Reply To: In over my head! Please read and HELP.
Hi! It sounds like you are doing so many things well. While I am by no means an expert, I am happy to share what has worked for me!
First thing first, you’ll want to divide your kids into sections. I like for my 6th graders to sing all of the parts, so I usually just separate them into 1s and 2s (etc…). Each student sings soprano half of the time and alto half of the time. In 7th or 8th grade, I’d start assigning parts. I always make sure to have fewer sopranos than altos, though that is totally up to you. I find that if the parts are balanced in terms of numbers, I can rarely hear the harmony as well as I’d like. I pay the most attention to tone when dividing my students. The girls/boys with light, bell-like voices are my sopranos, while the students with fuller voices are my altos. I usually put my musical theatre “belters” in the soprano section to try to break them of singing so heavily. Most middle school students don’t have any huge any problem with the range of any part so long as you pick age-appropriate rep. If you have just a couple of changed voices (fewer than 5 or so in a group of 50 or more), I’d have them sing the soprano part an octave down. This isn’t something that is the gold standard for dealing with changed voices; rather, I’ve found that if I don’t have a bunch of guys who are able to sing together, they are too self-conscious to consistently hold a part. Remember that you may change a student’s part at any time. They are resilient and can easily learn new parts.
Like you, I almost always start my rehearsals with warm-ups and solfege practice. In my mind, I try to hit on four things during warm-ups: vowel formation and diction, range, agility, and line. I usually start with something nice and light to get their voices moving(humming, lip trills, etc…). I typically make sure to go at least a major second higher and lower than the highest and lowest points in our repertoire. I then do solfege practice (major scale, arpeggios, practice with skips). As soon as I can, I move into a diction warm-up that consists of fun tongue-twisters that I present as challenges. I always make sure to leave the students wanting more, rarely feeding into their requests for “just one more!” I end with exercises that tie into our repertoire. If we’re going to rehearse something with a chromatic section, I’ll make up up a quick melody that involves a similar chromatic passage. If I’m trying to emphasize long, legato lines, we’ll do something with that. In every warm-up, I stress tall, unified vowels and breath support.
Pick music that you love. I highly recommend spending a few hours listening to middle school choruses and children’s choirs on YouTube. Doreen Rao’s Choral Music Experience rep is strong, and I like nearly everything published by Boosey, Santa Barbara Music Publishers, and Alliance. Henry Leck, Nick Page, Mary Goetze, Ken Berg, and B. Wayne Bisbee are great starting points for middle school literature, too. Unfortunately, I’ve found the music that is sold with accompaniment CDs to be hit or miss. If I were in your shoes, I’d make getting an accompanist for concerts a priority. If you send a letter out to your chorus families, you might be surprised to find that a parent has experience accompanying groups. Also, I’d check in with your cluster/feeder schools’ music programs to see if one of those teachers might be willing to help you out. If all else fails, I think a great Orff accompaniment would be more rewarding for the students than some of the pre-recorded accompaniments (which tend to include tons of razzle-dazzle instruments). That said, if the accompaniment CDs work for you and your students, definitely use them! I’ve simply found that my students take things more seriously when they sing a cappella/with a live accompaniment.
From what I’ve experienced, my chorus’s tone and intonation relate directly to my singers’ vowels and breath support. We are coooooooooonstantly talking about vowel formation. Tall, round vowels are key. I have the students echo me as I speak the words using pure Italian vowels. In addition, I give them plenty of visuals that help them create space (pretend like you have a ping pong ball in your mouth, breath in as though you are taking a sip of burning-hot soup, etc…). If you pay a lot of attention to vowel formation during your warm-ups, it will pay off immensely when you hit your rep. I’ve found that sharping and flatting are usually connected to breathing and tension rather than problems hearing the correct pitch. The kids need to focus on breathing deeply (my students always respond well to the image of filling up their stomachs like balloons). Have them watch each other to make sure their shoulders aren’t moving up, down, and all around. Also, talk about scatter-breathing and encourage your students to take breaths when they need to (except when your whole group wants to take a giant breath to ruin a beautiful phrase!). When my kids are flat, I’ll often have them do a few jumping jacks or run in place. Once they really start breathing, their pitch is almost always improved. Again, visuals are helpful. Have them place their hands in the “mi” position in front if their cheeks. If they are flat, have them sing “above” their hands. Sharping is often the result of tension. If your kids are sharp, try doing something to loosen them up (lip trills are awesome for this). Over-singing is also a typical culprit. Encourage your students to use light, lyrical voices (as opposed to Broadway/Pop belts).
I think we may be in the same city. If you’d like to talk shop, I’m more than happy to help! While I am certainly not the most experienced teacher out there, I’ve had a bunch of awesome mentors help me along the way. Please let me know if you need any help!