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Middle school boys: I KNOW they have the range, but...

Some brief background: Experienced middle school teacher working with some very talented and dedicated boys in my very large middle school choir.  Here's the situation...
All of these guys are in 8th grade and have been working with me since 6th grade, so they're experienced and certainly no strangers to how we run the ship.  Now, naturally they've all experienced significant changes in their voices, some more extreme than others, and thus has a problem arisen with how they approach their ranges...
I have one core of boys who now insist on singing everything down an octave.  For example, G, top space of the bass clef staff, they sing as bottom line G, and everything is relative from that.  I have no problem that they have those notes obviously, but not when the music calls for the higher ranges that they most certainly have.  The problem is that they see this lower range as a comfort zone of sorts, and I have had limited success in getting them to sing consistently in anything but that low range.
Ideally, I'd be able to tackle this issue in sectional or individual sessions, but scheduling issues put limitations on that, and there's only so much time I can dedicate to working them in regular rehearsal.  So, I turn to your collective wisdom to see what new tools I can discover to get them up where they should be, and feel just as good about it.  Thanks!
Replies (7): Threaded | Chronological
on March 9, 2014 7:39am
I am in my 22nd year teaching middle school, and I had the same experience you described for years.  They never responded well when I would try to work with them in front of the girls during class, so I tried sectionals.   Sectionals helped a little, but finding a time was difficult.  I couldn't develop consistency due to scheduling issues.  I wasn't able to solve the problem for good until I started separating my classes by gender for the 7th grade year only.  
6th grade is mixed, and we sing only treble music.  8th grade is Mixed Choir SAB.  Doing the gender split in 7th grade makes 8th grade Mixed Choir much more successful!
Having a full year dedicated to teaching singing to the boys has given me the opportunity to address their vocal issues to the fullest.  We talk about it openly from day 1.  They are less embarrassed when they aren't with the girls and experimenting with their voices.  When they enter 7th grade in August, there aren't too many changed voices, but we still address the topic early in the year.  By January, more of their voices have dropped.  It's awesome to get to address this change as it occurs because I can help them understand what is happening "live", and, most importantly, I can help them avoid the muscle memory that comes when they drop and start singing down the octave all the time.  If we don't address that octave drop early and get them comfortable using falsetto and working to open up and support the upper range, it's very difficult to get them out of that dungeon.  I never have that issue now that I split them by gender in 7th grade, and it's awesome! 
Of course, you have to work carefully with your counselors and administrators to help make this happen, but we must always do that if we are to have a flourishing program regardless of way we would like to  split our classes.  It can be tricky if you have 85 girls and 30 boys (like I do), but for me, it is totally worth the lop-sided classes to get the opportunity to help these boys understand their voices and use them properly.  Your classroom management has to be awesome!  The truth is that I find 85 girls easier than 32 boys in terms of classroom management.  :)   ...But again....the benefits are amazing!
My 32 member 7th grade Men's Choir is going to the Large Group Performance Evaluation Adjudication next week, and they are singing beautiful T/B music really well.  They feel tremendous pride at being a Men's Ensemble.  They are a wonderful example to other boys.  As a result, the gender split has helped raise the number of boys who take choir exponentially.  Last year, I had too many boys in my 8th grade choir.  The balance was off because the girls couldn't keep up.  What a great problem to have in middle school!  That is not the norm, but I really believe that giving the boys a year with you in the classroom is critical and incredibly beneficial for a multitude of reasons...including the vocal issues you raised above as well as for recruiting.
Good luck!
Dale Duncan
Check out my Middle School Sight Singing Program:
Check out my YouTube Channel with Teaching Tips for Middle School Sight Singing:
Check out my blog for Middle School Teachers with Sight Singing tips and Classroom Management ideas:
Applauded by an audience of 2
on March 9, 2014 2:10pm
Brilliant reply, Dale!  I'll start engaging my administrators at once on the issue.  I've got a very good rapport with my principal, so I beleive that if he can make something similar happen, he will.
To give you a little more detail on my program - I have a 6th grade choir, and my other choir is combined 7th and 8th grade, as it has traditionally been for ages.  Was the same with our band program until last year, when our band director pushed for (and won) three separate levels of band.  So I'm going to push for the same thing, as well as the gender split.  But I may need to make some compromises, as I also carry the entire general music load for 7th and 8th grade as well - mine's a packed schedule!  But there are so many benefits to doing what you're doing, I can't see how he could say no - plus, we've never had the luxury of being able to feature the men as an ensemble!
Your reply has me all fired up nd ready to move forward with some great recommendations for the future of my groups.  Thanks again!
on March 10, 2014 9:26am
hi Dale, I am in the same situation, however have not gone gender specific as of yet.  Can you tell me please what will your boys choir sing at the festival /competetion?  I am always looking for good repertoire as I have a extra curricular small mens chorus.  Many thanks!!!  Good luck!
on March 11, 2014 3:04am
Hi Annalea,
They are singing today!  Super excited!
They will sing "The Chariot Spiritual" arr. Donald Moore.
Hope that helps!
Dale Duncan
My Sight Singing program for Middle School Teachers:
My YouTube Channel with Teaching Tips for Choral Music Educators:
My Blog:
on March 10, 2014 1:15pm
Quick follow-up: I pitched the idea to my principal today regarding the gender split.  It seems like there was talk already about restructuring the choir program among the administration, so it was serenditpious that this came up when it did, as I can now engage my admins in a way that might get me exactly what I want.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 11, 2014 3:07am
Daniel!  That is super news!  It will make such a big difference for your program.  Once you get it rolling, you can feature the boys in such awesome ways! The snow ball effect is awesome!  Best of luck!
on March 12, 2014 10:11am
Great discussion, and good luck with the divisi set-up for the 7th graders, Daniel.
Regarding your original question about getting the changed voices to sing higher, you might try a little trickery.  When I encounter the same problem in voice lessons, I'll sometimes shout "Ah-hah," as though I had just made a discovery, and ask them to shout the same.  (The second syllable is usually shouted higher than the first, often by about the interval of a 4th.)  Depending on what pitch I'm trying to get the student to approximate, I'll try to shout so that the "hah" is on the pitch I want them to sing.  So I might shout "ah-hah" approximating A below middle C and D above middle C, and then have the student mimic my shout.  Then I'll sing 5-8-5-3-1 in the key of D, with the first two pitches being the 2 that were just shouted (in other words, A-D-A-F#-D.)  If the singing follows the shouting immediately, they can often be unconsiously coaxed into singing the pitches they don't think they can sing, especially because they're unaware of exactly pitches you're encouraging them to sing.  (And when I say "shout," I'm modeling and encouraging a breath-motivated sound with a relaxed and comfortably open throat -- one which is consistent with good singing.)  
Good luck with your program change, and I hope this suggestion might be of help in the short-run.  
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