Feb 16, 2015

Why Won't My Middle School Choir Sing?!?

Recently, I saw this comment on a Facebook group page for Music Teachers:

“Why won’t my Middle School Choir Sing?”

When I read the comment, it brought back some frustrating memories of my early days of teaching choir to this challenging age group.

I remember standing in front of my class and thinking, "Why are these students in choir if they don't want to sing?!" 

After having faced this exact scenario several times, I did some deep and difficult soul searching, and it made all the difference for me.  25 years later, I am thriving while I teach my middle school students, and so can you.

First, you must know.  You are not alone.

Many middle school chorus teachers experience this situation in their classrooms, and it causes them to become disillusioned.

I, myself, almost left teaching altogether in part because I experienced it too many times with my students.  After watching it morph into other forms that included numerous challenging discipline problems, I found myself dreading going to work everyday.

Before I share how and why I believe this situation occurs, you need to be prepared!  The answer is not easy to hear.

Good News/Bad News…

Let’s share the good news first!

The good news is that there ARE solutions to this scenario that will help your middle school program grow and thrive.  The adjustments will take time, but we can cause positive change to occur and begin working toward having a classroom of motivated singers.

The Bad News…

Here it comes.  Hold your breath…

It's our fault they aren’t singing.

It’s not the administrator’s fault.  It’s not the fact that your class is a dumping ground.  It isn’t the socio-economic background of the students in your classroom.  It isn’t caused by block-scheduling, or the new SLO requirements, the Common Core, or any other of the plethora of reasons with which we come up in order to explain away the situation in which we find ourselves.

It’s us.


Do block-scheduling, common core, SLO requirements and all the rest impact us in our classrooms?  Sure they do, and we should work toward changing them when it’s practical to do so, but that is an entirely different subject for a different article.

We must remember one important fact:  Our classroom is our oasis.  No one has more impact on what goes on from bell to bell than we do as the leader of that classroom. We can absolutely make some changes in our daily approach that help create a fun and motivating environment for learning to occur.

When I decided to take responsibility for the lip-syncing, unmotivated middle school children who were sitting in front of me each day, everything began to change.  My program began to grow exponentially, and I began to have fun teaching my students.

Facing the difficult fact that it was my fault is the reason that I am still teaching this age group today.

Ok...now that's over.  

Let’s talk about 5 potential causes along with some ideas that will help us work toward  creating enthusiastic middle school singers!

 Reason #1:
Reading a Choral Octavo is like reading a book in Russian.

It took me a while to realize how little my middle school students knew when they walked into my door at the beginning of the year.  

When I handed them a choral octavo for the first time, I noticed they would rarely even bother to look at it.

They chose to learn it by ear partly because they had no clue where to look on the page. 

For them, it was epically confusing.

Most of my students come from strong elementary feeder programs, but most have had music only one time a week for 30 minutes each session.  It is not possible to teach the details that I was expecting of my students in that amount of time.

I realized that I had to change my expectations and meet them where they were when they arrived.  I needed to work to find fun, interesting ways to deliver the material about reading music so that they not only learned it, but enjoyed the process of learning it.

Instead, at the time, I would look at them and yell, "Why isn't anyone singing?!?  If you don't sing, I'm going to go down the line and make you sing by yourself!"

What an awful way to inspire good singing…

We must remember this important fact:  In general, middle school children aren’t risk-takers.

I soon realized that most of them didn't have any idea what a staff or system or measure is.  All they are thinking as I am yelling at them is this:  “Sing alto? What's that?   Sing forte?  What is that and how am I supposed to know when or how to do it without singing out of tune or by using a harsh tone quality?!   Why is he yelling at me?!  You want “loud”, I’ll give you loud!”

…and it turns into an awful situation.   They are confused.  They sound awful.  It spirals out of control from there.

It also became clear to me that, when I was finally able to get them to put their eyes on the music, most of my students were simply following the words on the page, and even THAT didn't make sense to them.  When they were looking at a 2-part or 3-part piece, they didn't understand where to go when they reached the last measure of a system.   In elementary school, time is so limited that it is a common practice for teachers to hand their elementary students a piece of paper with words on it, yet I was expecting them to magically figure out how to read the alto line in a two-part score that included piano accompaniment and drums, for example.

And when you consider the fact that many 6th graders still struggle with basic reading skills, it’s no wonder nobody was singing! They can’t even read most of the words!  …Especially when the words are written like this:
To-mor-           row is go-   ing to be a bea-      ti-    ful day.

And I had the audacity to ask why no one was singing?

