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middle school vocal music

During my teaching career, I have taught high school theater and General Music K-6.  Next year, my school district has moved me to a K-8 school that they would like to change into an "arts academy".  I am excited and already scheming up new lessons for my students -- drama lessons, arts integration lessons . . . but I have not yet worked with middle school vocalists.  
Could you tell me:
1.  Your top three priorities for middle school choir
2.  Your top three pieces for middle school choir
3.  Your top three concerns when teaching middle school choir
I have had a FANTASTIC fifth grade chorus this year -- I can teach them anything, but this will be my first time dealing with changing voices.  I am looking for your advice and successes to help my students next year.
Paul Townsend
National Board Teacher Certification candidate – EMC Music
Music and Drama K-8
Arcadia Neighborhood Learning Center (ANLC)
                  Starting August 2014
on May 25, 2014 5:16pm
Well, your first priority should be education.. yours.  Read up a lot on the field this summer to get ideas about the uniqe natures of pedagogy, ranges, and curriculum.  I would recommend starting with Kenneth H. Phillips’ classic “Teaching Kids To Sing” (Schirmer, 1972).  My primary concern seems a little old-fashioned today but I think it best to separate the genders in the early grades as pedagogy, ranges, and interests are quite different.  You’ll get some excellent suggestions about repertoire from this site but if you do create a boys’ choir, please look into some of my pieces:  One that is free and on-line is a gritty little piece called “Zolgotz” – it can be found at
Hope that helps.
Michael A. Gray
on May 25, 2014 6:46pm
From my wife, Martha Springstead, DMA (36 yrs experience, currently at Landstown HS, Va Beach, has experience grades K-12)
Top three priorities:
Good technique and natural tone. No show choir belt or nasal pushing.
Music literacy and sight singing
Team work is everything. My philosophy has always been that in middle school you never have a better friend or a worse enemy for at least five minutes. . . . 
Top three pieces: 
The Journey by Joseph Martin is treble/bass two part and awesome for changing voices.
also, Songs of the Wayfarer is the same way and the kids love it.
Bidi Bom by David Eddleman is really fun and layers in the parts so it sounds harder than it is.
Top three concerns:
Our class is not like "Glee", and I will not pretend it is.
Music is an academic class and your guidance and administration need to understand that chorus is not the dumping ground. Make it clear. You have a degree in music education, not baby sitting. It's not the place to put kids who don't have any place else to go.
Students will take responsibility if you give it to them, and will do whatever you want them to, because middle school kids are loyal to a fault. And they make great leaders. I am doing high school now, but I loved Middle school for 17 years, and they were amazingly self sufficient. And good middle school singers feed high school choral programs, and we count on receiving musically literate, enthusiastic singers.
Hope this helps. Love your job!!! That is very important. you will change the world, but it won't be all at once. celebrate the little victories every day.
Dr. Martha Springstead
Applauded by an audience of 2
on May 26, 2014 4:30am
Congratulations!  Middle school children are unique to teach!  
1) Top three priorities for middle school choir:  
a)  Fun.  If we are boring, they tune us out.
b)  Gender separation.  If possible, separate by gender in 7th grade and/or 8th grade.  I prefer doing this in 7th grade because you can teach the boys about their changing voices before most of them have had the "big drop".  Once they drop the octave, it's hard to get them out of the basement if we haven't prepared them.
c)  Stucture.  Many times when middle school children aren't succeeding, it's because we haven't given clear instructions or set clear expectations.  When that happens, we get frustrated with them, they feel it, and the relationship between the teacher and the students suffers.  Recognize the vast difference between 6th and 8th graders.  It's quite stark.  6th graders need MUCH more structure, for example.
2)  Top three pieces:'re-the-Men/1527316.item#.U4MjtpRdVxs  (Men's Choir)
Also, discover Music K-8.  GREAT stuff in there.  Lots of novelty pieces the kids love!
3)  Top three concerns:
a)  Learn to handle behavior issues with total respect.  They watch everything you do.  If they perceive you to be unfair, you will lose them.
