment of singing in front of the girls. It also emphasizes that singing is a “guy thing.” As is the case with mixed chorus repertoire, one must be careful to select repertoire that has vocal parts for guys in all stages of vocal maturation. Personally, I believe that carefully selected TTB music is the best solution, using the ranges listed above. It is also helpful to combine grade levels for middle school male choruses. Each grade level has significant strengths and weaknesses. Sixth grade choruses will have more high voices and fewer low. In contrast, eighth grade choruses will generally have more low voices and fewer high. Combining grade levels together helps to achieve a more satisfying choral balance. With my current school schedule, I cannot rehearse them together, but when I put them together everything works out just fine.
In addition to vocal changes, these students are facing many other emotional and developmental transformations. And this will impact the type of text that speaks to them. Indeed, there is no age that presents as many challenges for choral directors as middle school. Finding repertoire that fits these students is a challenge, but it is the primary key to leading them to success and a desire to continue to sing for a lifetime.