Transforming My Middle School Choir

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    Hi all-

    Thank you in advance for reading my post and thank you again if you have any helpful words to lend. I don’t think my situation will strike any of you as anything very abnormal however I still really feel as though I’m struggling in my current situation.

    A little bit about my school/choral program: it’s a private school in its 7th year of existence. This is my second year at it. I teach both general music and choir. Last year, there was only one choir that met before school, once a week for half hour. It was open to students in Grades 3 – 8. (Our school runs Nursery-Grade 8). A lot of students enrolled throughout the year and it really gave me a reason to break the group into two. We hired another music teacher this year who now directs the Junior Choir (Grades 3-5) and I direct the Senior Choir (Grades 6-8). My choir is comprised of approximately 30 students, male and female, changing voices and completely unchanged as well. My predecessor was primarily a pianist and did not do much in terms of raising the choral culture in our school. From what I understand, students were taught by rote and used song sheets, etc.

    I really want to raise the level of the choir and make every member feel successful based on the accessible (yet challenging) repertoire I select. My biggest struggle is how to tackle the unique blend of voices that I have in my choir. As I said, I have many girls, I have boys with unchanged voices, I have some that have begun to change (but can’t sing below an F on the bass clef), and I have one boy in particular that can comfortably sing the low A on the bass clef. Ahhhh!!! I feel so frustrated when looking at music because I don’t know how to go about imagining each of my members on the different parts. I’m trying to make the most out of my 30 minute, once a week choir rehearsals, (oh yes… we still only meet once a week, but I’d really like to increase it to twice!) without feeling like I’m wasting time trying to get my students to understand what parts they’re singing… especially when they’ve not done a lot of part singing at all. To be completely honest (and I feel so amateur saying this) but I’m even hesitant when I select a starting pitch for unison vocal warmups as I feel as though I’m stretching some voices and leaving it inaccessible for others. I simply don’t know where to start.

    The last thing that I’d like to mention (even though I’m sure it must be related to the above problem) is that I feel as though some of my students don’t feel comfortable singing out. It’s a very frustrating feeling for me when I ask them to echo me in vocal warmups whether it’s solfege syllables or a simple round because their singing is very weak and anemic sounding. I do take time to discuss proper breath support and even designate time to do breathing exercises but I feel like none of it really makes a difference… I feel as though I don’t see any improvement and therefore am less and less interested in trying it out as I’m wasting rehearsal time.

    I’m a fifth year teacher and feel that at this point, I should know more than I do in this area but admit I have been scouring the internet lately simply trying to find answers to some of the most basic choral questions. In any case, I’d like to pose some of them here and look forward to any words of wisdom or recommendations any of you may have. I’m very encouraged by choral singing and it’s truly a passion of mine. I know my students love me and love my choir rehearsals, so, I feel like I’ve got the rapport with them to take them to new levels and ask them to try new things.

    I’m just not sure what the next step is… I feel like I’ve hit a wall.

    Best, David



    Sorry you’re going through this.

    Here are a few things that you could consider trying:

    1. Get them moving while they warm-up. Lots of mimed ball tosses, rainbow arms, swimming, shooting basketballs, juggling, etc. Have them do this while they phonate on a descending open-throated glissando. VAH, ZAH, OR THAH (with a voiced “th” as in “there”) work well.

    As a related exercise, have them shout a downward glissando “Hey!” at you while you alternate a “Hey!” in response (again with an open throat). Have them do sirens as well, letting their voice do whatever it needs to as it moves through their range.

    The movement will help to free them up and get the breath connected to the body, but the overall thought that could help them here is that singing uses that same fully committed voice.

    2. From here, tell them that you’re going to conduct them in that same descending glissando (VAH, ZAH, OR THAH) while they do the movement, but–at a certain signal–they’re going to stop the downward slide and just hold the pitch. It’s important that they not think that they’re “singing” — they’re just holding an open-throated and relaxed AH.

    3. IF this is successful, they’re going to be using a lot more breath and voice; they’ll have a much fuller and louder (if more discordant:-) sound.

    4. Next step will be to have them use that same open-throated and full-bodied VAH/ZAH/THAH while they do the simplest warm-up. Even if it’s a repetition of one note (Doe, doe, doe, doooooooooooooooooe…) or a simple 1, 2, 3, 2, 1. If some kids are still struggling with singing that particular note due to voice changing issues, tell them not to worry … or give them all a simple chord with notes they CAN sing. Then have them do the same open-throated vocalise.

    5. After this, apply the same concepts to your songs. While singing is more complicated than this, the open-throated shout idea can give them a sense of their vocal potential … and provide a good foundation for further growth.

    If you feel like it, let me/us know what happens when you try this, and I can brainstorm some next steps. You might also check my website for further ideas.

    All my best,



    David and Tom,

    I joined NAfME primarily because of your joint exchange on this post.

    Thank you for such encouraging and insightful instruction, (and I hope you’re still there… as these last posts are 2 years old).
    I began a path to music education two months ago, utilizing an accelerated Alternative Licensure option in New Mexico).

    I am a musician, who has worked in IT up until TWO MONTHS AGO (that’s an IT career spanning from 1997 through JULY 1st, 2016). Since, I have established my necessary teaching certifications and have been hired, to split between two 1/2 day programs in two middle schools in Albuquerque. I’ll be attempting to establish two (2) middle school choir programs from scratch. (In one, I don’t have a room. We’ll be using the “common area” of the school, and I’ll have access to a piano which can be rolled out onto the floor in that space.

    I expect to start September 19th, 2016
    Thank you for your attention and best regards,

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