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Middle School Chorus: separating students by gender

We have a growing chorus program at our 6th-8th grade middle school (last year we had 180 students... this year 320, and next year, projected to be 400!). We are trying to decide if we should try to separate the students by gender in the 7th grade. I'm relatively new at working with changing voices, but we're trying to figure out if a single-gender class might make the kids feel more confident and help us target specific issues better. Does anyone have experience with this that they'd like to share? Bad idea/good idea? The overall 7th grade chorus (when everyone is combined) would end up being about 150 kids, including at least 60 boys. The individual class sizes, which will meet once every three days for 55 minutes, will have between about 32-38 kids.
Thanks in advance for your thoughts!
Replies (15): Threaded | Chronological
on May 9, 2013 7:21pm
Having been a middle school teacher for 34 years, I would say, if at all possible, have gender specific choruses in the seventh grade (and even beyond...).  You will be able to deal with all the voice change issues in a very personal and specific way, and the guys will be more accepting of the differences in their voices since there will be more than one or two in the same place of the change (and thus have more confidence, and a more clear understanding of their voices).  The same is true for the gals in a chorus just for them.  Their voices go through big changes too, albiet not as overt as the guys.  It is a very important age in vocal development, and the high school directors that receive your singers will LOVE you.  :-)
Make sure your admin is behind this, and that they understand that it is not just a convenience for the teacher, but that male and female voices are vastly different instruments at this age and are best taught in gender specific groups.  In other words, it is better for the singers.  When I first started this, I had an admin say "you know, you can't do this - it crosses the boundary of Title iX.  Don't boys have the same range as girls at this age? We have to let girls play boys baskeball if they want."  I had to explain to him the differences between the voices were not just range, but developmental, social-psycological and emotional as well.  Several discussions, articles and demonstrations later, he was on board.  And this was the admin who I thought would be immediately accepting of the program.
I did have a mixed chorus as part of the program, but generally (though not always) the singers in it had the experience of being in a gender-specific choir for a year.  It especially helped the guys be more confident in their sound (and the gals loved listening to them sing - which REALLY boosted their confidence...)
One more thing - be prepared for dealing with a very different classroom atmosphere with all guys.  Lots of energy when you get them going...roll with it, and enjoy - even love - the ride!  Gender-specific choruses are awesome at this age!
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on May 9, 2013 8:05pm
I've taught middle school for 24 years and would not teach at a school where I could not teach gender specific choirs. Look at John Cooksey and Henry Leck's research on boys' changing voice and Lynne Gackle's research on girls' changing voice and you'll be convinced. Good luck!
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on May 10, 2013 3:20am
We have been separating our 7th & 8th grade choruses by gender for the last several years. We remain convinced that it is good for vocal reasons, but it has proven positive for behavioral and recruitment as well.  There is just so much less "showing off" for attention.  We currently have 140 guys in our 7th & 8th grade choruses.  It seems to grow each year.  Guys like singing with other guys.  Singing becomes something "guys do."  Our girls also act more maturely when separated from the boys at this age.  So there are good reasons to separate by gender at the middle school level, both vocally and behaviorally.  Best wishes!
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on May 10, 2013 3:22am
I love, love, love splitting my middle school classes into genders! Not only does it help you focus on specific vocal problems that exist at this age, it cuts down on a lot of discipline problems! We made our split gender classes non-auditioned, and I flip-flopped the boys and girls with the dance teacher. She also loved having the kids separated. I kept my auditioned choir SATB. Good luck!
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on May 10, 2013 5:27am
I agree.  Scheduling won't permit split gender classes during the day, because of our enrollment, so this year we started a boys ensemble.  Nine 7th Grade boys have done some AMAZING things this year, and we've seen their confidence soar.  For repertoire, look at BriLee publications (now with Carl Fischer) and some of the Henry Leck tunes (we change the keys to fit the boys' ranges).
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on May 10, 2013 6:48am
All the research that I've seen as an undergraduate has suggested this approach (gender specific) as the most effective way of teaching 7th grade choirs. All the reasons mentioned here are solid ones. Boys tend to get along better with boys than with girls, and vice versa at this age. Boys are also intimidated by girls at this age, as girls are on their developmental upswing and boys don't catch up until high school. The most important argument for this type of chorus organisation, is the unique aspects of the changing adolescent voice. The needs are so specific to each gender, and so diverse to boys in the 6th and 7th grade, that it seems much more educationally and developmentally productive to keep the genders separate. If you need research support to convince your administration, I concur with Mary Jane to look at Lynne Gackle, Henry Leck, John Cooksey, and also find information from Bonnie Blu Williams about the girl's changing voice.
