Many music education undergraduates and music educators cringe when they find out they have to teach middle school choir or even just cringe at the though of possibly having to teach it at one point in their career. While I believe that middle school choir is definitely a challenging area to teach, I also feel that it can be an extremely rewarding experience for both the teacher and the students. Just yesterday I had the opportunity to attend an amazing workshop on middle school choir yesterday at Grove City College. Amy Beresik- Choral Director at Doresyville Middle school presented a workshop on directing middle school choir and brought two of her middle school honors choirs to perform. This was by far one of the most valuable and beneficial workshops that I have ever attended which prompted me to write this blog post reflecting on what I learned.

I Have to Teach Middle School Choir…Now WhatHere are some tips to help you survive middle school choir. While I have no experience teaching middle school choir here are some of  my opinions and ideas that I learned from the workshop.

  1. Teach Good Vocal Technique First-At the middle school level students are going through a lot of changes and they are just beginning to figure out how to use their voice. It is extremely important as music educators that we stress good vocal technique first. Our voice is an instrument so just like in a band, it is the choir directors job to teach the students how to properly use their instruments. We need to teach healthy technique first and then you can have students adjust their style to match your repertoire, but it is imperative to have good vocal technique before experimenting with different musical styles.
  2. Make Students Listen– At the workshop I saw first hand the importance of teaching our choirs to listen and the outcome that is produced when this happens. Even at the middle school level we should challenge our choirs to sing a capella as much as possible to help develop aural skills, blend, and intonation. Also we need to ask our students what they are hearing because this makes them listen more attentively while they are singing.
  3. Singing Requires More Than Just Your Voice– Singing requires your full body so it is important for us to incorporate this full body approach to sing in our choirs, even at the middle school level. For example when warming up start by warming up the body, and then breathing and then begin warming up the voice itself.
  4. Instructional Conducting– At the middle school level we as directors need to make sure that our conducting is as much instructional as it is artistic. In our conducting I believe we need to show the students breath support, posture, embouchure etc. Students mirror whatever they see the conductor doing so it is imperative that our conducting is instructional especially at the middle school level where students are learning and growing a lot.
  5. High Expectations– Many times I have heard directors say “Oh, they are just middle school kids, they won’t be able to handle that.” To me it seems as if middle school choirs are often looked down upon. As educators we need to not underestimate what our students can do. If we require excellence all of time the students will usually rise to meet those expectations.

The Changing Voice– This is one area that I believe most undergraduates (including myself) do not know enough about. Here is an analogy that workshop presenter Amy Beresik used that helps to put the make changing voice into perspective. Imagine that the instrument you play changes daily; one day, it has a wide range, others only five notes. Sometimes it is resonant others foggy-sounding. Muscled memory seems to change and one day you play a passage perfectly and the next it sounds like you have never played it before. Also, the way you hear your instrument is changing as well. This may seem crazy, but this is what it feels like for middle school boys experiencing the voice change. Below are some tips that I learned about how to deal with the make changing voice.

  1. Know your voices– Listen to your boys sing regularly because their voices will be changing at a rapid speed. It is imperative for you as the director to know exactly where in the voice change process each of your boys are in. This way you will best know how to accommodate and pick literature that will set up all your students (including the boys) for success!
  2. Flexibility- Because your boy’s voices will be changing so rapidly it is important to be flexible and willing to change voice parts when necessary. You may need to allow some of your boys to change parts on ever song so that they feel comfortable and are singing in a healthy range.
  3. Sing– Especially for female choir directors it is extremely important for us to sing with our boys instead of always playing their part on the piano. Us singing helps them to hear the pitches better and sing in the correct octave. As a middle school choral teacher it is necessary to get extremely comfortable with using your singing voice as a teaching tool.
  4. Communication– Make sure that your boys are willing to communicate and be open with you about what they are feeling and going through. We can learn a lot from them by hearing about their experiences throughout this process. It is also important for female directors to make sure the boys know that we have no idea what they are going through so it is even more imperative for them to communicate with us so we know how to better help them.
  5. A Natural Process- Middle school boys can be a difficult age to deal with, but they need to know that the changing voice is a totally natural process just like your shoe size changing. As the director you need to normalize the process for the whole choir to help with any self-consciousness the boys may have. It is also important that you are encouraging during this process and don’t get frustrated when the boys come in sounding different everyday.

Never Say Never

I know I have said this in earlier posts, but I believe as undergraduates we need to get as much experience as possible in all areas of music education, including middle school choir. Yes, we all have our area of expertise, but we never know where we may end up, especially now days. I believe as undergraduates we need to never say never. Many times what we say we will never teach is what we end up getting our first job in. My advice to undergraduates is to not only continuing learning in your area of expertise, but attend workshops and gain more knowledge in areas that you are not as comfortable with. It frustrates me when instrumentalists will only attend instrumental or band related workshops. In my opinion I believe that instruments should attend more coral and general music workshops because those are the areas we are usually less experienced in. We are music educators, not just band directors, choir directors, or general music teachers, so we need to become competent in all of those areas. I believe we need to be well-rounded musicians and not just top-heavy in one area.

As an instrumentalist I am constantly looking to improve my vocal and choral directing skills so that if one day I end up teaching middle school choir I won’t feel like a fish out of water and I will be able to give my students the best musical experience possible. This workshop taught me a lot of teaching middle school choir that I did not know, but hopefully will one day be able to put into practice. I believe that it is crucial for all music educators and undergraduates to gain as much experience as possible in all areas of music education. If you are a person that never sees yourself teaching middle school choir, I urge you to start now and take advantage of every opportunity you have because you never know when one day you will find your self with a bunch of middle school students who want to sing. A great way to do this is by attending professional development conferences such as PMEA, which is coming up this week. Check out my blog article PMEA 2011 Live Blog for more information!