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And all of a sudden...they won't/can't sing harmony.

I have a 20 member 6th grade choir that is really struggling with 2-part harmony. They were okay at the beginning of the year and making progress (I see them once a day for 40 minutes) but now they are falling way out of it and can hardly carry a tune in unison. I'm trying a few new pieces that can be done as rounds to lessen the pressure on them (we have a demanding concert schedule for a middle school) and working on harmony through solfege in their sight-singing and warm-up exercises, but does anyone have any other suggestions? Thanks!
 
Shannon L.
Abby Kelley Foster Middle School
Worcester, MA
Replies (8): Threaded | Chronological
on October 8, 2012 6:17pm
Hi Shannon,
What were you working with at the beginning of the year when they were making progress?  Do you have any boys whose voices are changing?  As I'm sure you know once that process begins sometimes they have no idea what is going to come out of their mouths which can also upset the balance with the rest of the choir.
 
My students have really enjoyed doing partner songs with Orff accompaniment.  For example, we did "Land of the Silver Birch" and "Canoe Song" as partner songs with layered Orff instruments and percussion, which extended the performance time and made for a really cool presentation since the kids played the instruments themselves.  They are simple but the students immensely enjoyed composing ostinati and arranging how each individual instrument would enter and exit the texture.
 
Best wishes,
Claudia Corriere
on October 11, 2012 10:08am
Hi Claudia -
 
We began with sight-singing exercises, review of music we learned last year in preparation for this year, and a review of posture, breathing and proper singing technique. I suspect that part of the problem is that we have had 15 of our original 35 members drop out this year due to the work increase from 5th to 6th grade (the students have to give up their study hall to take choir). I only have 2 boys with no vocal issues...I may try your Orff suggestion, but with percussion (I have no Orff instruments). I also tried, just this week, adding choreography and dance to one of their upbeat pieces and it seems to be energizing them and helping them with their focus and volume. The harmony issue is still there....but I had them sing facing each other on Tuesday and it went well...hopefully things continue to go well! If they have to sing in unison for this first concert, it won't break my heart...I just want them to feel challenged and to learn and progress.
 
Thanks for the input!
 
-Shannon Leighton
on October 13, 2012 8:50am
Shannon,
 
I totally get your frustration. I have experienced the same thing myself some years - I teach at a school for the Arts - and it is just that year and that mix of students. By 7th grade they are much better but still delayed.
 
My suggestion? Sometimes it is just the literature. What will not work on one piece might work on another. Singing like parts in a circle (facing each other) helps but only if there is a strong singer (or more) who can carry the part independently. 
 
Although repetition should - and does - help, I have found that a group that does not 'get it' does not improve with practice. They just cement their inability to hold their own part.
 
Maybe rounds would help? Many teachers teach part-singing that way. My kids LOVE to sing their warm-up vocalises as a round even if it was not designed that way. For example, they might sing Do-Re-M-F-S-L-T-D and down again with each section (or part of section) satarting after the preceding group sings two notes.
 
Bottom line, it is very possible nothing will work but it is not in our nature to give up.
 
Marty
 
on October 13, 2012 11:33am
Learning how to sing harmony at a young age requires mental discipline and theoretical understanding.  It has very little, if nothing to do with the development of the human ear.  Youth in our country are generally not disciplined to actively listen in their daily lives, and it's especially evident in music and when trying to sing harmony for the first time.  Students in middle school struggle with singing harmony because they weren't forced to learn music theory and sing harmony in 2nd/3rd grade.  It has nothing to do with a human deveopmental window - that ship dropped it's goods off and sailed when they were 6 or 7.  In England and some countries in Europe still, the skill of singing intricate harmony with other children (mostly boys due to tradition) and grown men is established and well-oiled sometime between 9-12 years old.  They begin training between 6 and 8.  There's no genetic difference between the children in their society and ours.  It's how they're educated and disciplined from the ground up. 
 
Stay away from the piano.  Force (I use that word seldomly, but with intent) them to sing absolutely as quietly as possible (with energy).  Build their understanding and ability to sing harmony gradually from simple to complex, following the historical progression of early vocal music from Ancient - Renaissance.
1) Unison singing (Gregorian Chant)
2) Sustain perfect intervals (octave, then 5th, then 4th)
3) Oblique motion (Pedal + melody)
4) Parallel motion
5) Contrary motion
6) Cross voicing
7) Basic counterpoint/polyphony (Dona Nobis Pacem is a good one, and there are several others - always quietly first)
8) Finally, dissonance. 
 
The first time through the eight steps - strickly 2 part harmony.  If desired/if time, bring through steps 2-7 adding a 3rd part.  For reinforcement, incorporate text into exercises that reflects what is happening theoretically.  Quiet singing engages active listening - can't stress it enough.
 
I spent a semester crafting an exercise just for this purpose that takes the young singer (optional cambiata included) through the entire progression.  It starts at the first step every day and proceeds with no breaks (eventually it is all one song) through whichever step the students have achieved thus far.  It's intense brain work, can be very rewarding, it's accessible, and it works.  My 6th grade mixed choir of 67 (back in 2008) struggled with unison singing when I first started - harmony was simply out of the question.  By the first month of implementing this exercise they were successfully doing two part harmony.  By the end of Fall semester, 3 part.  In the Spring concert in April, second semester, we performed William Byrd's "Non Nobis, Domine" (3 part cannon).  I re-arranged a few measures here and there to fit their range, and transposed the bass up an octave with some slight rearrangements there as well (no cambiata singers that year).  It was immensely successful.
 
