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1st year choir directing ~ Several questions!

Hello, I recently accepted a job as the choir director at a local middle school. The choir meets afterschool. The program was created in the middle of the year and we're located in a rural area so it's been a constant struggle getting people to show up to practices. I only have around 8 members.
As I said, I have a few questions. PLEASE BE PATIENT WITH ME.
1.) The kids are very very quiet and I am having a hard time getting them to open up their vocals and sing loud. Any suggestions?
2.) As I mentioned in the beginning there is literally only 8 people in the choir, we hope to have more next year. We are a school choir and I dont know what kind of music to provide them for us to practice. Can you give suggestions?
3.) The kids would sound better with harmony and I am afraid I have 2 or 3 "tone deaf" students. Help?
*** Thank you so much in advance!***
Replies (22): Threaded | Chronological
on March 19, 2014 3:40am
Congratulations Chase!  
Here are a few approaches that I use that may give you some ideas.
For middle school children, especially those who are volunteering their time before or after school, we need to inject fun, and we need to share music with them about which we are passionate.  They will sense our passion and are more likely to respond to it.
For the fun:  I call it "throwing them a bone".  In addition to teaching songs that encourage the traditional choral art form, I like to pick something that is a novelty in some way.  For example, I use this song each Halloween.
Once I've taught the song, I tell them to bring in a flashlight.  I teach them very simple choreography.  I turn on a fog machine, turn out and lights and "voila", the kids are super excited.  That excitement spreads to their peers, and a few more children are more likely to join.
How many other ways can you inject "fun" into their daily experience in rehearsal?  I believe they need to smile and/or laugh at least once every rehearsal!
For the "passion":  I enjoy teaching them songs from musicals and helping them find their inner actor!  Each year, after we've participated in our state adjudicated festivals and have worked on sight singing all year, I turn the page for the final nine weeks and we produce a musical revue.  During that time, I help them learn to audition, find songs that are appropriate for their voices and "type", and we explore an entirely different way to make music.  I enjoy the process, and they respond to my passion.  The performances they are capable of creating when they have guidance can be truly spell-binding.  The technical approaches we all take (myself included) when teaching the choral music art form don't always click with middle school students.  Because I love to teach about musical theater to the students, I am able to get them to dig inside themselves.  There are many positive technical effects that result from this "inside/out" approach.  Two of them are that the students breathe more deeply and sing with more support.
It doesn't matter whether you teach musical theater, gospel, pop or some other genre when you veer away from the traditional choral art for a few weeks as long as you are passionate about it and are able to convey that passion to your students.   Middle School students respond well to structure, but they also need a bit of variety.
Hope that gets your brain cooking a little!  
I had trouble recruiting in the early years because I was all work/no play and way too technical with my daily teaching.  Once I tapped into some of the ideas above, my program grew exponentially.  I now teach over 300 students daily who volunteer to take my classes as part of their daily course load.  Middle School students are incredibly loyal when you treat them respectfully, and know you care about them and work hard for them.  I can't imagine teaching any other age group, and I am about to finish my 21st year doing it!
Dale Duncan
My blog for middle school choral music teachers:
My Sight Singing program for Middle School Teachers:
My YouTube Channel with teaching tips, teaching examples, classroom management tips:
Applauded by an audience of 3
on March 27, 2014 12:16pm
wow thanks for sharing that "Dweller of the cave" song!  I do an annual halloween concert at my church, and always have my youth choir sing.  After having done 5 of these concerts it is getting harder to find cool repertoire to have them sing, and now I have not only that song but a bunch of others bookmarked!!! :)  Victory!
Julie Ford
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 29, 2014 4:21am
Yea!  Try Thunder Lizard too!  Fog machines and flashlights add so much fun drama!  Music K-8 is a fabulous resource for this age group.  They understand what makes this age group tick.
Dale Duncan
My Blog for Choral Music Teachers:
My Sight Singing Program for Middle School Teachers
on March 19, 2014 5:45am
Hello Chase,   To be a successful choir you need a core of talented singers to model good singing, motivation, leadership.   I suggest having a talent night for the school, like American Idol to discover who are the talented singers in your school.   Then talk to them about what kind of choir program would interest them.   You may have to start with popular music, and gradually diversity the menu to include standard choral literature.   Most kids want to emulate the celebrity singers they know through media.   We all have to come to grips with this fact.   Start with relatively easy and limited ranges and gradually add upper harmony.   Once you have some talented solo singers be sure to give them some solo exposure.   Take a look on youtube at what PS 22 grade five singers are doing:  singing pop songs in a very musical way, with mostly low ranges and occasional harmony that is above the melody.
