Middle School Choral Madness (aka Herding squirrels and teaching them to sing on pitch)

Hi everyone, this is Amanda Isaac. Middle School is a tough and fantastic age group to work with. They challenge you daily and demand your best; the most successful teachers serve that expectation and energy right back to them. Middle schoolers want to be both kids and grown up. I know I try to feed both halves of that personality split. Let them be goofy when appropriate and insist on professionalism when it’s time to work and perform. I also do as much as I can to lead them to certain things subconsciously for two reasons: 1. It’s good pedagogy and 2. Their subconscious usually doesn’t argue with me.

During warm ups everyone vocalizes the fullest range of the voice (both girls and boys). We do at least one overall ascending exercise, one descending exercise, and either a range extender or a tongue twister. I teach them why we do certain vocalizes and what their instrument is as scientifically as possible; that knowledge gives them responsibility and accountability for their participation and performance in class and on stage. For instance my favorite warm up is what I call a lip bubble (aka motorboat sound). Ascending and descending the perfect fifth, either with a legato or glissando articulation, gives the students a limited range to manage or focus on. This exercise is wonderful for supporting and maintaining airflow as well as relaxation of many muscles. Occasionally adding the outstretched tongue, which can release some minor tongue tension, injects some purposeful silliness at the beginning of the rehearsal. I usually begin in E flat or E and ascend by half steps to D’. If the piano is used at this point, I try to only have the open fifth or adding the playing the do, re, and sol as a chord to get their ear active in tuning.

As for voicing here’s how it works in my classroom. I teach them a short song or fragment and we sing it in multiple keys. I then bring the students up to the piano in small groups, eight to ten at a time, always of the same gender, and we sing thorough them again. I call this a Voice Check (like a doctor’s check-up). No one ever sings by themselves (which reduces anxiety) and I move around the circle "casually" listening to the individuals sing. I then ask them to identify which key felt best for them. The students know that I always take their opinion into account when deciding their voice part and that they don’t always get what they want. Their voice part is determined by how many singers there are in the ensemble, their ability to match pitch, overall tone quality, range, and level of experience. Students sing the part that fits their voice the best.

What about the boys? I usually bring all of them up at once and first determine pitch matching ability and guesstimate (depending on my personal experience with the student) where they are in their vocal journey. We do the same exercise as above with modified keys. I use lots of analogies in my instruction and I teach the kids that their voice is like their foot: you can’t control when and how your foot grows, only how you use it. You wouldn’t wear a shoe that’s too big or small or not appropriate for a given activity, so your voice part is going to be as best a fit as possible for your voice where it is now. Boys in my groups sing soprano, alto or baritone. Since we do these voice checks at the beginning of the year and after each concert any student’s voice part is not fixed and can/does change during the year.

This leads me to repertoire. The joy and vexation of repertoire! When possible and appropriate, I like to give the students some control of their repertoire. For our festival music I always program a folk song or “world music” type piece which may or may not be in English, an “art” piece which is typically not in English, and a spiritual or gospel style piece in English. I choose two to three pieces per category and present them to the students. We look at the judging form and talk about contrast of styles, genres, languages, and tempi and apply the criteria to the given pieces and together choose the literature.

Where do I find my repertoire? The standard answer: everywhere! Repertoire lists found online, concert programs either passed to me or attended, honor choirs, youtube channels of some of my favorite children’s choirs, conferences, reading sessions, colleagues. Don’t be afraid of some SSA literature for a mixed voice chorus; some of those alto parts are in a good range for your changing voice boys. Or my favorite – if the music and/or text is so important to you to teach, make it work for your ensemble! I just rearranged the Peter, Paul, and Mary song “Light One Candle” (SATB) for my 3-part mixed choir because I knew they could handle the harmonies (arranging meant I could control the voicing and lines) and the text’s message was one I wanted them to internalize. Some of my favorite composers and arrangers in no particular order: Ruth Elaine Schram, Patrick Liebergen, Rollo Dilworth, Caldwell & Ivory, Susan Brumfield, Mary Goetze, Jim Papoulis, Henry Leck, Doreen Rao.

So you’ve sorted them into voice parts, warmed them up, and have literature in hand. How to teach it? Literacy baby! The resources I use are: Directions to Literacy by Ann Eisen and Lamar Robertson (as a scope & sequence guide for me using different repertoire), One Minute Daily Theory Books 1 & 2 (Slabbinck), 185 Unison Pentatonic Exercises (Bacon) and Kodaly Exercises. They sight-read daily and their mantra is “Don’t stop and never give up.” They read an exercise rhythmically before adding the melody. When they struggle with an exercise I remind them of how far they’ve come (“better today than yesterday, better tomorrow than today”). When it comes to literature, my students write solfege into their music as often as possible. Lots of repetition is key (isn’t it always...).

That dovetails into management (which I admit I am struggling with this year). Keep them busy! Moving swiftly in rehearsal is good for their attention span. My students also enjoy some freedoms within boundaries when appropriate. Give them some space when you can tell when they’ve hit their limit (usually occurring outside of class) and push them to develop some drive to move through and beyond the minor drama that distracts from the goal (which is sometimes just getting through rehearsal). We teach life skills as much as we teach legato most days.

When I was asked to do this blog post I surveyed my friends as to what I should cover. I’ve tried to touch on everything they’ve suggested, saving my favorite for last: “How to keep your sanity”. When you figure it out can you let me know? I try to laugh and find goosebump moments as much as possible, both in and outside of class. Sometimes it’s remembering the small epiphanies the students have or connecting with a former student who is doing well in high school or beyond. In the moment – breathe – lots of breathing!! Restrain that inner voice that wants to be negative. Invest yourself in yourself. Take care of your physical/emotional/mental/intellectual/spiritual/etc needs. Connect with colleagues. 

I wish you sanity and success with your squirrels. 

You make a difference and they know it (though they rarely show it).

Amanda Isaac currently directs twelve choral groups ranging between 5th through 8th grades, four of which are at the junior high, and teaches 2nd and 3rd grade classroom music at two elementary schools in the same school district in Bakersfield, California. Her junior high choirs consistently earn superiors or higher at festivals and her students regularly participate in county, all-state, division, and national honor choirs. After earning both a BA and MA in Music from California State University Chico, Mrs. Isaac furthered her professional studies by completing her Kodály Certification from McNeese State University with Lamar Robertson, Ann Eisen, and Susan Tevis. Mrs. Isaac has given presentations at both regional and state conferences for multiple organizations and enjoys guest conducting honor choirs. In 2016 she joined the faculty of the Colorado Kodaly Institute where she teaches the Level 3 Pedagogy and Folk Song Analysis courses. Named the Kern County Music Educators Association’s Choral Educator of the Year in 2013, Mrs. Isaac is currently serving her second term as the organization’s President. She also hosts the Kern County CMEA Choral Ratings Festival and holds active memberships in the California Music Educators Association, American Choral Directors Association, and Organization of American Kodaly Educators. Outside of academia, Mrs. Isaac is the Director of Music Ministries for First Congregational Church, UCC in Bakersfield. In her free time, she enjoys life with her wonderful husband and two young children.

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