I don't share this with many people because most don't take it seriously or have a hard time stomaching an approach that sounds like sorcery while they've been tirelessly, passionately attacking this issue for years - sometimes their entire career.  My intention is never to put people off or gloat.  This approach does inherintly come with a few short-term sacrifices: You have to program significanly less literature in the first semester it's introduced, which your administration might put the kibosh on, you could risk disengaging your students if you aren't able to make it interesting and fun, thus opening the door to parents griping that their child says music is no fun anymore.  In my opinion though, the long term benefits far outweigh the short term sacrifices and potential problems. 
 
Let me know if you're interested in using it with your class.  I haven't used it since 2008, as I direct college choirs now, but I'm sure it's in a dusty old box somewhere. My email is: andrew.j.miller.4@bismarckstate.edu
 
Enjoy your weekend,
 
Andrew
 
 
on October 13, 2012 11:34am
Learning how to sing harmony at a young age requires mental discipline and theoretical understanding.  It has very little, if nothing to do with the development of the human ear.  Youth in our country are generally not disciplined to actively listen in their daily lives, and it's especially evident in music and when trying to sing harmony for the first time.  Students in middle school struggle with singing harmony because they weren't forced to learn music theory and sing harmony in 2nd/3rd grade.  It has nothing to do with a human deveopmental window - that ship dropped it's goods off and sailed when they were 6 or 7.  In England and some countries in Europe still, the skill of singing intricate harmony with other children (mostly boys due to tradition) and grown men is established and well-oiled sometime between 9-12 years old.  They begin training between 6 and 8.  There's no genetic difference between the children in their society and ours.  It's how they're educated and disciplined from the ground up. 
 
Stay away from the piano.  Force (I use that word seldomly, but with intent) them to sing absolutely as quietly as possible (with energy).  Build their understanding and ability to sing harmony gradually from simple to complex, following the historical progression of early vocal music from Ancient - Renaissance.
1) Unison singing (Gregorian Chant)
2) Sustain perfect intervals (octave, then 5th, then 4th)
3) Oblique motion (Pedal + melody)
4) Parallel motion
5) Contrary motion
6) Cross voicing
7) Basic counterpoint/polyphony (Dona Nobis Pacem is a good one, and there are several others - always quietly first)
8) Finally, dissonance. 
 
The first time through the eight steps - strickly 2 part harmony.  If desired/if time, bring through steps 2-7 adding a 3rd part.  For reinforcement, incorporate text into exercises that reflects what is happening theoretically.  Quiet singing engages active listening - can't stress it enough.
 
I spent a semester crafting an exercise just for this purpose that takes the young singer (optional cambiata included) through the entire progression.  It starts at the first step every day and proceeds with no breaks (eventually it is all one song) through whichever step the students have achieved thus far.  It's intense brain work, can be very rewarding, it's accessible, and it works.  My 6th grade mixed choir of 67 (back in 2008) struggled with unison singing when I first started - harmony was simply out of the question.  By the first month of implementing this exercise they were successfully doing two part harmony.  By the end of Fall semester, 3 part.  In the Spring concert in April, second semester, we performed William Byrd's "Non Nobis, Domine" (3 part cannon).  I re-arranged a few measures here and there to fit their range, and transposed the bass up an octave with some slight rearrangements there as well (no cambiata singers that year).  It was immensely successful.
 
I don't share this with many people because most don't take it seriously or have a hard time stomaching an approach that sounds like sorcery while they've been tirelessly, passionately attacking this issue for years - sometimes their entire career.  My intention is never to put people off or gloat.  This approach does inherintly come with a few short-term sacrifices: You have to program significanly less literature in the first semester it's introduced, which your administration might put the kibosh on, you could risk disengaging your students if you aren't able to make it interesting and fun, thus opening the door to parents griping that their child says music is no fun anymore.  In my opinion though, the long term benefits far outweigh the short term sacrifices and potential problems. 
 
Let me know if you're interested in using it with your class.  I haven't used it since 2008, as I direct college choirs now, but I'm sure it's in a dusty old box somewhere. My email is: andrew.j.miller.4@bismarckstate.edu
 
Enjoy your weekend,
 
Andrew
 
 
on October 13, 2012 4:12pm
Hi Shannon,
 
You've received some superb advice and ideas in previous responses.  I especially like the idea of singing canons with struggling (and even accomplished) MS singers.  You just have to find a key that will fit unchanged and changed boys' voices and girls, too, of course.  If you are interested, I'd be happy to send you a terrific & energetic canon I've used with great success with MS singers (and older singers, too):  Missus Shady.   Here's the text:  "Oh Missus Shady, she was a lady.  She had a daughter whom I adored.  I went to court her, I mean her daughter, every Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday half past four!"
 
My email:  tbarham@sunflower.com   
 
Terry
 
 
   
on October 15, 2012 7:07am
Hi Shannon,
 
Shawnee Press has just released my new book WARMING UP WITH ROUNDS this last Spring.  It has rounds specifically designed for junior high singers, and many designated for boys changing voices.
 
Good luck!
 
Cathy DeLanoy
on November 4, 2013 7:23pm
Shannon, 
 
I know this has been said, but I say go with rounds and partner songs. It teaches them how to be independent and able to sing a part but its not so tight that they have trouble hearing. 
 
Good luck!
 
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