Best wishes,  Jura
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 19, 2014 7:08am
Chase, Your situation is challenging but not impossible by any means.   I would suggest that you find some popular music that they know and can sing in unison (more or less, considering the off-pitch singers) Get a recording that they can sing along with.  Don't think too "artistically" right now; just make it a "song fest" kind of experience.  Get them to give you suggestions as to music they like and KNOW right now.   Their perception, as they sing that music,  will be that they "sound good" and that it is "cool" to be in choir.  Both of those are critical perceptions for students to have as selling points so they will recruit others. Also, put up some recruitment posters  around campus that let students know that they can join choir and that they are wanted.  Also, go out and invite students in; if they put mist on a mirror you want them.  They will try to talk you out of it because "they can't sing" or "you don't want THEM" or "you haven't heard THEM sing", blah, blah, blah. Ignore it because the truth is THEY CAN LEARN AND YOU CAN TEACH THEM!! Have students develop a face book page...Remember you are looking for numbers and you are trying to encourage them to sing;  you don't care about quality right now (although it will be nice to have some good voices in the mix.) Also, if you have some kind of prizes for student recruitment that is good too:  pizza for the top three, itunes gift card, etc.  If you plan a little trip this semester, that will work to help.  Do some mixer games in rehearsal to make it "social" (Find some fun things online). Do lots of different things to recruit as no one thing will be "it".  They WILL grow in numbers.
As they grow in size keep doing the unison sing along stuff, but once you reach "critical mass", where you have enough that you can divide into parts (I think that number is 12 or so where you can divide into sections of 6 or so on a part) then introduce some easy rounds with limited range.  And try a piece of printed music.  As you have more singers, then you can start using the stuff you were taught in school...
Trust God to help you through this first challenge in your music career.
Remember 1) Everyone wants to be able to sing 2) everyone can learn to sing 3) you can teach them 4) choir will give them that opportunity.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on March 19, 2014 8:04am
1. Since this is a new program and you are a new teacher for those students, they may be waiting to see whether this choir will last and whether they can trust you to know what you are doing. Give it time and stay postive! Have every minute of each rehearsal planned out beforehand so that they can see that you do, in fact, know what you are doing. Whatever you do, please don't fall into the trap of just trying to make it just "fun." That gets old quickly and you will lose them when they find something they think is more "fun." Give them the joy of learning something new - that they can do - and they will stay with you.
2. Find things that will challenge them just a little bit, but that they can conquer.
3. I don't believe any of your children are "tone deaf." If they were they would not be able to tell the difference between their father's voice and their mother's voice. You may have some who have not yet learned to coordinate their ear and their voice. Don't look at them as "tone deaf" students. Look at them as students whom you can teach!
Inner hearing (or to use the more technical term "audiation") is the key. Have them sing "Happy Birthday" in their head but make no vocal sound. Once they have, let them know that that is called "inner hearing" and that it is an important skill to have. Once they have done it, have them sing "Happy Birthday" out loud - individually, not as a group. (If possible, in order to limit any possible embarrasment on the child's part, you may want to do this in a one on one situation without the other students within hearing distance.) Can the student maintain pitch/key when he/she does? If they cannot, ask whether what they heard when they sang matched what they heard when they audiated.

If it did, they may not be audiating correctly and may need work on that. Play or sing two notes separately. Ask whether they are the same pitch and whether the second was higher or lower than the first. You may also ask them to sing two different pitches, but let the second be higher/lower than the first at your command. It may take some work and time, but they should be able to develop the skill.

If they say it did not, then you may be dealing with a vocal technical issue. At this age, I would think the best excercise would be a siren. Start in the lower part of the range and go to the upper. Follow a low - high - low pattern to help them get from chest to head, then from head to chest. Oh's and oo's are best to help maintain a stable, low laryngeal position. Make sure they keep the same vowel shape (rounded lips) as the pitch goes from chest to head, otherwise they may go into a "belt" voice and you will have another set of problems to deal with. You may also have them sing staccato triads (even if off pitch at the beginning) to help them readjust the larygneal mechanism to the register.

Good luck, and let us know how things work out for you.


Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 20, 2014 3:10am
Hello Chase,
What an enjoyable challenge you have!
Regarding your second point, check out my fun music for middle school kids at Redhead Music.
It's funky, even when in unison, with an occasional beautiful ballad, and includes optional harmonies and handjives. Children really do love it.
Everything comes with backing tracks if required, and the children can download many of the songs from iTunes.
Let me know if you'd like any recommendations, but as a starter how about 'Superkids Rock the Planet', a collection of five entertaining 'Conservation' songs such as 'H20 Blues' and 'Down, down, turn it down!. Or 'The Selfish Giant', with seven one- and two- part songs based on Oscar Wilde's short story, which is also available at JW Pepper.
