Why won't my middle school choir sing? Part 4

This is part 4 of the series "Why Won't My Middle School Choir Sing?"  

Reason #4:

We focus too much on technique and not enough on developing their true artistry.

In my 23 years of teaching this age group, I’ve seen lots of middle school choirs who sing proficiently.  By that, I mean, it is evident the teacher taught diction, phrasing, dynamics, etc.

…the basics.

Most of us spend a lot of time on the technical side of music because our students NEED it! 

However, we can suck the oxygen out of our singers if we relentlessly seek technical perfection. 

Working toward it nonstop is boring to them. 

So, let's get started...

Why do people love watching Cirque de Soleil
It’s not just the incredible athleticism that is displayed which took countless hours of training and technical work to develop.  It’s the unforgettable way our spirits are moved when the athleticism is combined so beautifully with music and lighting and costuming. 

If we want athleticism alone, we can simply watch gymnastics.

In our middle school classrooms, we have to inject more “Cirque de Soleil”.

When I watch the choirs whose teachers have focused entirely on technique, it feels like eating cake that has no butter and sugar.

To quote the famous movie “Sixth Sense”… When I see and hear a technically proficient performance in which it is clear the students are well trained but have no idea about what they are singing, I see dead people. I feel nothing.  The performance is utterly unmoving.

That is not what music is.

Teachers often ask, “How do I get them to who facial expression?  Raise their eyebrows?  Smile?”

My answer:  From the inside out.

Here is how you DON’T do it.

Don’t say “Raise your eyebrows!  Smile!  Sing with facial expression”.  With this age group, it doesn’t work. 

Regardless of the obscurity of the meaning of the song and how it seems to have absolutely no meaning to them in their young lives, we must find a way to help them emotionally connect to a song. Just talking about the meaning of the song or giving historical context will NOT do it.  

We have to be willing to make them think.  We have to help them connect the dots to their own lives in some way.

As part of our teaching priorities, we have to indicate to our singers the importance of singing honestly and serving the music.

I tell my own students that, as choir singers, they are also actors.  Actors must put their personal stuff aside and act the part. 

Then, we, the teachers, must guide them through the treasure trove of their life experiences to find a meaning that they can sing for that particular song.   Believe it or not, they notice the fact that WE value their own life experiences enough to ask them to inject them and use them as they sing because, so often in their young lives, their pain and their life experiences are dismissed.

When I’m teaching “Sleigh Bells”, and they are singing with absolutely no energy at all because it is a Wednesday and not a Friday and they are hating school and their boyfriends just broke up with them and they have two projects due….blah, blah, blah…I stop the music, and I say:  “Do you like snow days?”  They usually scream “YES!”   Then, I say, “Pretend that you just found out tomorrow is a snow day and then sing it!” 

It changes everything.

When I am able to successfully take them to some sort of internal emotional moment to which they can relate for a particular song, everything changes.  Many of the technical issues we’ve labored over correct themselves.  They breathe bigger.   They sing with truth.  Their faces come to life.  Their tone has energy.

The results must come from inside their hearts. When you are able to help them find it and deliver it in a performance, the energy of the audience is palpable as they receive this truly artistic moment.

…you will get goose bumps…

…and so will your students.

Sharing a “goose bump moment” has major positive impacts on your program.  It’s worth the work to help them get to that emotional place in rehearsal and then to deliver it in performance.   


  1. Hi Dale, I was wondering if you have any tips on how to help middle school male students who have never sung before, discover their head voice? As a female teacher, I can't quite model it all, and I have had some of my high school boys come to the middle school class to model and sing, but I can't take them out of class to help all the time. After school is an option, but not always either. I have two boys who are great but are what I call "grumblers" in the sense that their tone is always low and some of the time they sing an octave lower than the pitch, some of the time they are just almost talking the tone. I have been teaching choir for a long time, this is just the first time that nothing seems to be helping them. ( sirens, mooing, booing (animal sounds), and so on.... Thanks for any advice.

    1. Yes. This is a tough one. It definitely takes a lot of different tools to help the grumblers find their voices. I do all of the things you mentioned above. I have one more suggestion. Instead of trying to get them to sing an octave higher, go to where THEIR voices are. Find it. Play sol mi sol on the piano and have them sing it back to you. Let's say that their current comfortable notes are C below middle C and the A below it. Once you have located their sweet spot, bring them up one half step at a time until they have reached a point right at the edge of their voice range where they want to stop and drop the octave, but stop before they drop. What this does is it allows them to feel what it is really like to sing all the correct pitches. This is the most important component in this process. Once they feel what it is like to sing a tone on which normally they'd drop the octave, It becomes easier to help them stop doing it in the long term. The muscle memory they have associated with singing down the octave is what they believe singing is. You can say "You are dropping the octave" 400 times and it won't change anything until they actually feel and experience what it is like to push to the edge of their upper range even if it's only three notes higher that the notes they are comfortable singing. I always tell them that it will feel, to them, like they are yelling. Then, while I have one-on-one I show them a few ways to handle the various warm-ups… The sirens… all of the noisemaking… So that they will do it correctly in front of me in a way that'll help stretch their vocal range is daily in the classroom. You will notice, of course, that all of the time that they are singing in your class in the group setting, their posture is terrible and they are not exerting the energy required to properly support tones that higher than an octave so I mention that in our one-on-one time as well. It may take you a couple of meetings to help them feel and experience the correct sensations, but it is worth it. Usually I spend about five minutes one to 3 times before I see them switch the physical habits that have allowed and encouraged them to sing as grumblers. I hope that helps you!