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Teenage Basses who can barely match pitch

I have recently become the choir director for a small group of 7th-12th graders (mandatory as part of their homeschool co-op,) and I feel rather inadequate! 
 
There are 5 basses, one of them is a relatively good singer (probably more of a baritone compared to the rest), and one very weak tenor (whose voice does not  overlap at all with the basses!) The other 4 basses are also VERY weak singers, one of them has a 3-note basement range of about LOW F-A, the other hree have somewhat larger ranges, but all these 4 have a lot of difficulty matching pitch. Maybe this was a bad idea on my part, but I've stuck the strong singer, the "baritone," with the tenor, mainly to avoid having the tenor sing alone (I really want to avoid singleing him out at this insecure age, as well as I don't think he *could* sing alone, or worse, sing with girls.)
 
So now I still have 4 very low basses who are like the blind leading the blind! I will try and work with them individually for a few minutes each week outside of choir, and hope and expect that I can gradually help them to increase their ranges and pitch abilities, but for now... what am I supposed to do? I'm very flexible with repertoire now (although Catholic/Christian religious music is strongly preferred,) and we're just doing pretty simple pieces. Right now I am trying a few things like arranging hymns by adding a low bass line that just stays on do-ti-do-re (depending what the chord is,) and/or having the baritone-tenor duo sing the same thing as them an octave higher, and trying some Gregorian chants with a "drone" (ison) that is in the basses range, but still... they sound pretty terrible! The pitch is barely there. I can't tell them to not sing (although I wish at times I could!) What does one do during the rehearsals or even performances (if this hasn't improved by then?)
(I can barely even "warm them up" because there's only about those 4 notes that the basses can remotely hit!)
 
I've requested from the library a couple of the books I've seen recommended on this site (the "working with adolescent voices" and teaching kids to sing ones,) but any other suggestions on what to do would be appreciated!
Replies (15): Threaded | Chronological
on September 27, 2012 4:39am
Please assure that you are actually working with boys (especially in the 7-9 grade range) whos voices have started to change.   From reading your post, it sounds like they are not really basses.
It also sounds like the tenor you mention is really still a treble that you don't want to put with the girls?  Perhaps you could setup your ensemble where he could sit on the edge of the tenor
section, but sing the alto part, if you are doing four part.  Unless there are no girls, and then have him sing in the range he can.  If that should be the treble range, then tell him that he
wont have those notes forever... 
 
Building confidence and self-awareness is key numbe one. 
on September 29, 2012 7:30am
Thank you for all of your suggestions. I was particularly intrigued by the "counting backwards from 20" one, and I had a chance to do that yesterday with most of the guys, and indeed, they are all true changed-voice basses, (chanting at low G or lower,) except for the "tenor" who apparently is still in the midst of voice change; chanting at mid G! (Now, I'm aware that I had a very small sample size, which didn't include *any* changed-voice-tenors, so I'm quite interested to verify for my own personal observation where true tenors would chant, but for now I'm satisfied.)
Also, while I said that the chorus is 7th-12th grade, the guys in question are mostly 10th-11th, with one 8th grader, so perhaps knowing that, you will be less surprised that they are true basses.
 
I do think the key will be working with a few of them in particular individually, but I was very inspired yesterday, because after a few minutes alone with the (worst) bass, he was able to reach middle-C-ish in his head voice, and then work ALL the way down (mostly on the right pitches!) to low-low C! What a change from only 3 notes the first time I heard him... now we just need more practice so that he can access those notes at will! And I confirmed that all of the other guys (when alone with me) do indeed have a large head voice range, so it would be great if I could help them work through their "break." If I can get those guys singing a little higher, then it really will be much more feasible to do 3-part music! (As a long-time small church choir director, where men are usually quite the commodity, I am well familiar with 3-part music, haha...)
on May 7, 2013 11:48am
Just wanted to give an update, as this school year is quickly drawing to a close.
 
I don't know exactly what I've done, but with lots of work and some of your suggestions, I've helped these guys get their voices out of the basement! Regular warm-ups for the guys to increase their range (especially helping them to gradually work up the scale and gradually away from the 3 notes they were "comfortable" with,) I was able to take one of the rehearsals each week and work with the guys alone for 30 minutes, to really work on pitch matching. I even found out that as one of the low-bass "droners" got more used to singing, he has quite a nice low-tenor range (and some good piano background that helps the musical-knowledge aspect of singing), and will be singing a short solo at our final performance soon! Even the absolute "worst" (most "tone deaf") among them can now match pitches up to middle C the majority of the time on his own, and 100% of the time with my help!
 
What a happy ending! 
 
We still have quite a bit of trouble with SATB, mainly due to numbers (the two guys I've assigned to tenor on the rare occasion that I separate the guys have a really hard time holding their own... how I wish we just had 2 or 3 more guys!) but they actually sound quite nice in 3-part SAB music!
 
We unfortunately only had 2 performances this year, (we were hoping to have a 3rd in March, but that fell through,) and the downside of that was we didn't really have enough to work for. I'm already thinking ahead to next year, hoping we'll have at LEAST the same kids, hopefully a few more! And so I am also thinking about what are we going to do. I think we either need to add another performance, and/or I would like to do something else... a sightreading curriculum (we had a little success this year with a single sheet that I just made up myself,) or even 30 minutes a week with something like a music history or music appreciation course (or even music theory? But this would be hard, since the music "understanding" of the kids is SO varied... some have 6 years of piano, and some have none!) 
I will be doing more research on this over the summer, as I am not sure exactly what, if any, budget I will have to buy materials, but I am definitely open to any suggestions anyone might have.
 
Thanks everyone for being a great resource!
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