Patrick K. Freer, an associate professor of choral music education at Georgia State University in Atlanta, is well known for his work with adolescent choirs.
How he came to occupy that niche can be traced back to his own personal experiences as an adolescent boy. “I was told to stand in the back row, not sing, and simply mouth the words when my voice began to change,” Freer said. “The teacher didn’t know what to do with me, so as much as I loved music, I was out of choir.”
In the short term, he learned to play piano and began a high school career as an accompanist for a variety of musical groups, but he still felt what had happened to him was wrong.
In college, he discovered others who had been told the same thing — “you can’t sing” — and Freer decided to help middle school music teachers deal with the unique creature that is a middle school boy or girl.
He wrote two books, Tips: The First Weeks of Middle School Chorus and Getting Started with Middle School Chorus.
Now in its second edition, Getting Started offers new information on working with young adolescent changing voices, designing optimal rehearsals for middle schoolers, managing growing choral programs, and helping youngsters gain musical skills they can carry with them for a lifetime of making music.
The Tips book includes easy-to-read lists, with information on setting up your classroom, choral activities for day one and beyond, repertoire for the first weeks, warm-ups for changing voices, and other information.
Freer said his aim is to help teachers cope day-to-day, but he also wants teachers to look past the first day of school or a fall concert. He wants them to think of their students in the future, students who will love singing as adults.
During a recent interview, Freer answered a few questions about his books:
- Explain the “ABC” concept you discuss in Getting Started in Middle School Chorus.
The book discusses these in great detail, but middle school choral music teachers must do three things:
A=Adapt rehearsals to the changing needs of young adolescents
B=Build on what students know and build toward what they need to know
C=Challenge students in ways that match their skill levels.
The three letters help choral teachers remember that their middle school choirs are not elementary choirs, not high school choirs — their students have unique needs.
- What are a middle school school choral teacher’s most important assets as part of a middle school faculty ?
Humor, flexibility, and compromise are three of the most valuable attributes of effective middle school teachers. None of these characteristics in any way signals that you don’t take your job seriously or that you haven’t set high expectations for yourself and your students. What they do signal is that you’re approachable and willing to work cooperatively. Administrators, fellow teachers, students and parents all need to know a choral teacher is approachable. Your job is to work hard, laugh easily and make outstanding music.
- On the subject of repertoire–Tips discusses 11 pieces a director can use for a concert early in the school year. What were your criteria in selecting those pieces?
I wanted to have accessible pieces usable by any choir, no matter what grade level, no matter what the ratio of boys to girls. These are not necessarily pieces to use all year long, but to get started. Middle school choral music teachers can build on what students know. We have to honor what students bring with them from elementary school and then help them build toward what they need to succeed in high school.
- Any additional thoughts about teaching middle school chorus and keeping kids singing?
We think about what students will do later in life, hoping student will be singing 20 years from now. But if all we do is focus on concert events, our students won’t learn any skills they can use in the future. You have to teach kids first and then teach music. If all you are doing is songs, there is problem there.
If a kid drops out of chorus to take up soccer or something else, don’t throw a tantrum. Leave the door open. They will come back at some point if they have a good experience.
To order the books, visit Rowman & Littlefield Education. The list price for the paperback Getting Started with Middle School Chorus is $21.95. Tips: The First Weeks of Middle School Chorus costs $14.95. MENC members receive a 25% discount on each book when using the code MENC25 while ordering.
Are you a middle school choral teacher? Do you have questions, suggestions, or challenges you would like to discuss about this unique teaching experience? Visit MENC’s Chorus Forum.
—Roz Fehr, January 22, 2010. © MENC: The National Association for Music Education