Best of Luck,
Carter L. Collins
Mississippi College
Music Education K-12
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on May 21, 2013 8:17am
And I agree with the comments of Carter Collins, Meredith Kane, and R. Daniel Earl (and others) as they explain in more detail of what I implied when I wrote, "Gender specific classes are fabulous for many reasons."  Yes, please absorb the materials mentioned in Mary Jane Philips note. I taught 42 years of which 35 were at the middle school level.  With this information, you have experience and research on "your's and on your children's side."  This gender specific configuration also aides in sight-reading, an activity every middle school should pursue.  One more thing: do not be afraid of challenging your choirs and its membes. Raise the bar of expectations.  From this comes growth, and form growth comes more exertise, and from more expertise comes accomplishments beyond what you would suspect.
on May 10, 2013 7:02am
My first 11 years of teaching were at a 7 & 8 school.  I taught 4 choirs - a 7th grade girls chorus (70 students), an 8th grade girls chorus (80 +/-) and boys 7th & 8th grade boys chorus (60+) and a small 'select girls ensemble' which met outside the school day.  I would only mix them a few days before a concert on music they sang together. This was a very good set up and if I was starting again this is what I would do.  I am now retired after 40 + years of teaching.  All the best.
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on May 10, 2013 7:20am
I encourage the separation by gender and had a great program. Unfortunately I got a lot of pushback from the teachers of other electives because when I had 60 eighth gr girls in a chorus class they had classes that were overwhelmingly male. They found these hard to manage and complained to administration so admin made master schedules that diminished my class sizes. My advice is to be sure your electives team understand and support your plan. 
on May 11, 2013 4:48am
When you put boys and girls together in a choir class, you are likely to have all four ranges of an SATB chorus.  But are they ready and able to sing in four parts. No, of course not. And most aren't ready to sing 3 part mixed (homophonic) music either. They need to start with 2 part, which means finding music where you can double (parallel octaves!) the soprano/tenor and alto/bass. Hardly any music fits.  Split your classes by gender.  I've never heard of anyone that has regretted it.
on May 19, 2013 7:15pm
Thank you all so much for your thoughtful and thorough responses! It was so helpful for me to receive all of this information, and for our administration (I've very lucky - our administrators are highly supportive!). It's looking like we will be able to move forward with separating students by gender, as long as it doesn't create conflicts for classes that meet opposite chorus. Thanks also for the recommendations on good research to look at. I've already gone ahead and ordered some of Henry Leck's books/dvds on changing voices as we prepare for the coming year.
on May 20, 2013 7:57am
I've taught for 25 years.  Only for the past 2 years have i been able to have gender specific choirs in 7th and 8th Grade.  It's AMAZING!!!  The young men and young women work so much better---or maybe I teach them so much better---in gender-specific configurations.  Bravo to the administrators and counselors who facilitate this schedule option!
on May 21, 2013 4:54am
Sounds like this is the overall opinion, but the separation of 7th Grade boys and girls at my school has worked wonders.  Gender specific choirs in middle school are the way to go.
on May 21, 2013 6:14am
I agree with much of what has been written.  Gender specific classes are fabulous for many reasons.  Yes, special rehearsals have to be arranged to put everyone together.  Your repertoire will depend upon how many boys are in the choir and their comfortable vocal range.  The teacher can also take the basses and combine them with an appropriate number of tenors, altos, and sopranos and have a wonderful small choir (maybe an all male choir!) and perform four-part music.  Are they ready for that experience?  Yes!  There are a myriad of madrigals and small choir works available for such a choir.  Because they are your better singers, they are also able to do more challenging works.  You are introducing them to all the good things that the classics have to offer.  There is no switch that says today you are not ready for SATB, or SAT, or any other setting, and tomorrow you are.  Exposure to quality paves the road to an appreciation of the classics.  Middle school is all about exposure.  My choirs loved our repertoire.  The remainder of your tenors could be joined to evenly balanced soprano and alto sections to form an SAT or three-part mixed choir.  Finally, all soprani and alti could comprise a third SA/SSA/SSSSAA choir.  Were we successful with these endeavors?  We performed over 40 madrigals in original and arranged settings, in their original languages for audiences of all types including governors and the USDOE.  We performed major works normally heard at the high school (and higher) level.  We were invited to perform a world premiere at Carnegie Hall and many former students have gone on to conservatory study.  Gender specific is an excellent avenue to great destinations.
on June 10, 2013 12:30am
Hello all -
I intended to comment on this thread but instead found myself enthralled by the idea of splitting my students into gender specific groups. I teach a 6-8 choir with a slowly growing male population (hey..3 to 8 in one year at a small school is progress!!!) and am dying to give them something to do other than sing with the ladies (I have over 70 girls). I think this is a fantastic idea that I never even thought of doing, and that I was never even really given the option of doing. Wonderful advice and I will be looking into creating a small boy's choir for next year!!!
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