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Middle School Contemporary Music

Hello
 
My School would like to incorporate some contemporary music and vocal jazz into my middle school choral curriculum.  A guest conductor who has little experience with middle school voices would lead these selections once every semester.  I would like to set some parameters and would like some opinions on how to incorporate this genre and still keep with my foundations of good vocal production.  For instance should we use a rhythm section, microphones, straight tone, etc.  I am a classicaly trained singer who has a Masters in vocal performance and undergrad degree in music education.  The group is about 21 seventh and eighth grade singers.  I am at a small private school.
 
Thanks
Amy
Replies (3): Threaded | Chronological
on July 2, 2013 5:43am
Amy,
 
I commend you for thinking ahead and wanting to do this in a healthy, balanced way.
Ideally, vocal jazz is a great way to go, in my opinion, because the music inherently requires a higher level of musicianship than most pop music, and jazz is, of course, the great American art form.
 
It's easy for a show or jazz choir to take over the choral program--"tail wagging the dog". I was in show choirs from Grades 7-12, and I went to show choir camp for two summers therein. My middle-school teacher did a really smart thing: we had "regular" choir every other day for 45 min., and on the opposite days, those of us who were in "swing choir" had that class during the same period. Everyone in swing choir had to be in regular choir. This last point is, I think, VERY important. I have the same requirement for the Jazz Singers at my current school. In this instance, Jazz Singers meets before school as an extra-curricular. (Jazz Band is actually a class, which means that those kids have two full classes of music electives, which I find a bit much to ask of those students.)
 
Remember that, although the style will be a little different and the vocal production sometimes different, the technique is essentially the same. Healthy singing is healthy singing, regardless of the genre. One of the constant challenges will be to have kids sing with their sound. As I tell my students, "I want to hear your wonderful voice. If I want to hear Adele, I'll go to iTunes."
 
Don't feel that you need to subjugate healthy tone to the style. If you have kids with vibrato...well, congratulations. I don't hear much of that from my middle schoolers. BUT, as with any musical style, healthy singing matters most--especially with these youg, inexperienced singers. I've sung a lot of Early Music, and I don't advocate for much straight-tone there either. It has its place, but only rarely, and only when a singer can healthily control it.
 
I'm not sure how much jazz you've listened to, but if it hasn't been much, it's time for you to have three Pandora channels, four iTunes playlists and five Spotify playlists full of jazz. Jazz is made and learned through listening. Great singers, yes--Ella, Sarah, Mel, Frank, Dinah, Billie--but also great bands and instrumental soloists. Attend workshops, if you need--and there are many. Steve Zegree does a summer institute at Indiana U., and I'm sure that it's wonderful. You may know some of the other great vocal jazz educators--Diana Spradling, Phil Mattson, Michele Weir, Mark Murphy. Most of them also have many excellent arrangements.
 
Some of my favorite "charts" for middle-schoolers are:
  • "Blue Skies" (especially the Zegree arr.)
  • "Route 66"
  • "Duke's Place"--great for beginning improv.
  • "Fascinatin' Rhythm"
  • "Bandstand Boogie" (good possibilities for choreography/choralography/costumes/fun, corny motions&facials)
  • "Tuxedo Junction"
  • "Everybody's Boppin'" (great challenge)
Regarding PA equipment, with that many singers, you won't be able to do one per mic, which would be possible (and desirable) with a group half that size. Do you have hanging mics? If not, that would be a good investment; ideally, 5 of them (three for one row, two for another), but three would suffice. Without those, your best bet is to get a few quality large-diaphragm condensor mics. Then, you will probably also want 2-3 ("dynamic") solo mics.
 
Rhythm section is great, especially if you can incorporate some student musicians from the middle- or high school. Some great resources are:
Jazz and Show Choir Handbook II by Doug Anderson
 
Enjoy!
 
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on July 2, 2013 9:38am
Amy, although I did send my extensive reply to you personally, I wish for every reader to remember the words of the revered and famous singing teacher Barbara Doscher: "Above all, don't hurt the voice!  It is better that you don't teach vocal production than to teach something that ultimately will need to be un-taught and that meanwhile has damaged the voice."
on July 3, 2013 4:40am
Anything arr. by Steve Zegree is GREAT for middle school voices in the jazz realm. Some very accessible arrangments. I  also love the pop acapella arrangments for middle school kids--there is a great series called "Just Voices" that has a jazz book, a Beatles book, and a pop book. The arrangments are well-done, and with the whole college a cappella thing, I think that there is a lot of validity and musicianship that can be learned from pop music done in this style, versus the bad arrangements of pop songs that are often found out there. I'm pretty sure I found those on the Mainly A Cappella website. 
 
Karla McClain
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