Recognizing and empathizing with what our beginning middle school students don't know is so very important.  

Here is an analogy:  When they look at a 2 or 3 part piece of music that includes dots, curved lines, fractions, grids and symbols with which most of them have little or no experience, they feel the same we would feel if someone asked us to read aloud a book that is written in Russian.   

It's a vicious cycle, and the only way to break it is to teach them one concept at a time steadily, creatively and deliberately each and every day and to do it in a way that they thrive and enjoy the process of learning.   

Does that mean you might teach from rote sometimes?  Sure…and I don’t think you should feel badly about it as long as you are gradually giving them the tools they need in their toolbox in order to become proficient sight singers.  More on “rote-teaching” later…

It helped me when I compared the learning of music literacy to the learning of language:  I don’t know any four-year-old children who can read and write every single word they are able to speak and understand in a sentence. 

Once I realized how much my beginners didn’t know, the atmosphere in room began to shift.  It went from me being frustrated and yelling about them not singing to me patiently teaching important concept and their faces lighting up with the slow unveiling of the mystery of what the dots, dashes, and curved lines on the page of music mean.

Reason #2:
They don't like the music you've chosen.

During my career, I’ve seen many teachers with incredible degrees from awesome universities struggle enormously with picking music for their middle school chorus.   They walk into their middle school classrooms filled with beginners, and they expect their singers to dive into an a capella Latin piece.  The children can’t run into the counselor’s office fast enough to get their schedules changed.  

Programs shrink or die altogether.

With middle school children, we cannot be musical snobs.

"Does this mean I have to teach Pop music?!"

The answer is unequivocally no...unless teaching that style of music really excites YOU!

So, what can we do to improve our music choices?

First, we must remember that middle school students respond to our passion.  So, if we are passionate about teaching pop music, then pop music should be some part of what we teach in our classrooms.

I believe that we must find a way to “throw our students a bone” during every term and sing at least one song that truly revs their engines.  It certainly should be something we enjoy teaching as well.  We must remain open minded in the same way we expect them to open up to our a capella Latin piece.

Too many of us have a sort of “high brow” approach to music selection that usually does not work well with this age group.  We respond, “That’s hokey!” when we hear a piece that we deem as silly because perhaps it uses flashlight choreography or is supposed to be performed in the dark with a fog machine.

All I know is that my students LOVE that stuff!

In fact, I’ve just described one of the most successful songs I sing with my own students.  It is one that I introduce very early in the school year as part of my “hook” to help get them invested in the choir at my school.  It’s a Halloween song.   On the first day, as they listen to the piece, they get so excited as I describe the fact that it will be performed in the dark with a fog machine and that each student will be using a flashlight.

The energy is palpable.   

They are invested!

Can every song be like that?  Of course not!  Nor would we want it to be. 

With this age group, we've got to re-think some of the hard-core classical approaches to which we get so married in our university training.  Should we ever teach madrigals?  Absolutely…but, once again, it shouldn’t be all we teach… not with beginners….and especially if we want to attract a variety of students and grow your program.

I've spent my career teaching in public schools in three states.   I have learned so much from all of the students who have come from a variety of ethnic, economic and cultural backgrounds about what they want in their choral music experience.  One of the most important things I’ve learned is that they will sing just about anything you want them to sing if you have the correct balance in your repertoire of “fun” music and more serious music.  The balance is crucial to the success of building a choral program in middle school.

When I choose music, I keep three things in mind:

1)  Choose one "fun" novelty piece per term.
2)  I want to teach at least one lyrical piece and at least one upbeat, rhythmic piece so I can teach important concepts about good choral singing.
3)  I have to love every piece I’m teaching.  If you don't love it, they will sense it.    Sometimes, I swear they are psychic!  If you choose songs you don’t like or songs you think you must choose for some reason outside of yourself, you will be miserable, and so will they!

If you stick to these three principles, not only will they sing for you in class daily, but your program will begin to grow in ways you may not have imagined. 

Reason #3

We don't publicly celebrate and recognize the positive things our students are doing.

All it takes is a couple of seconds to positively acknowledge our students in front of the class.  They just want to be noticed, and when you do notice them, all of the children around them work harder so they, too, might be recognized.  Here are some examples:

1)   I love your posture Charley.  Everyone turn to page 3, measure 24."
2)  "Sara!  Your mouth position on that 'ah' vowel is nice and tall!  Everyone, pull out the next song on the repertoire list for today."
3)  "Row three sopranos, you are creating overtones back there!  It's stunning!  Everyone go back to measure 12 and sing it staccato to correct the rhythm."