With best wishes to you and for your enterprise, Sheila.
Sheila Wilson
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 20, 2014 4:53pm
Thanks Sheila, I like your songs! But they seem a little too kiddish for these kiddos. They're almost 9th grade students.
on March 20, 2014 5:04am
Chase, you didn't mention how many boys you have, but if you have some, singing unison songs may not work for their voices. If boys are the ones having trouble mtching pitch, they may be dealing with voices changes. Try to find their comfortable notes and adjust their parts accordingly, even if it means not singing sections of the song or adding a harmony part here and there. I think you will be surprised at their ability to sing some harmony if it fits their voices. Good luck!
on March 20, 2014 4:50pm
Thanks Deborah! I don't have any boys in the ensemble. I only had one but he quit b/c of soccer. I dont know of any songs that would fit them because their such a small group.
on March 20, 2014 12:26pm
Congratulations on the job. What an exciting challenge! I'm currently in my student teaching and looking forward to figuring out some of these challenges myself. Here are a few suggetions I have which have worked for me in field placements and student teaching. Hopefully they work for you as well!
When I was in high school, my teacher decided to let us "discover" our voices. He turned off all the lights, save for a small lamp, so that we couldn't see one another. He then had us sing a song we knew well. The sound changed dramatically. When I was in my last field placement, I told my cooperating teacher about this, and she decided to give it a try. It worked incredibly well. This is something that can easily be done with students and lets them feel a little more secure to be themselves and truly sing, as no one is looking at them. That may be worth a try.
As for opening up vowels, I suggest the "two finger" rule. Have students check their vowels from time to time by seeing if they can stick two fingers in their open mouth comfortably. Obviously, this doesn't work for every vowel, but it can demonstrate just how tall vowels need to be to students.
As far as music, partner songs would be PERFECT for your choir. If you don't already know, partner songs are essentially two songs that go well together. The students sing song A, then song B, then half the students sing A while the other half sing B. These are very simple yet create nice harmonies and contrast. 
Have you worked one on one to pitch match with your "tone deaf" students? Depending on their musical background, they may not have much exposure to hearing what it's like to match pitch and most likely have the capacity to do so. I would advise you to work with them a little bit, just plunking notes on the piano and having them sing them back. Hopefully they'll improve with a little guidance.
Overall, I agree with everyone who said to HAVE FUN. Positivity and fun can go an awful long way!
Best wishes! Keep us posted on your progress. We're all rooting for you!
Applauded by an audience of 2
on March 20, 2014 4:52pm
Thanks Lauren! I haven't worked with them one on one yet, because its only me. But I will at our next practice. As I said, I dont know any songs that would fit them, do you have any suggestions? They're a school choir.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 21, 2014 9:43am
Kirby Shaw here...
. As for your "tone deaf" singers:  in my experience, unless there's a major hearing problem, being considered "tone deaf" is simply a matter of a singer not being able to hear him/herself. Do some one-on-one time and things should improve. Not long ago on a cross-country flight I taught a lawyer mother of two teenagers to sing Do-Re-Mi from the Sound of Music. I started by having her hold a regular speaking tone and then slowly worked her up the scale from there a la Do...Do-Re...Do-Re-Mi. She had been carrying the 8th grade chorus shame of "just move your mouth in concert" for over 30 years. By the time we reached San Francisco, she could sing the entire song, felt totally liberated, and she gave me a big hug! . It's not rocket science. If you're too busy, assign one of your better singers to spend one-on-one time with your so-called tone-deaf singers. When I was in the 4th grade, my choral director gave me a similar worked! Hey, that might even be a reason I became a choral educator!
Applauded by an audience of 4
on March 23, 2014 12:10am
I teach middle school choir and I started with 16 students abour 4 years ago and now I have 85. I believe the key to my success has been in creating a comfortable environement where mistakes are okay. I encoarage my students to take risks, try hard, and that it will mean they will make big and loud mistakes, but that's okay. "That's why we have rehearsal," I tell my students. At the start of each school year (or rehearsal period), I tell my students to sing loud and to not worry about what it sounds like. I will often tell them I want them to sound like "dying cows" or something like that for the moment. It usually ends up sound much better than what they were doing previously. Depending on how much better, I will ask them to do it again even louder or if it was a good volume, I will say "That was great, now lets try it again, but this time drop the jaw more." Or go after what ever concept (ex. vowel shape, tongue, jaw, breath, etc). that I think needs the most attention.   
