By Dr. Russell L. Robinson
I love working with middle school singers. (Some people might ask, “How could you love working with middle school singers?”) Here are some of the reasons why:
- Their energy! As students this age make the transition from child to adult, they have boundless energy. Unbridled, unfocused, and unguided, this energy can be an “interesting challenge,” but as veteran middle school teachers will tell you, if you get the students going in the right direction and they know you are sincere, they will “go to the wall” for you!
- Their voices! Although the girls’ voices are also going through many physical developmental stages, their vocal changes are not nearly as dramatic as those the boys go through between sixth and eighth grade as their vocal cords lengthen and thicken. Some boys’ voices literally change overnight—or over Thanksgiving or Christmas vacation! You cannot force a boy’s voice (or any voice for that matter) into a range or part that they do not have. Middle school choral teachers must realize that they will likely have boy sopranos, altos, and changed-voice baritones all in the same class.
- Their potential! The expectations for middle school choirs can be too low. Often, parents and audiences (and sometimes teachers) simply do not expect middle school choirs to sing and perform at a high level of choral art. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have heard well-trained middle school choirs sing and perform choral music at the highest level.
So, given the above, what can you and I do to “turn their energy into wonderful choirs?” Let me offer the following suggestions:
Keep lessons well-paced. There is very little (to no) down time with middle school singers. Start class on time. Lead a sequential warm-up of no more than seven minutes, before transitioning into the first choral piece you are going to rehearse. Make sure that transition times between warm-ups, pieces, and activities are minimal and well-planned.
My particular sequence in a warm-up is as follows:
1. Warm-up physically.
2. Warm “down” on the “oo” vowel (five-note descending scale).
3. Warm “up” on the other vowels. For example, “noo, nee, noh, neh, naw” in arpeggios.
4. Diction exercise.
5. Chordal warm-up in the key of the first piece.
Select quality music that is appropriate for the ensemble you are teaching. Some middle school teachers are determined to have their choirs sing 3 and 4-part literature regardless of the age and experience of the choir. This can lead to a frustrating experience for both the choir and the director. Many beginning level middle school choirs (particularly those with sixth graders) would be better served by singing unison and 2-part pieces, rather than beginning with 3-part or SAB literature, as is common. I suggest that when performing 2-part literature, have the girls sing parts I and II and the boys sing Part I (in the normal octave if they are unchanged or down the octave if they are changed). My experience is that girls have an easier time singing harmony at this age, and having the boys sing with the Part I girls allows them to solidify singing on pitch. Also utilize rounds and canons with your beginning middle school singers. You must lead them into loving to sing!
Each lesson or rehearsal should accomplish clear and well-defined objectives. Remember, the purpose of each rehearsal is to get a little better, closer to your ultimate goal. Middle school singers (and all singers) want accurate reinforcement and feedback. If they are doing something right or at least better, specifically tell or ask them about what has improved. And, if they are doing something incorrectly, tell them what it is and demonstrate how to correct it. Then, get back to singing! Remember, students in choir want to sing, not listen to us talk too long about singing. We learn by “doing” and so do middle school students, especially when they see and hear the results of quality teaching and music.
Make middle school choir fun! Rehearsals can be fast-paced, exciting, and fun, or they can be drudgery. Remember, your best recruitment tool is what the students say to their peers in the hall after class. Use this unique age group and their natural social skills to your advantage. Make choir their best period of the day, and you will turn their energy into wonderful choirs!
Dr. Russell L. Robinson has been on the faculty of The University of Florida since 1984 and is Professor of Music and Coordinator of Music Education. The recipient of numerous teaching awards, he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in choral music and music education, and has made over 300 appearances as a conductor, speaker, and presenter at festivals, workshops, honor choirs, all-state choirs, and conventions all over the world.