It’s about quick, positive acknowledgement that lets the kids know that you notice, and then moving on to the next correction you wish to make.

The minute I make comments like these to my students, the children who’ve been acknowledged feel great, and the kids around them start correcting the very thing I complimented in their peer.

It must be quick and clear.  We must make sure every student hears the positive remark.  We must keep the lesson moving. 

Fewer words = More effective results.

That rule applies whether we are praising or correcting our middle school students.  

Nothing sucks the life force out of a middle school classroom room like a “lecture” on what the children should be doing.   

When we praise what our choir students are doing well, the energy snowballs, and more students enjoy process of learning to sing well.

Reason #4:

We don’t know how to introduce music.

It is possible to turn this age group against a new piece of music in the first minute of introducing it to them for the first time.  

I struggled for years with finding good ways to introduce a new piece in a way that would peak their interest and excite them to want to dig into the song and make it great.

During my first years in the classroom, I kept hearing the voices of my college professors in my head:  “Don’t teach by rote!  Make them literate!” 

I couldn’t figure out the balance of teaching “by rote” and teaching literacy when I was introducing a new song.

Ultimately, the guiding force for me became the energy in the room.  

Like comedians in a comedy club, we can tell when we are bombing.   Kids this age are transparent, and it is not easy for them to hide how they feel when we are failing while we teach. 

If you feel boredom and frustration from your students when you teach a new song, it’s probably time to try a new approach to the introduction of your new music.

In the early days of my career, my teaching process when I introduced a new piece was way too slow.  I constantly demanded that they figure things out on their own yet I systematically taught them the tools they needed to do it.  I failed to see that there were ways to teach new music that were much quicker and more fun and included developing their ears using techniques that some might call “teaching by rote”.  

I also didn’t realize how long it takes for their sight singing abilities to catch up to their ability to sing a song that may be quite difficult.

My students just wanted to sing, and all I was doing was stopping to talk, or complain about how they missed something in the music or explain things they simply were not ready or interested in learning yet.  I tried to teach everything about sight singing all the time, and as a result, they were learning nothing about sight singing.

..and I talked too much.

I finally asked myself, “What exactly is ‘teaching by rote’?  And who defines it?  And how can I actually USE “rote teaching” to give me opportunities to vary my teaching techniques while helping them become better musicians?

I had to let go of some of those voices in my head from my college professors.  I had to focus on finding ways to help my beginning students enjoy the process of learning a new song.

Most of my students had never taken a private piano lesson, so I had to work to find ways to keep them engaged during the learning of a new piece while instilling, unveiling and building the important skill sets they needed for sight singing.  Literacy is key to their continued growth and involvement as choral music singers, but finding the proper balance wasn’t easy.

Now, I take about 10-15 minutes per day to focus specifically on theory and sight singing, and I use the rest of the time while I am teaching repertoire using rote techniques mixed with literacy teaching.  If there is an opportunity to connect some dots from the sight singing lesson of that day, I do it.

I started allowing my beginners to listen to recordings on the first day of learning a new piece, and I turned it into a fun form exercise to help them develop their ears.  When working on form with our beginners, however, we cannot turn it into a sophomore college theory class exercise that uses terms like “ABA” form etc.  Instead, we must find ways to teach form that are engaging for them at THIS age.  

Here is a form exercise I often do with my beginners:

While they are listening to a piece of music for the first time, I ask them to draw pictures to represent new musical ideas when they hear them.  I encourage them to be as crazy and creative with their pictures as they want as long as they indicate the shape and form of the song.  If the chorus happens twice, but the second chorus has a different ending than the first, for example, their pictures should indicate the difference.  If they drew a smiley face for the first chorus, then they might draw a smiley face and add hair to the drawing when they hear the chorus that has a slightly different ending.  

It is hilarious to see some of the drawings that they create.  When I call them up to share their drawings on the Smart Board in front of the class, there is lots of laughter!   The best part is that they get to listen to the song multiple times while they are creating the pictures.   We can teach many good listening skills during an exercise like this one when we teach them to listen to the smallest differences in various phrases and to indicate those differences in their pictures.

Creating excitement over a new piece of music is critical.  If the students “check out” on a piece because we’ve introduced it poorly, it’s really difficult to get them to give the song a chance.  The last thing we can be with our middle school students is boring.  It’s a nail in the coffin of our programs.   We must be open to varied teaching techniques, and we must constantly work to find ways to help them stay engaged and excited as we ease them into the learning of a new song.

