Feb 18, 2014

Choosing Literature for Developing Voices

I am exceedingly frustrated with choir directors (especially at the middle school/intermediate level) who pick music that is WAY TOO EASY (your students are capable of more), WAY TOO HARD (your students are kids), WAY TOO MANY PARTS (some groups need fewer parts), WAY TOO FEW PARTS (some groups just need to sing in unison), AND MORE! There are a lot of things that get me riled up, but these all tie back to one central idea:

·      Students at the middle school/early high school level are constantly changing. They need constant attention. Their changes need to be addressed, tended to, and cultivated.

Your music choices directly correlate to the amount of success you and your choirs will achieve.

For my first ever 6th grade choir, I chose to start with unison singing and moved on to part songs and eventually 3 and 4-part treble music (a few years later, when the bravery kicked in). I have continued to start each year with at least one unison piece. I find that unison is not done enough and has incredible benefits (i.e., you can spend more time developing tone/good pitch/music literacy if you don’t have to worry about parts). Once they are comfortable with it, I throw in some part songs.  They start out with some difficulties holding their own part, but they can handle it if it’s rehearsed enough (and rehearsed in an appropriate manner for their attention span and level of musicianship). They then move on to 3 and/or 4-part part songs with no problem. And they usually sound like little angels.
The Moon by Andy Beck

I started my 7th and 8th grade intermediate choirs with octave unisons and moved into 3 part mixed. I recognized very quickly that 3 part mixed leaves no room for basses. There are always 3-5 boys in each choir singing the highest notes they could hit, trying SO hard to get up there with the tenors, which sounds like… they’re not matching pitch. We quickly switched to 4 part music. I had a lot of experimenting to do to find SATB music that was an appropriate range and difficulty level for these intermediate choirs, but it was SO worth it. If you have even 2 boys who are singing “off key”, just try a lower part. They can probably handle it. And I guarantee they’ll appreciate the extra work you put into finding a piece that fits their voices.

Dindirin by Ruth Morris Gray

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, my 7th and 8th grade auditioned choir, Chorale, wanted challenging music and wanted to be good at it. The biggest challenge I have had with finding music for them is finding music with appropriate ranges. These students have no problem matching pitch or reading music. Their tone quality, blend, and balance won’t be problems. The rhythms and harmonies of the piece usually present the appropriate level of difficulty.  However, if the bass part goes too high or too low, it’s out. If the altos are expected to sing more than a step below Middle C, it’s out. If the sopranos are going to be singing anything above an A, it’s out. If the tenors have to sing anything out of their five note range, it’s out.

Laudamus Te - Laura Farnell

It is your job as the teacher to identify what you’re working with at the beginning of each semester, to pinpoint the issues you may be facing, and to pick your music based on the students you are teaching at that time. Yes, you will have to reevaluate often. You may get halfway through learning a piece and realize the tenor part is too low in measure 64 and you can’t hear their part. Happens to me all the time. Get creative. Whatever works for you.

You’re in charge. You’re responsible. Choose wisely.

Moving forward,
Emily Frizzell, a conductor and soprano, is Director of Choirs at White Station Middle School in Memphis, TN.  She earned the Master’s in Music Education and the bachelor’s degree in Music Education from The University of Southern Mississippi. Her responsibilities at White Station Middle school currently include teaching the 6th Grade Choir, Chorale, Young Men’s Choir, and Young Women’s Choirs, totaling nearly 250 students each day.  In addition, Mrs. Frizzell teaches private voice lessons. In her third and fourth years teaching, Mrs. Frizzell was awarded TEM 5 Professional Status in Memphis City Schools.  Her choirs have received only Superior Plus, Superior, and Excellent ratings at local and national festivals in each of her four years teaching.  She is currently serving as Junior High Choral Festival Co-Chair for the 2013-14 school year. She also served as a member of the Memphis City Schools Teacher Field Test Group and Development Team, which developed the pilot evaluation method for Tennessee music teachers. Currently, she is also serving as a Peer Evaluator of this new evaluation method. In 2013, she was awarded the Outstanding Young Music Educator award by the Tennessee Music Education Association.

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