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I can't get my middle school chorus to sing!

I am having the hardest time getting my middle school chorus to sing. I have tried everything from bribing them with candy, giving them some free time at the end, singing popular songs they know, making a competition out of it, to threatening bad grades. Can anyone help me?
My class size is about 20 students mixed chorus. In a high poverty area.
Replies (13): Threaded | Chronological
on November 9, 2013 5:42am
Consider the repertoire you are using. Is it music with which they would identify?  Start with repertoire they are familiar with and build from there.  There are two volumes of a book called Voiceworks published by Oxford that have a collection of songs with descants, ostinati, harmonizations, etc. that you can easily add to familiar/traditional tunes to make them sound really terrific - you  essentially make your own arrangement on the spot. These are a great place to start. 
Also, take a look at Nick Page's writings and books. Excellent resources on song leading.  Find the few kids who do want to sing and use them as a core - get them excited about something you are doing, and others will follow.  People sing when they feel that they sound good.  So find music with small ranges, in a tessitura that is completely comfortable for their voices, keep it simple simple simple, until they gain confidence in themselves and trust in you.  
Good luck!
on November 9, 2013 8:31am
Try the ideas in Choral Charisma by Tom Carter.     There are some ideas on his website as well if you can't get hold of the book.  Essentially it boils down to self-esteem and the relationship you can build with the students.  They need to feel "safe" with you, with each other and with the audience that will eventually hear them sing.  It is not an easy fix, so I wish you well.  Probably you should view the job more as music therapy as opposed to the acquisition of performance skills.  They are scared to fail, scared to succeed and scared to be embarrassed.
Jura Litchfield
Applauded by an audience of 1
on November 9, 2013 8:49am
Joy's suggestion is excellent!  I would add this thought, however.  Yes, find that core of students who DO want to sing.  Ask them what would THEY like to sing.  While listening to their suggestions, listen for what motivates you the most.  Hopefully that particular suggestion was already in the back of your mind and is what you hoped they would suggest.  When they are done telling you their suggestions, refer back to that particular suggestion and say that you like that idea and could go for it.  That makes it THEIR suggestion although you were already leaning in that direction.  If it is THEIR suggestion, then it is THEIR choir.  They have a vested interest in the outcome.  Do more of the same, but at some point, suggest that the do something that you want to perform.  Select something that touches their ideas but leads to a higher level of music.  Once they have the idea that working hard for something worthwhile makes the achievement of that work enjoyable and satisfying, you can add another work of repute.  Continue in like fashion until you have achieved your desired results.  This works.  I have seen it accomplished time and again.  Remember, it NEVER is about what compositions YOU want to sing, it is ONLY about what compositions create a desire within the student to sing a higher level of composition. God's richest and finest blessings on your practice, Catherine!
on November 9, 2013 11:21am
Have them write their own rap (pg of course).  You arrange it, add a basic accompaniment (synthetic strinks on minor i, VI, and VII chords is the ticket), sneak in a few vocal lines and make no big thing about it.  For students that aren't used to singing or don't want to, there is no right repertoire.  Meet them where they are, wherever they are.  Build from there.
on November 11, 2013 1:28pm
Could you arrange field trips to good high school choral festivals so that they can experience what other people close to their age level are doing and learn what they are capable of? It might provide inspiration and a different set of role models.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on November 14, 2013 1:55pm
You didn't say how the students were chosen for the chorus. That makes a difference.
John L. Davis
on November 16, 2013 5:19am
*Throw them a bone every nine weeks.  Do a novelty piece that includes unique, but simple choreography.  For example, I love Teresa Jennings work in the K-8 magazine.  She has some great pieces that lend themselves to easy choreography.  For example, "Dweller of the Cave" is a fantastic piece.  Add some simple flashlight choreography and a fog machine, and you have some excited children ready for the fall season.  Think about it for next year.  
I have other ideas too.  I have a blog where I share those ideas.  Follow it to get some more.