Reason #5

We focus too much on technique and not enough on developing their true artistry.

When I go to adjudicated choral festivals, I see lots of middle school choirs who sing proficiently.  By that, I mean, it is evident the teacher taught diction, phrasing, dynamics, etc.

I call those things “the basics”.

Most of us spend a lot of time on the basics or “technical side” of music because our students NEED it! 

However, we can suck the oxygen out of our singers if we relentlessly seek technical perfection without balancing it with connecting the music to their hearts and spirits.

Working toward technical perfection nonstop is boring to them. 

Let’s take an example from another Art Form….Cirque de Soleil

Why do people love watching Cirque de Soleil?

It’s not just the incredible athleticism that is displayed which took countless hours of training and technical work to develop and perfect.  It’s the unforgettable way our spirits are moved when the athleticism is combined so beautifully with music and lighting and costuming. 

In our middle school classrooms, we have to inject more “Cirque de Soleil” into our teaching.

When I watch the choirs whose teachers have focused entirely on technique, it feels like eating cake that has no butter and sugar.

To quote the famous movie “Sixth Sense”… When I see and hear a technically proficient performance in which it is clear the students are well trained but have no idea about what they are singing, “I see dead people”.

I feel nothing.  

The performance is utterly unmoving.

That is not what music is.

Teachers often ask, “How do I get them to who facial expression?  Raise their eyebrows?  Smile?”

My answer:  From the inside out.

Here is how you DON’T do it.

Don’t say “Raise your eyebrows!  Smile!  Sing with facial expression!”  

With this age group, it doesn’t work. 

Regardless of the obscurity of the meaning of the song and how it seems to have absolutely no meaning to them in their young lives, we must take the time to find a way to help them emotionally connect to a song.

Just talking about the meaning of the song for 2 mintues or giving historical context will NOT do the trick.

We have to be willing to make them think.  We have to help them connect some form of the meaning of the song to their own lives in some way.  We have to help them dig into themselves.

I tell my own students that, as choir singers, they are also actors.   

We, the teachers, must guide them through the treasure trove of their life experiences to find a meaning that they can sing for that particular song.   When we take the time to ask them to dig into their own life experiences to properly sing the meaning, it means the world to them.  They notice the fact that WE value their own life experiences enough to ask them to inject them and use them as they sing because, so often in their young lives, their pain and their life experiences are dismissed.  

Sometimes, it’s easy to change the energy in the singing.

For example, when I’m teaching “Sleigh Bells”, and they are singing with absolutely no energy at all because it is a Wednesday and not a Friday and they are hating school that day and their boyfriend has just broken up with them and they have two projects due….blah, blah, blah…I stop the music, and I say:  “Do you like snow days?”  They usually scream “YES!”   Then, I say, “Pretend that you just found out tomorrow is a snow day and then sing it!” 

Everything changes. 

When I am able to successfully take them to some sort of internal emotional moment to which they can relate for a particular song, everything changes.  Many of the technical issues we’ve labored over correct themselves.  They breathe bigger.   They sing with truth.  Their faces come to life.  Their tone has energy.  They smile.  They raise their eyebrows.  They do all of the things we want them to do, but this time, they do it with honesty and truth.

Sometimes, it takes some time, and having a conversation about the meaning of the song is worth the investment.

I have grown to love the days when we are focused on unveiling the true meaning of the songs and helping them to find ways to connect it to their lives.  If we are singing a spiritual, for example, we can certainly use it as an opportunity to discuss how and why slaves sang spirituals.  We can acknowledge that none of us in the room have ever been slaves and that we cannot know how the depth of the pain slaves must have felt, but we can ask them if they’ve ever wanted to escape something painful in their lives.  Have you every been a slave to something or someone and wanted to break free?

In my experience, almost all of them have wanted to escape something, and their entire energy changes when they are asked to place themselves into that moment of personal truth and then to sing it as they sing the spiritual.

Again…with that honest heartfelt singing, many aspects of their music making change as they sing the song.

When you are able to help them find a meaning that is powerful for THEM, connect to it, and deliver it, the energy of that rehearsal is so powerful that they do not forget the experience, and they cannot wait to sing it again.

Then, when the audience experiences it in a live performance, their energy is also palpable as they receive this truly artistic moment.

…you will get goose bumps…

…and so will your students.

I think we probably all enjoy moments like these the most.  When we are able to successfully make the heartbeats of everyone who is making the music and receiving the music beat together as one, it has enormous power, ignites great passion for singing and is life-changing.

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