Friday, February 24, 2017

Perfect Pitch and Sight Singing

On Monday morning, I was on the treadmill running, and I came across this article about a child in Atlanta who has perfect pitch.

I've always believed that perfect pitch was far more rare than some of us believe.

Maybe it's because mine isn't perfect!  :-)

I certainly appreciate the information that expert researchers in our field contribute to our work, but doing it is not a passion for me.  

So, today, I am asking for data from YOU based on your experience!

Here is mine!

I've often said that my research lab is my middle school choral music classroom where I've taught well over 10,000 students over the course of my career.

During that time, to my knowledge, I've never encountered a child who had perfect pitch.

Maybe someday soon?!  

The reason I am pretty certain that I've not encountered perfect pitch is because of how I structured my sight singing program, S-Cubed.   I didn't follow the traditional model of singing in the key of C, then F, then G, and so on.  

I didn't follow that model because early in my career, I noticed that my middle school beginners struggled reading notes below the staff on ledger lines.  Starting the teaching of sight singing in the key of C seemed to created a barrier to learning.  I also noticed that my beginners struggled reading notes when the stem directions changed.  For example, going from A to B on the treble clef...Some of the children thought the B was lower than the A simply because the stem pointed down.

For that, and many other reasons that are too detailed to cover here, I decided to create a program that at least, in part, would focus on training their young eyes on how to interpret the "dots" and "stems" regardless of key or key signature in the early days of their training and to do it all while using what I call "varied but comfortable DO".   This concept means that, in the beginning of their training, we choose to have our beginners sight sing in keys that are comfortable for their voices (usually C, C#, D, D#, E) regardless of the notes that are written on the page.

Don't panic...we don't do that permanently!  After several weeks, we move to the real keys and use moveable DO!

One of the other reasons I use "varied but comfortable DO" early in the program is because middle school children whine "This is too high" when they try to sight sing in the keys of F and G.  So, I removed the obstacle.  When our beginners are learning this new and complex skill of sight singing, they are already self-conscious.  If they are worried about it being "too high", they stop focusing on building the skill sets we are striving to teach, and they shut down.

...At least that was what I experienced.

...And almost every sight singing method I encountered in my early days of teaching went from the key of C to F to G and gradually added more sharps/flats to the key signature, and for singers, I realized it wasn't necessary.   Later?  Absolutely....but there was no need to follow the instrumental model for young singers in the early days of learning to sight sing.  We don't teach conjugation to them while they are learning to speak their first complete sentences, so it made sense to me to build other skills first.

During the time the students are sight singing notes like high A on the treble clef without any accidentals in the key signature, there hasn't been a single middle school student in 25 years who has said "Mr. that the real DO?"  Or "That isn't the right pitch."   

When I made the decision not to use the real keys in their early training with sight singing, I didn't think about the students who might have perfect pitch.  I was only focused on how to help my true beginners to be less confused about turning those dots into sound.

Once my students have developed strong skill sets and problem solving techniques, then we learn the theory behind the key signatures, and all of the things that singers need as they work toward becoming literate, educated musicians.  

So, here is my question for all of the middle school music educators out there who've encountered hundreds and even thousands of middle school students:

Have you encountered students who had perfect pitch?  If so, how many times have you encountered students with this incredible gift?

Check out my blog!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Keeping them motivated at this time of year!

This week, I made a couple of videos to share some ideas about what I'm doing to keep my students motivated as we prepare for our March adjudication.

There are two videos.

This one is about 5 minutes long.

This one is a copy of a Facebook "LIVE" video I did this week on my Facebook page.

I have another Facebook live scheduled for February 27th.  I'd love to interact with choral directors so we can help each other by sharing our ideas.  We will start at 7 PM Eastern that evening! Check out my blog!

Friday, February 10, 2017

When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window

One of my favorite musicals of all time is "The Sound of Music".

I never tire of watching it with my students and teaching the lessons it offers us the teach.
I've watched more times than I can count.  I know every line.  I've done the Salzburg "Sound of Music" tours.  I'm a fanatic.

One of the lines from the show is "When the Lord closes a door, he opens a window."

This week, I had what I thought was a dark moment that turned into something filled with light.

Each year, I take all four of my middle school singers who are part of my 300+ middle school choral groups to the GMEA Large Group Performance Evaluation in March.  

Since 2002 when I began teaching in Georgia, the event has been divided as follows:
2 days for middle school/2 days for high school.

This worked well for my groups because I was always able to take 2 groups on the first day and 2 groups on the second day, and it allowed time for them to have lunch off campus which they always enjoy.

The schedule for 2017 was sent on Monday...about 6 weeks before the event.  In the email that included the schedule, it said, "Some of you will have to deal with bus issues because we can't schedule everyone between 9-1 PM."  

