by Developing Voices Author Jennifer Berroth, Choral Director at Leawood Middle School, Leawood, Kansas.
I’ve heard it said that teaching middle school puts one at the front of the line for sainthood. We’ve all had days on which we have earned that status. I have been teaching middle school choir for seven years, and in that time I have witnessed the full spectrum of adolescent behavior; from the sweet to the disrespectful, from the silly to the hyper-focused, and sometimes just chaotic madness. Classroom management is more of an art than a science; it requires flexibility, reflection, and attention to detail. I don’t have all the answers, but thought I would share some practices with which I have had success.
Problem: My choir is too chatty during rehearsal.
Option 1: Call and Response. This seems elementary, but it has worked for me. There are many types of calls and responses you can use. Make your expectations clear when you teach the protocol: one call, one response, refocus, and move on with rehearsal.
- Clap or “Sh” a four beat rhythm for students to echo
- Vocalize a “Yoo-hoo” and students echo
- “One, two, three. Eyes on me” Students respond “One, two, eyes on you.”
- Be creative—there’s no wrong way to do this
Option 2: Rehearse your rehearsal. At the beginning of the year, my students practice standing with their folders, ready to sing, over and over again. If students talk during this process, we start again. We don’t move on until everyone can stand poised and ready to focus. We usually revisit this exercise a handful of times each semester when things really devolve.
Option 3: Reward Chart. Another elementary technique, but one that my sixth graders seem to respond to. After each rehearsal that the class meets my behavioral expectations, they earn a mark on the reward chart. After 10 such days, they receive a free seating day. I’ve heard of teachers offering a day of music games, movie days, or candy—just find out what will motivate your bunch!
Problem: My students don’t use good singing posture or technique, even though we talk about it all the time.
How’s your sticker game? My students love stickers (really! they love being recognized in front of their peers). I keep a pack near the piano, and whenever I spot a student using good posture, tall vowels, marking their music with a pencil, etc., I quickly acknowledge their good behavior by passing them a sticker. There’s minimal disruption to rehearsal, and it’s amazing how many students start to sit taller and follow directions after they see their classmates earning stickers.
Bonus: Let a student or two students play “Posture Police”. Have them walk around while you are sight-reading or rehearsing. They can give stickers to students who are demonstrating great posture.
Problem: My students don’t stand still when they sing.
In Rehearsal: Use movement to your advantage. As much as I understand the need to practice standing still while singing, I encourage my students to use movement while warming up or practicing parts in rehearsals. Deliberate movement can help students connect their breath to their sound. We make waves for crescendos, pop bubbles for staccato sounds, shoot basketballs for ascending leaps, and much more. Sometimes, I’ll have students alternate between sitting and standing while we are singing to keep them moving and alert. Control the movement and make it work for you.
For the Performance: I use a saying that I learned from my friend and colleague Nathan Dame.
“Feet, feet”(stomp each foot down)
“Hips straight” (point to each hip)
“Shoulders back” (touch the left and right shoulders)
“Head tall” (Pull an invisible string from the top of your head)
“ Chin down” (check that the chin is parallel to the ground)
“Eyes on you.” (students use their two fingers to point at their eyes then yours and FREEZE)
The students learn the chant at the beginning of the year. When we are preparing for a concert I have them repeat it. Once they say “eyes on you,” they freeze with their hands at their side and then we run our music. If one member moves before the music starts, we do the whole chant again. I have found this to be a very helpful tool in getting students in the correct performance posture.
- Make your expectations known from day 1, and be consistent! Research suggests posting expectations in the classroom is best practice.
- You must allocate time in your rehearsal to practice the simple tasks: walking on risers, standing quietly, using good posture, etc. Be diligent and don’t move on before they achieve mastery.
- Positive reinforcement works. It’s basic human psychology. Offer ways to earn rewards.
- If a management technique is failing, try something different. Reach out to colleagues for ideas. Talk to the effective core subject teachers in your school. They may offer something you can adapt for the choir room.
- Choose your battles; I laugh when I think about all the time I wasted as a new teacher sweating the small stuff. There are annoying behaviors that adversely affect rehearsal—but there are also annoying behaviors that don’t. Learn to let the small stuff go and your nerves will thank you for it.
- Above all, cultivate a sense of family and teamwork in your classroom. When everyone invests and trusts each other, working towards that common goal becomes much easier.