Be silly with them.
Reward positive behaviors immediately with praise.  When you see a child sitting up straight and using good singing posture, throw him a Starburst!
I also have a YouTube Channel with some classroom management ideas as well as some sight singing techniques:
I had the same experience you described early in my career.  It was terrible.  First, we have to remember that they WANT to do well.  They really do.  When they don't understand what we are teaching, they either "act out" or "bail".  It is our job to make sure we recognize when they don't get it, and then figure out ways to teach the material so that they understand.  They love success.  But, when we don't set them up for it, they...being middle school children, simply check out.
They want to be a part of something good.
Also, teach the type of music you are passionate about!  Seriously...if you love it, you are more likely to infect them with your passion.  It doesn't have to be
pop music.  If you love Broadway, then teach them Broadway.  If you love gospel, then teach gospel.  The passion starts with you.  
Applauded by an audience of 1
on November 17, 2013 7:38pm
Here's a hook . . . 
The Cup Song . . . from Pitch Perfect
change "Two bottles of whiskey for the way" to "Won't you go with me all the way?" -- Anna Kendrick on David Letterman
Paul Townsend
National Board Teacher Certification candidate – EMC Music
General Music K-5
on November 18, 2013 7:00pm
On, Talk Like a Pirate Day, I entered my classroom with a huge AAAARGH! and cajolled the choir to do the echo me. They were amused and taken aback that I even knew what AAARGH was or that there even was a Talk Like a Pirate Day. I let no one slide on this (nor did the other choir members) and soon, everyone had a respectible aaargh.  I then started rehearsal straight way with no further comment (after I took them off the ceiling...I have a really BIG ARRRGH!). There were a few who still didn't quite get this but I they had already given themselves up, so I then told them what we had done. YOU HAVE SUNG! It takes that much energy all the time. That much SUPPORT,BREATHING, and FOCUS! oh? You have heard this before? NOW believe me.  We all then were on the same page and no one got to slack. It worked. AAAAAARGH!  S
on November 25, 2013 2:57am
Try some team building.  A lot of my middle schoolers are afraid to sing in front of each other and no grades, coersion, or fun songs help.  Let kids who behave well sit by their friends in their sections at times.  Play a game like Encore.  Sing crazy warm ups like "a baby shark...." or "I'm alive awake alert enthusiastic" (found on youtube).  Don't get mad, get crazy.  Get to know your kids and make it ok to make mistakes.  Make it important to make mistakes.  Make BIG mistakes.  Praise, praise, praise, praise, praise!  Act - be enthusiastic!  I also have started a joys/concerns board and marbles (fun day when marbles are full & I only give them for extra things like extraordinary singing, helping someone you didn't have to, etc.)  I'm certainly no expert - I'm having some of the same issues, but these things have helped me some.  It doesn't work every day.  I get mad and go nuts (in a bad way) sometimes.  And it helped a lot that my principal let me weed out kids that weren't there for the right reasons at the beginning of this year.  I'm also in a low income area and participation in anything is just not really the norm in our school.  I'm working to change things.  Keep plugging away & keep us posted!  Remember there is no one answer and the answers change minute to minute and child to child.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on November 25, 2013 8:48am
I also teach middle school and I think Laura is right on track. It's about making the environment a safe place to make mistakes and/or sound bad. Tell them it's okay to sound bad (I use the "dying chicken" and model the dying chicken sometimes). I tell students to "sing a loud as they can and it's okay if it sounds bad (aka, like a dying chicken). Most of the time they sing with a good forte that sounds pretty good. From there you can praise the volume and then ask them to do it again, but this time you fix some aspect of it. Ask them to do it again, but this time fix one aspect of it: make a better vowel, use breathe support, separate the molars (aka space), or whatever else they might need to fix to make the sound better. 