Ding Ding Ding!  

The details aren't that important except to say this...For this event, the district pays for buses for our event!  YAY!

The only problem is that if you haven't returned to your school by 2 PM, you have to stay until 5:30 PM or after because the district bus drivers have to "run their regular routes" before they can pick your students up.

My last group sings at 2 PM and will finish their sight singing no earlier than 2:30 PM.


Side note...Somehow, the district manages to find drivers to go to those footballs and baseball games when the football/basketball players and cheerleaders are released in the middle of my class at 3 PM in order to board the bus.

Does that sound bitter?  :-)

Alas, I digress.   ...Can't fight that battle right now...Not a great use of energy.
Gotta tend to my students who need a great choral music experience supported by awesome, dedicated adjudicators and passionate organizers who are doing the best they can.

So, my brain starting spinning.

I researched charter buses.

$1200?!  To take them 6 miles across town one way?!

That's an expensive Uber.

I was on the horns of a dilemma.

Option 1:  I could cancel the event for two of my groups for whom I'd already paid out of the chorus budget (about $500).  

Option 2:  I could let the 140 students out of my 310 stay for four hours after they sing with nothing to do and wait for the "free" bus which would return them to school followed by parent pick up.

Option 3:  I could find a solution that will leave them with a more positive memorable experience and practice some problem solving.

So, I dug around.

I've heard about it for years, but I decided to look into Donor's Choose.

It looked easy enough.  

2 hours later, I'd created a profile and a project.  


Part of the rules is that there is a 2 month window.

My event is March 20.  The date I filled out the application was February 7. 

I wrote the project up anyway.

Fortunately, they have an option where you can share your project with your parents via email before it is officially approved by the organization.  

It's tax deductible, and I don't need to collect or touch money?


Each year, I create an email list of my parents, so I have a database that includes over 300 parents whose children I teach.  

I popped the email out to my parent list on Tuesday night at 8 PM.

Less than 12 hours later, I had reached the goal.  

By 18 hours later, I had the goal plus $600.

The window opened and with that open window came a rush of gratitude.  The community of parents showed me that they appreciated the work we do, and they did it quickly.  It's humbling and motivating.

I always strive to give my best to the students, but this reminded me again how important it is for me to bring my best.  

So, while the unannounced calendar change was stressful, I learned about this awesome new tool that has far more potential than I've yet explored to benefit the students who sit in front of me every day.

Check out my blog!

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Winter Months-When the Rubber Meets the Road in your Middle School Choral Music Classroom

January and February can hit a middle school chorus teacher square between the eyes.

The dark, cold days can be trying ones.  It isn't easy motivating children to sing when they are struggling with the difficulties of getting back into the daily rigor and routine of life.  If our classroom management techniques haven't been as strong as we would like, we are now dealing with the after dark winter day.

The symptoms are the same for all of us who teach middle school children.

They range from testing of rules and boundaries to a slacking in the work ethic.

So, what do we do?

Here are three rules that work for me:

Rule #1:   We must praise individuals in public, correct individuals in private.

Praise often individuals often.  I throw Starbursts at children and call their names when I see them demonstrating great singing posture or great leadership.

For every negative behavior issue you experience with individuals, pull them aside separately and away from the class.  Avoid embarrassing the child.  Share with your student what you are seeing.   Ask questions.  What is causing the change in your work?  Then, listen.  Sometimes you'll be shocked at what the child is experiencing.  When you've finished listening, tell the child what you expect in the most respectful way possible.  Create a relationship.  Help them know that your expectations are high, but do your best not to be harsh.

Rule #2:  If the behavior or performance issue involves the entire class, proceed with caution.

For example, let's say you start to notice "follow the leader" behaviors that disrupt or distract from your teaching.    For example, one child gets up to get a tissue, and stands in the corner for a long time...followed by another child...then another...

Nip the behavior quickly and firmly, but not harshly.  "If you have a runny nose, get your tissue on your way into the room.  I don't like the walking back and forth.  Thank you."  Then, move on and keep singing.

The reason I say "proceed with caution" is because middle school children don't respond well to long lectures.  It sucks the life force from them, and it doesn't encourage them to want to sing.

Rule #3:  Stay connected to your own spirit.

Are you having fun with your students or have you lost your way a bit?  Do you enjoy the songs you are teaching for the upcoming adjudication?  Are you staying connected to your sense of humor and sharing laughter with the children each day?   What new song are you introducing on Monday morning that they are going to love?   Are you making eye contact with children when they walk into your room?  We learn a lot from that!  Do you have some clear performance goals that are coming up soon so the students and you have a specific reason to work that day?

These are a few of the things that I think about to make sure I'm staying on top of things during this time of year.  This time of year is when much of the important teaching about choral technique occurs. They are precious, important days...before the spring fever kicks in and the 8th graders start checking out!

