Why won't my middle school choir sing? Part 2

This is a five part series designed to help other middle school choir teachers determine why their students are unmotivated to sing in their classrooms.

Please start with blog post #1 in which I state the first reason I believe causes I students not to sing in our classrooms.

Here is the link:

Click the picture below to see a group of 7th grade boys from Mr. D's group in action.

Reason #2:
They don't like the music you've chosen.

With middle school children, we cannot be musical snobs.

Wow.  That sounds harsh…but from all of my years of experience with this age group, I see so many folks with lots of letters behind their names with various high-level college degrees that fail when it comes to teaching this age group.  They can’t get out fast enough to head to a college level teaching job.

Middle school is definitely not for the faint of heart! 

So, what can we do to improve our music choices?

One of the first questions that teachers ask when I share the above reason is, "Does this mean I have to teach Pop music?!"

The answer is unequivocally no...unless teaching that style of music really cranks your tractor!  

Middle school students respond to our passion.  So, if we are passionate about teaching pop music, then that should be some part of what we teach in our classrooms.

I believe that we must “throw our students a bone” during every term and sing at least one song that truly revs their engines.  It certainly should be something you enjoy teaching as well.  

Most of us are classically trained, and when I speak to teachers who are struggling as they try to motivate this age group, I notice that many of my peers have a sort of "high brow" approach to teaching music.  "That's hokey" they say when we mention a song that uses flashlight choreography or a fog machine or some other gimmick.  Well, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that my own middle school children often respond incredibly well to “hokey”, and they love some gimmicks!   One of the most successful songs I have for my students is one that I introduce very early in the school year as part of my “hook” to help get them invested in the program at my school.  It’s a Halloween song.  I share with them that it will be sung in the dark and that we will use fog machines and strobe lights.  As they listen to the piece, they get so excited!  The energy is palpable.   

With this age group, we've got to re-think some of the hard- core classical approaches to which we get so married in our university training.  Should we ever teach madrigals?  Absolutely…but, once again, it shouldn’t be all we teach…especially not with beginners in this very unique age group.

As we often tell our students when we introduce a foreign language piece, you must remain open!  We must practice what we preach!  …Especially if we want to attract a variety of students into our programs.  

I've spent my 23-year career in public schools in three states.   I have learned so much from all of the students who came from a variety of ethnic, economic and cultural backgrounds about what they want in their choral experience.  They will sing just about anything you want them to sing if you have the correct balance in your repertoire of “fun” music and more serious music.  The balance is crucial to the success of building a choral program in middle school.

When I choose music, I keep three things in mind to help keep the proper balance of keeping them motivated while we teach the all-important components of good choral singing.

1)  Choose one "fun" novelty piece per term.
2)  I want to teach at least one lyrical piece and at least one upbeat, rhythmic piece.
3)  You…the teacher…must absolutely love every song you are teaching.  If you don't love it, they will sense it. 
Sometimes, I swear they are psychic!  If you choose songs you don’t like or songs you think you must choose for some reason outside of yourself, you will be miserable, and so will they!

If you stick to these three principles, not only will they sing for you in class daily, but your program will begin to grow in ways you may not have imagined.

Thanks for reading my blog!  Please share with your peers who can use some guidance with this age group. 

Check out my blog!


  1. Could you make a list of songs you perform with your students? It would be helpful in creating a well-rounded program.

    1. Yes! During the first nine weeks, here is the list of songs I used by grade level:

      6th Grade: City Life and Home (Choose Your Partner, John Jacobson, Alan Billingsley)
      Thunder Lizard (Teresa Jennings, Music K-8 with flashlight choreo/fog machine/strobe)

      7th Grade Girls: The Guitar Man (Snyder), Dweller of the Cave (Teresa Jennings, Music K-8 -flashlights/fog/strobe)

      7th Grade Boys: We're the Men (Althouse) Dweller of the Cave (baritone line)

      8th Grade Mixed: Sinner Man (Emerson), Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child (arr. Ulrich), Siyahamba (3 part South African Freedom Song). If they've learned the music fast, I give them an option to sing Dweller or Thunder Lizard and let them choose if they want to do either or neither.

      For the first nine weeks, I keep the concert simple. I do a showcase by class period during the school day and invite parents into the room to watch them perform. Each concert is 10-15 minutes long. I do it during the first week of October. (We start school around August 10 each year).

      2nd nine weeks;
      Holiday concert...All 300 kids in the gym. Each choir does some things alone. We combine for other songs.
      Here is the list for this year:
      Sleigh Ride arr. Beck (all)
      Santa's Getting Fit for Christmas Mike Wilson (Music K-8) 6th grade only
      Carol of the Bells Arr. Peter Wilhousky 3 part 8th grade only
      Oh Santa arr. Mike Taylor 2 part 7th grade girls only
      African Noel TTB Victor Johnson 7th grade boys only
      Light the Candles the Hannukah song Roger Emerson 7th girls only
      The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth arr. Jay Althouse 8th grade only
      Light up the Tree (Beebe) I do it unison with all 300. Flashlight choreography in the dark with Red, Blue, Green, White Tissue paper on the flashlights
      Silent Night arr. Gilpin all 300 students
      v. 1 German solo, v. 2 OO vowel legato unison, v. 3 three part (6th grade/melody, 7th girls/alto, 7th boys/baritone, 8th grade/all three parts, v. 4 silent sign language.
      Light the Candles All Around the World Teresa Jennings (music k-8) all 300 students. Candle lighting beginning with one lit eighth graders. It takes almost the entire song to light everyone.

      Hope that helps!

  2. I recently said to my 8th graders, "I doubt there's another choir director in our state who allows his students as much input as I do." Each of my choirs generates a list of requests for each concert. From that list, I select 4-5 that are available in octavo arrangements.
    The huge caveat here is that most universities do not prepare graduates to teach CCM styles of music and singing. Therefore, the vast majority of directors merely stick with what they know and do it like their director did it. MS kids have (generally speaking) no desire to sing classical music. Let alone, four or five classical pieces on one concert. They want to sing what's on the radio, or even what Was on the radio (it's amazing how much classic rock kids know). If pop and rock music will get your groups singing, by all means, do a pops concert!

  3. Absolutely! Thanks for the comment Jeff!

  4. I'm so glad you use the Music k-8 magazine too. I have found gems but feel guilty using it because we can listen to the arrangement then lay in our voices with the accompaniment track. It allows me to get one quick song down then we focus on the more difficult songs in the concert. :-)

  5. I'm in week 2 of a new semester. Kids are complaining that we need to "move on with songs," but they struggle with hand signs and reading. We are doing 'Homeward Bound' and 'Hallelujah,' which they enjoy, but they're slow.

    Forbidden pattern, check. It's working. Time for a fast fun one it looks like...