b)  Teaching Sight Singing to beginners.  They are ready to read, but they aren't ready to tackle most of the sight singing materials that are on the market.  Most of it is WAY to hard and progresses to quickly for the students I've taught over the last 22 years.  The books and programs on the market set them up for failure.  The kids tune out, and we lose them.  So, I designed my own especially for this age group.  It's available for use by other teachers.  
c)  Of course, the obvious....dealing with the changing voice....but also, helping the young girls learn to discover and support their head voices.
Best of luck as you start this new adventure!
Dale Duncan
My YouTube Channel with Sight Singing tips and Classroom management tips:
My blog for middle school teachers:
Applauded by an audience of 2
on May 26, 2014 6:30am
Top 3 priorities for choir:
1. teach them how to sing - that is, give them the vocal technique they need to use their voices in a healthy way. This can be fun and entertaining - does not have to be stuffy or  boring. The Ken Phillips book Teaching Kids How to Sing is an excellent resource. Use your warm up time to teach vocal technique.
2. teach them vocal physiology and what is happening through their voice change - girls need to learn about they guy's voices, and vice versa.  This creates a much more accepting and understanding atmosphere for all, and vocal change issues are minimized.
3. don't be constrained by identifying singers as SATB. They are not. Their voices are changing and in constant flux.  Create an environment in which it's ok and actually healthy for the boys to sing in the soprano range as appropriate. 
Top 3 pieces:
1. Cuckoo by Rob Hugh
2. Just Can't Stand it  by Stephen Hatfield (along with a lot of other of his compositions)
3. Been Down Into the Sea by Nick Page
Top 3 concerns:
1. creating a welcome and accepting environment in which the singers feel safe and willling to take risks
2. getting the boys to feel comfortable with the fact that their voices are changing and that this is a normal process/getting the girls underingstand that their voices also are changing and that they don't need to/shouldn't be trying to sound like pop singers. They are not, and their voices are not mature enough to do that.
3. constructing rehearsals that are engaging, efficient, and highly productive.
Good luck!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 26, 2014 8:13am
It has been many years since I've taught Middle School general music and choir ... but one thing I learned after a not-too-successful first semester (this worked because half the school had art first semester and music second and vice versa) was that the kids loved art because they got to do stuff ... hands on.  Once I turned my general music classes into singing classes ... we were on our way. We did other things, too ... but always with the idea of their being active in the process ... not spectators to a lecture. They could care less about opera, but when we acted out scenes from "Carmen" on the school stage ... they had a ball. And I heard in future years from a good number of them that they had actually gone to opera and orchestral performances.    With the choir ... working with the boys through their voice change is essential.  Also learning to recruit the boys so that they are willing to sing through the voice change and on into high school.  If you can accomplish this ... these young men will be singers for the rest of their lives.  You are in a great position to begin this because you know these young people from elementary school ... so keeping in touch with them and seeking out the best singers for your choirs is much easier.  I transitioned into a full-time church music career early on ... and this principle has worked exceedingly well over the years.  Your good elementary singers will continue on with you because they know you and trust that you will give them something they will enjoy.  Best of luck with the transition.
on May 26, 2014 4:45pm
Congratulations on your new job at an arts-academy-to-be! I sense that you are an ideal pick for that job. All of the so-far replies to your post have written about the wonderful characteristics of pre-teen and early-teen youngsters. They are all so spot on about that. The priorities and concerns they have addressed are excellent.
Certainly, there are lots of of top priorities and concerns when teachers lead middle school youngsters in experiences where regular singing happens, whether it be in choir or general music learning situations. And you have pointed yourself to a hugely important priority and concern: "my first time dealing with changing voices." I'd like to make some considered recommendations to you about that:
1. Information to read about male voice change:
    (a) an overview that was published in Choral Journal, April (I think), 2012: "Boys' Changing Voices: What Do We Know Now?" A PDF copy of the article is in the Library of the ChoralNet Community, "Voice Education for All Types of Expressive Choral Singing"