With middle school (especially early on) I would spend a lot of time with vocalizations and rounds. This is how students will get to know their voice and how to use it. Early in my career I made the mistake of rushing into teach songs, but it had poor results. Now, I easily spend 15-20 on teaching breathing, vowels, the vocal mechanism (diaphram, soft pallate, tongue position, jaw (loose and low), projection, etc) at the start of each rehearsal for at least the first month.
Lastly, remember students are unfamiliar with the rehearsal process. They hear performance products constantly, but rarely see what it takes to get there. Pitch Perfect, Glee, American Idol, etc are product oriented and rarely show all the work that goes into making that product. Perhaps a good topic to discuss with them?  
Once you've established your safe place, then you can turn to the other great suggestions about litaterature. I'm happy to share my other ideas with you too, but this is probably the best place(s) to start.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on November 26, 2013 8:44am
One of the best tools for my small middle school group (I was in a K-8 school) was a program that the local University put on called "For Boys Only".  They gathered boys from grades 5-8 for a day of workshops and singing together songs that they had previously prepared.  The University men's chorus sang for them, as did a small ensemble, and it was so inspiring to these guys.  Even if you don't have anything like that in your local university or college, you might try a field trip not only to the local high school musicians (as previously suggested), but also to any university or college that is nearby, to visit the choral ensembles. Or, see if any local choral group will permit you to bring your kids to a rehearsal, or even a concert.  Maybe  there is a choir that would be interested in including the kids you teach in a group sing at one of their concerts, especially likely at a Christmas concert.  Most choirs are eager to train up new singers, and several have some sort of educational outreach program.  Maybe a group would be willing to come and sing at your school. 
Best of luck!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 19, 2013 4:26pm
   Great suggestion, Nan. The Barbershop groups have a program similar to this.  
   Also, Catherine, check with fundamentalist churches in your area.  Many have periodic concerts by traveling gospel and Christian singers--soloists, trios, quartets, family groups...   These groups are often fantastic musicians, have dedicated themselves to a life of service, and may be available to sing and or work with your group at school for very little money.
   Some community concert associations have a "Young Artists" program, where musicians are hired for a concert AND school visits. During the last 10 years, I was able to speak personally to cellist Alicia Weilerstein, guitarist Jason Vieaux, and have visits and clinics for my students from percussionist Jason Marsalis and marimbist Naoko Takada.  Inquire, find the person in charge, and sell yourself, your students, and their needs.
   These same concert associations may have free student tickets for their major concerts, not just the Young Artists.  In my upstate NY school district of 9,000 students, our music supervisor was given 10 tickets for each concert--and I was usually the only music teacher who wanted them!  My students (5th and 6th graders) saw--for free--The Chieftains, Aida by a European touring company, the National Ballet (traditional drummers and dancers) of Senega, and many others.  l would send home a schedule to be signed by parents who would commit to driving their children to the theater and picking them up (or hiring a taxi), then hold a drawing, since I always had more than 10 students interested.  I would be at curbside in front of the theater 30 minutes before concert time, and take the students inside at 15 min. before, and stated this plainly on the sign-up sheet as an absolute, inflexible schedule.  Parents or taxis drove by, dropping students off, and at the end of the performance (the concert assoc. or theater knows the ending time pretty accurately, or kids can call via cell phone), circled the block until they saw us at curbside.  I never had a problem, except for disappointed kids whose names were not drawn (They got first dibs on the next concert).
   Some folk and traditional music organizations have "Young Picker" programs where they offer free instruments and lessons, and either the students in these programs or the adult volunteers might provide motivation to sing. 
   Lastly, consider potential role models among the population you serve.  In my NY district, there were accomplished amateur solists from age 10 to adult, gospel choirs, Bosnian rock bands, a Vietnamese refugee choir at one of the Catholic churches, a Barbershop group, a chorus of Welsh ancestry, and more.  Call every church in your area and ask if they have an outstanding singer or a good choir the same age as your students.  Connect your students to the community so they are familiar with it and feel a part of it. 
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