Have a great week!

Check out my blog!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Introducing New Songs to your Middle School Beginners

The moment when you introduce a new song to your middle school beginners is so important.

If we don't get them hooked from the start, they shut down and decide they don't like the song.  Then, it's like pulling teeth every time we sing the song.

Most of the true beginners aren't ready to sight read right through it since they are still building those skill sets.

So, recently, when I was introducing my adjudication music to my beginners, I shared some ideas about what I do the first day on this teaching tips video.  Pardon the swollen lip!  I had just had major oral surgery, but I wanted to share the ideas while I was teaching them.  :-)

After that first day, we start digging in!  Here is the final result of our work on that song.

I hope it sparks ideas in you!

Check out my blog!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

S-Cubed Middle School Sight Singing Giveaway

You can enter from 12:00 AM Thursday, January 26th until Friday, January 27th at 11:59 PM.

Enter below on the rafflecopter! 

Winner will be announced Saturday morning.

I will have a 20% off sale on Saturday, January 28th ONLY!  Click the picture to see it in action!

Share the news with your peers using social media!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, January 20, 2017

Share your ideas with your peers!

My first year teaching middle school choral music in public schools was awful.

I have no idea how I made it through.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  I was armed with a master’s degree from a very good music school, and I was not good at teaching choral music to beginners.

I was ready to quit in December.

That was in 1989.

I showed up to school daily and did the best I could partly out of necessity and partly because I don’t like to give up. 

I didn’t take my students to North Carolina Music Educator’s Association’s adjudicated festival in the first year because I knew my students would have a bad experience.  It wasn’t their fault…it was mine.    I had no idea how to help my beginners learn what they needed to know to succeed at this sort of event.

In year 2, I did my best to prepare them for the event, and we went!

They sang better than they’d ever sung.  They brought their best, and so did I.

They got a 3…which is “good”. 

The teacher I replaced had always achieved superior.  

We got on the bus to return to our school, and a student said to me:  “We did ‘good’ Mr. Duncan”. 

She was trying to make me laugh. 

To make matters worse…Annually in North Carolina where I taught at that time, it was a tradition for the publishers of the state NCMEA magazine to share the names of the directors who achieved superior. 

That year, NCMEA made an error and published ALL of the ratings.

Our “good” was published.

They published a retraction and apology to all of the teachers like me of course.  I’m sure the editors felt terrible.

I was devastated and so were my students.  Fortunately, now, many of those students and I are Facebook friends, so apparently, that experience didn’t damage them too badly! 

…But, after we received that rating along with the public embarrassment of having it published, I thought of all of the teachers I’d met over the years who said, “I have never gotten anything but superiors at any of the state adjudications”, and I felt like such a failure.

By year four, I started to feel like I had started to figure some things out about how to teach my urban public school beginners.  My philosophy had always been “teach everyone who walks into your room”.  I didn’t want to screen or audition.  If they showed me they wanted to be there, I had to figure out how to reach them and how to teach them regardless of whether they had an IEP or whether they could sing in tune.   

I still live by that philosophy today. 

In the beginning, I felt so alone in my classroom as I tried to improve.  My evaluators weren’t musicians.  For the most part, they were simply following the latest state and federal guidelines and checking boxes to do my evaluations. 

I find that is still true today, and I have learned to work through the realities it brings.

What really matters is the students who are going to sit in my classroom each and every day.  Each day, I ask myself, “Am I ready for them, and are they going to have a musical learning experience they’ll enjoy and remember?”

Soon, I began to have some success at the adjudicated festivals, and my students began to make real music.

Once I began to figure things as I taught my beginners, I promised myself that I would share my ideas with other teachers.   

At the time, writing a book was the way to share, but now, that isn’t the only way.  Large publishers are still sharing some great things with all of us, but many of them are struggling to keep up with the changing technologies.   Now, all of us who teach in choral music classrooms across the globe have many more possibilities.

We can create a blog, and share on YouTube and Pinterest and so much more.

Today, I want to encourage music educators to find ways to share your incredible and innovative ideas using those 21st century technologies.  Create a YouTube Channel.  Record your excellent ideas using your phones.  Post the videos in groups on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat so that teachers who are frustrated on a Friday night can go to “google” and find out how you successfully taught the same stuff to your beginners in your classroom.

Help all of us get better at what we do.

When you do it, be respectful and know that, while your ideas are awesome, there are so many super ways to achieve the same result.   Let’s help each other and uplift each other.

We are all in the same boat.  

We all need it.

Let’s help each other be better for the students.

…And tag me!  I want to learn from you and so do music educators around the world.

With the internet, the world has shrunk, and it is easy.

Step into the ring.

Check out my blog!

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