I believe inexperienced students are afraid of sounding bad and as a result they don't sing on the voice or don't project. They use a breathy and lifeless sound. Get them to sing on the voice and project by feeling like it's okay if it doesn't sound good the first time. 
I know many of the replies have used the give them a bone philosphy - having them sing music they know and like. While I do agree this is important, it can be difficult to get them to undo bad habits they have developed singing along with these songs. I have found it much easier to find fun songs that they didn't know before. When you ask them to undo the pop styling they can have a bad attitude about that; well at least some of my students do. 
A couple songs my students have enjoyed are "Corner of the Sky" (Arr. Teena Chinn) and Eja, Eja! (Mary Lynn Lightfoot). 
Best wishes on reaching your students! 
Applauded by an audience of 2
on March 26, 2014 10:19am
Get a copy of Choir Builders by Rollo Dillworth.  It has all kinds of workouts and comes with a CD.
Also, I learned about using gestures with everything especially the five vowels.
email this director for his "40 Warm ups that work and Why"
He led a great session at SWACDA.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 26, 2014 6:07pm
Opening up is mostly psychological.  Find real-life scenarios and images where they naturally put it out there.  When they do a fun exercise where they use their outside voice, and then start singing notes, they will revert.  Don't settle until they've discovered what brings out their brave selves.  The word "loud" loses meaning quickly.  Be creative!
Recruitment - anythning you can do to be a part of the lives of the student body.  When they know you, and feel beloved by 'that music teacher lady', they'll flock to choir.  Go to sports events, cheer them on.
Tone deaf:  There are a million tricks, and no tone-deaf person learns pitch quite the same.  Beg, borrow, steal, try everything until something works, and use that consistently.  Feeling vibrations helps (a bottle or glass held in the hand will vibrate when the singer sings the pitch that the glass/bottle resonates at... touch your forehead to theirs and sing together.  Mimic an airplain doppler effect, etc etc etc etc.  You just never know what will work, and once you find it, the hard work is then over)
Best of luck!  Good of you to reach out.  :)
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 26, 2014 6:08pm
I meant music teacher "guy" Chase.  My bad!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 26, 2014 6:25pm
Regarding John's suggestion of mixer games, a good source for these are the many "New Games" or "Cooperative Games" books.  These activities are widely used at summer camps, challenge courses, programs for troubled kids, and Outward Bound.  My "old standby", published many years ago is The Silver Bullet.  
Also, use food as an incentive every rehearsal. I have several after-school and lunchtime groups, musical and otherwise, and always have snacks.  For lunch groups, it's a single cookie or a couple of pretzels.  Today after school we had crackers and cheese (string cheeses cut into 4 quarters--you don't have to handle it or wear gloves, because the plastic wrapper stays on and the student squeezes the cheese out), pretzels, carrots (packaged "baby" carrots), and canned pineapple chunks.  Plan ahead and get some practical utensils just for food, that stay right in your classroom: knife and plastic cutting board, nonbreakable nesting bowls of proper size, a real can opener, a small colander and under-pot to drain canned pineapple, a hot air popcorn popper, etc.  If you don't have a sink in your room, include a small tote or bag in which to carry the utensils for washing.
Sing and Shine On by Nick Page is an absolutely indispensible book, and Jean Bartle's (Toronto Children's Choir founder) Sound Advice helped me a lot, as well as Helen Kemp's book of warmup songs.
Unless your rural school is part of a large district with many music teachers and an arts supervisor, you'll probably get no practical help in the way of on-the-job training, professional development or mentoring.  Seek it out and get it yourself......alas, at your own expense.  When I started as an elementary teacher in 2000, I traveled once a month to NYC, 3 hours one way, for several days of workshops for new music teachers put on by the NYC Public Schools and the Met. Opera Guild.  Find out what colleges and big cities in your area offer.  Look for retired music teachers who might enjoy helping you, or a local church choir director who might have experience building a children's choir.  Ask your principal if you can arrange your own training on so-called professional development days, and go visit a music teacher in another district.  You'll be very fortunate to find anything related to music among your district's offerings.  (Your principal's willingness to do this is a quick and easy assessment of his or her competence and understanding of education.)
Lastly, if you have a Barbershop choir in your area, ask them if they use their national organization's outreach program to teach Barbershop singing to young men.  There might be local guitar pickers or a folk music club in your area who would come in a play and sing with your students.  More and more of these groups and clubs have "Young Picker" programs to pass on the joys of singing and playing.    