    (b) a short, paperbound book by the late John Cooksey called Working with the Adolescent Voice, published by Concordia Press
2. Information to read about female voice change:
    (a) an overview by Lynne Gackle, published in Choral Journal, 1991, Volume 31, Number 8, pages 17-25
    (b) a wonderful book, Finding Ophelia's Voice by Lynne Gackle
The work of John and Lynne are evidence-based (science-based) and absolutely basic to practical, real-world use in voice learning situations like choirs and private voice study--even in acting study. They each also contributed two research-based and practical-use chapters in a 3-volume tome titled Bodymind and Voice: Foundations of Voice Education (click on The VoiceCare Network link below for info). B&V is evidence-based and addresses just about everything one could be curious about regarding voices. Not only is it authored by several choral conductors/voice teachers/music educators, but it also includes chapters in which the lead authors are three ear-nose-throat physicians, an endocrinologist, an allergist-immunologist, a speech/voice pathologist, an audiologist, an Alexander Technique teacher, an early childhood voice education specialist, two child voice specialists, and a specialist voice educator.
3. For practical, hands-on experiences that include interacting with middle-school-age male and female youngsters--plus a deep grounding in the 'workings' of voices over the human lifespan and how voices react to the communications and gestures of choral conductors--I highly recommend that you do whatever you can to attend the 7.5-day summer course offerred by The VoiceCare Network. It is their Bodymind and Voice course and the changing voice portion is based on Cooksey's and Gackle's evidence-based guidelines for classifying changing voices, and based on those classifications, selecting music that that changing-voice youngsters can successfully sing with vocal skill and ease. This summer, the course meets from July 10 to July 17. [I founded VoiceCare and am retired from it, but during two evenings of the week, I am available for discussions about voices and voice education.]
I'd be happy to exchange emails with you about these matters, Paul, if you'd like to. Regardless, be well and keep up the good work that you do.
on May 27, 2014 5:47am
There's a lot of information available regarding middle school choirs and the changing voice. I would recommend checking out the Cambiata Institute of America for information specific to the boy's changing voices.
This website will also have links to the biannual National Conference for MS/JH Choral Music as well as the UNT MS/JH Honor Choir Camp. The first is an excellent teacher training opportunity and the second is a fantastic summer opportunity for incoming 7th-9th grade choristers.
Best of luck!
on May 27, 2014 12:08pm
Hi Paul,
I have been teaching middle school chorus for 18 years and I wouldn't do anything else! All of the posts above are spot on and sound advice. I won't repeat any of them so here are some repertoire recommendations In general, look for three part mixed rather than SAB.  Also, with beginning choirs I have sometimes done SA pieces, with the low voiced boys taking the melody an octave lower, and unchanged boy's voices singing soprano or alto, as per their ability.  Unorthodox perhaps, but it works.
1. Rainstorm
2. Route 66
3. Pie Jesu
4. Here Comes the Sun
And for the holidays:
!. Estrella Brillante
2. Sleigh Ride
3. Hanukkah Remembrance
4. Let it Snow!
Good luck.  Be firm, with a sense of humor!
on May 28, 2014 12:21pm

Congratulations, Paul!  I would strenuously agree with every word and thought that Joy Hirokawa has penned to you with three additional thoughts. 

1. Top three priorities: I would combine Joy's first two entries and would add that you should "memorize" Dr. Barbara Doscher's book: The Functional Unity of the Singing Voice, Barbara M. Doscher, Scarecrow Press, Edition 2, 1994, 352 pages, $44.80, hardcover.
2. Top three priorities: As the third entry, I would add: totally learn the Kodaly Method (Google).
3. Top Three Pieces (Repertoire):  Go to the J. W. Peppers and Son web site.  You will see a button for Music Lists. Enter Mid Sch Repertoire.  [ music/services-music-lists.jsp]   Use this list and expand from there as your program dictates.  Use the repertoire presented by the others herein, but remember to use only those works that your dictates while always challenging your students through theory, sight-reading and quality of repertoire.

Of those who are given much, much is expected.
Praying for God's blessings on all your teaching practice,
John (~Jack~)
35 years of MS teaching
42 years of teaching
From school concerts to Carnegie Hall

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