Middle schoolers are capable of making great music. I say it all the time. However, I haven’t given many details about what specifically teachers can do to help their students achieve these great music making skills.
When I was trying to come up with one focus area to write about, I thought about all the middle school choirs I’ve heard and came up with the one area I feel can be most easily improved all across the board: tone quality.
So here’s how I teach my middle school students about singing with good tone.
I start with tone building warm ups. Sirens are my kids’ favorite (way up high to way down low, back up, back down, etc.). Anything that gets every student singing in their head voice and up high is great in my book. I find that keeping boys singing in their head voice throughout the voice change can help smooth out the rough parts of the change. Plus, they like it and it can build confidence.
When there is a difficult leap or high note, I treat choir like a voice lesson. I give them a mental picture and have them do something physical to help achieve good tone quality. Examples include squatting on the high note of an upward leap, having them imagine their voice as a balloon tied to a weight, and pointing their finger forward while singing descending or ascending steps.
I try to always model good tone for my students. I give them explanations of what it should feel like to make good sounds. In middle school, this can be difficult because boys’ voices are changing constantly. I am not a man, nor can I model good male tone quality, so sometimes I bring in older male singers, like high school students, college students, or adult professionals in the area. The boys learn something new and so do I. I also play recordings of choirs with good tone and choirs with less than good tone. I think it’s important that my students can hear and understand the difference.
Breath support is the most important thing to emphasize when teaching about good tone quality. I’ve learned that when teaching at the middle school level, you say whatever you have to say to get them doing things correctly. For example, I borrowed the term “straw breath” from a colleague. It refers to drawing in air as if through a straw. It is really effective in getting my students to take deep enough breaths to support their sound and allow for more beautiful tone quality. We also talk about “big fat belly breathing” and how our stomachs should stay strong to the ends of phrases.
At the middle school level, students are all at different places in development. They are also changing constantly, so what might have fit a student’s range in August may not fit his range in December. If a note is too low for the students, I don't let them force it out with a loud, strident tone. I encourage them to ease it out using lots of breath support or to avoid the note altogether. If I have to change a student’s voice part halfway through learning a song, so be it. If it’s best for the student’s development, I’m in.
My very favorite tone trick is “fishy lips”. I originally heard this concept as “fishy ooh” and adapted it for my classes. Basically, it just means to shape lips so that the corners of the mouth are in (tall vowels, not spread vowels). Such a simple and common concept, but having the key words has really helped me to enforce the concept without having to re-explain it each time.
What are some good tone teaching techniques you use?