In over my head! Please read and HELP.

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    I saw the other thread from a band director teaching chorus but my situation is slightly different. After several years teaching band, halfway through my career I ended up with a K-12 band/choir/elementary music job and discovered I loved the elementary music. I got my 3 Orff certifications and attended lots of workshops. So now I’m very comfortable with band and elementary music. My choirs were either small HS/MS or large elementary and I knew enough to make it happen.

    Thankfully I escaped the urban trenches and have just started a new position as a middle school chorus director (this has been our first week). I have 2 sections per grade level, and they have been divided by the previous director into treble and mixed (so treble 6th, mixed 6th, and so on for 7th and 8th). Of course there aren’t very many boys and some of their voices are unchanged so to call it “mixed” is probably not totally accurate. Anyway…I am following someone who was here for a year, and that person followed someone who was here for a lonnnnnnnnggggg time. I’ve been in touch with both of them (the long-timer still lives in the community) and they have been great with any questions I’ve had.

    The problem is…they were AMAZING teachers and the kids sound MAGNIFICENT!!!!!!! Even the incoming 6th graders have come from elementaries with established elementary choruses, and they sound wonderful. Unfortunately they are all stuck with me 🙁 I am admitting for the first time…I am completely in over my head. I couldn’t take another year in the downtown public schools, my kids went to school there with me and in its deteriorating condition and instability (it was a 5th year charter school and I don’t think it’s going to make it) I jumped at the chance to interview for a position in our local district, and I was chosen over seven other candidates for my experience and versatility. I started the week really confident; the room is well-stocked with every choral method you can imagine; the library is extensive, I bought some resources that were recommended here. I have sung in church choirs all my life but that is the extent of it. My voice is accurate but not trained. There are kids who sing waaaaaayyyy better than I do! I am starting with warmups, solfege, sight-reading, and moving on to trying literature but there is alot I don’t know to tell the kids. Oh, and I *don’t* play piano enough to accompany, just play part lines mostly accurately. I hate singing for them to demonstrate because I sound so untrained. I don’t think they have figured out yet that I don’t know as much as their previous teachers. I have incorporated a little Orff (the room has a full instrumentarium that was collecting dust in a closet) and while the 6th graders love it, the 7th/8th are being a little snobby about it so I stopped.

    I don’t know how to assign kids voice parts…I don’t know how to choose literature for this level of a group…and I don’t know how to rehearse really well. I am treating it as I would a band piece, working on the notes and rhythms and expression. Sometimes I have pulled out tracks from Music K-8 and let them sing for the pure joy of singing. I can’t use anything unless it comes with a performance/accompaniment track.I guess I can survive if I know a few things:

    How do I maintain this beautiful pure tone they have?
    How do I teach intonation?
    How do I teach sight-reading?
    Can someone share their rehearsal procedures?

    Also, the band/chorus/orchestra take a Florida trip every year, and that is coming up (a workshop but not a performance, whew). I’m supposed to do concerts in October, December, March, and May. March is the state MEA’s festival, and there is so much pressure from the school community to participate and do well (perfect scores last year in one grade, missed perfect by 1 in another grade, all received superios).

    Apologies for the long ramble but I need to keep this job (single parent, late 40s) and I have to do whatever it takes..I would love to take choral classes or voice lessons, but on a single parent salary and raising 2 kids alone, I don’t have the extra finances or time right now. I love the school, the kids are great, the administrators are wonderful, and I would love to stay here and retire here. I moved my kids here and they are happy and making friends. Anything you can share will be much appreciated.


    PS What is the difference between “chorus” and “choir?” Where I grew up, I sang in a choir.


    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!


    I found myself in a similar situation about a year ago when my dad joined a barbershop choir and asked me to be the director. I have a similar background, my degree is in music education with an emphasis on instruments. I was in choir for one semester in college and that was the extent of my vocal training. I teach k-6 general music, band and choir. The barbershop choir has been a challenge for the instrumentalist side of me. But I will say, musical common sense applies to both vocal and instrumental music. I can tell a very noticeable positive difference since I started directing the chorus. I was able to get a scholarship to a week long barbershop directors college over the summer and I learned so much about vocal production and how to run a dynamic, energetic rehearsal. I’ve been taking voice lessons since December to try and learn more also. The voice lessons have been great! I’ve learned so much! I finally feel confident about directing my grade school choir and the barbershop chorus. By the way, the barbershop guys are an amazing bunch. They are surprisingly knowledgeable and very helpful. If you have a barbershop chorus in your area you should look them up and enlist the help of their director. Even if you just go to some rehearsals and observe you could pick up some great ideas.

    I’ve learned to trust my instincts. If I’m listening to something that isn’t sounding the way it sounds in my head, stop and figure out a way to get the singers to sound the way you want them to. You may not know the exact “correct” terminology, but your instrumental “tools” you’ve been using for years do apply to singing in a lot of ways.

    As for the difference between choir and chorus, I’m not sure the difference either. The barbershoppers are very picky about being called a chorus NOT choir. I was corrected at least 10 times throughout my week of training. They said a choir sings more upscale, stuffy music and chorus usually implies music that is a little more informal……I don’t know if that is correct, but that’s what they said.

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