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 28, 2014 4:08am
I'll keep it short and sweet.  1) Tone deafness: total nonsense.  The mistake most teachers make is trying to get the student to match pitch.  Have the student sing any match and YOU MATCH THEM!  They will soon develop a sense for what matching pitch sound AND FEELS like.  Then you can move on from there.  2) Sing all unison at first.  Narrow range (5th or 6th max), something boys with changed voices can sing an octave lower.  If you write two lists of all the vocal concepts that can be taught with unison singing and with part singing, the lists will be identical except for balance.  I'd much rather listen to beautiful unison singing then (pick your negative adjective) poor part/harmony singing.  When you do start part singing, avoid parallelism. Choose music with two or more very independent melodic lines so in essence EVERYONE is singing "melody."
Applauded by an audience of 2
on March 28, 2014 10:44am
I found that choral membership and attendance at rehearsals was made much more popular. motivated, and FUN when music was combined with drama and when there was a target date for performance at the very beginning of rehearsals.  Begin with a simple musical -- (a) a short one that's been written to last one school period and (b) perhaps one that's been written specifically for your age group, (c) let your principal know that you're hoping to present an assembly when the group is ready to perform.  Save the middle school versions of Broadway shows for a bit later in your career!  When you feel they're ready, let the principal know it's time for that assembly  But do try to get into musical theatre!  
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 30, 2014 8:10am
Maybe I missed it in my 'speed reading"... but, a good beginner way of getting into part reading /singing is through the use of ROUNDS / CANONS & PARTNER SONGS... Did you know that there is a really fun book "Silly Rounds & Canons" or somthing along those lines (soft cover 8 x 11 size red back ground and colourful lettering) .. tHERE ARE SEVERAL "ROUNDS" books, a) 100 or 200 rounds is one - it's a bit 'dry' but a good sight singing resource - not too fun though; then there is one that is FUN:  .it's been around for ages..and it's NOT limited to primary or junior grades... in fact, to inject the FUN & SUCCESSFUL SINGING element in to your rehearsals, use this resource - pick one that has lyrics and a melodic line that YOU KNOW THAT YOUR STUDENTS (AND THAT'S THE KEY HERE.. you need to get to know your singers... personaliites, singing skills, strengths, interests...i.e. bonding is pretty important in extra curricular activiites) and be able to select music activities that THEY WILL HAVE FUN WITH!...the resource that I have mentioned has canons like "One Bottle of Pop...3 blind mice, ie. fun songs.. as well as some slower, more lyrical short pieces.. THAT'S KEY TOO...choose pieces that will keep their music energy & attention and gradually work on longer pieces..
There are a few other resources that focus on both round singing or 'partner songs' - THAT'S ANOTHER GREAT tool to begin to get into 'part singing'...Hal Leonard, Alfred, Denise Gagne, these publishers have classroom music vocal resources that you can use to begin to build your after school choral program... 
DO IT IN SUCCESSFUL INCREMENTS at the fun levels of your members... You want them to head out the door and tell their friends how fun it was during choir club, right?
FUN is the key to increasing membership... they YOU have the control to build the skills for your music goals... music building blocks...
I taught elementary vocal music for almost 20 years... I hope that my experiences are helpful for you... GO SLOWLY, be careful with the 'food' incentive... use stickers, tattoes, attendance & participation board (you might want to use music names as identifiers rather than real names e.g. Bach, Drake, Beyonce, ) with them you can collectively create a 'reward & recognition board... one of the singers can be your assistant or you can be his/her assistant to ensure accuracy! lol.. again, it's all about building trust, bonding, fun time, inclusion, incentives, music skills, etc.)
Then in your next year, you can have a STUDENT CHOIR EXECUTIVE..that has reps etc.. It's all about what you and your singers are willing to make happen
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 30, 2014 10:03am
Dear Chase....
Looks like you've been given some great advice above but here are a few additional things to do...(I've built a few middle school programs myself over the years and it can be challenging). 
1. Plan a trip to a theme park.  This will immediately get you more students and guys who like to ride roller coasters....I went from 17 to 60 in half a school year.
2. Get great looking uniforms for the 8 you have.  For $35 each, I put my students in matching vests....they provided black pants and long sleeve white shirts.   (Notice...nothing musical yet!)
3. To help with the "uncertain singers", you may want to try familiar pop melodies in various keys.  I created "Pop Warmups for Guys" (next year when you've got young men) and "Pop Warmups for Choir" just for this purpose.
4. A few no fail chorals:  Sinner Man 2-pt or 3-pt when you get some men.   Dance, Dance, Dance - Strid/Donnelly 2-pt.   I Am A Small Part of the World - Albrecht - 2pt.
Stay in touch and let us know how it goes!  I've often said, "If you can teach middle school choir successfully, you can teach anything!"
One more thing regarding a "small" choir.  One is a solo, two a duet, three a trio etc.!
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