"Why Won't my Middle School Choir Sing?" Reason #5

This is the 5th and final posting in the five-part series called "Why Won't My Middle School Choir Sing?"

Reason #5:

We don’t know how to introduce music.

It is possible to turn this age group against a new piece of music in the first minute of introducing it to them for the first time.  

I struggled for years with finding good ways to introduce a new piece in a way that would peak their interest and excite them to want to dig into the song and make it great.

During my first years in the classroom, I kept hearing the voices of my college professors in my head:  “Don’t teach by rote!  Make them literate!” 

I couldn’t figure out the balance of teaching “by rote” and teaching literacy when I was introducing a new song.

Ultimately, the guiding force for me became the energy in the room.  

Like comedians in a comedy club, we can tell when we are bombing.   Kids this age are transparent, and it is not easy for them to hide how they feel when we are failing while we teach. 

If you feel boredom and frustration from your students when you teach a new song, it’s probably time to try a new approach to the introduction of your new music.

In the early days of my career, my teaching process when I introduced a new piece was way too slow.  I constantly demanded that they figure things out on their own yet I systematically taught them the tools they needed to do it.  I failed to see that there were ways to teach new music that were much quicker and more fun and included developing their ears using techniques that some might call “teaching by rote”.  

I also didn’t realize how long it takes for their sight singing abilities to catch up to their ability to sing a song that may be quite difficult.

My students just wanted to sing, and all I was doing was stopping to talk, or complain about how they missed something in the music or explain things they simply were not ready or interested in learning yet.  I tried to teach everything about sight singing all the time, and as a result, they were learning nothing about sight singing.

..and I talked too much.

I finally asked myself, “What exactly is ‘teaching by rote’?  And who defines it?  And how can I actually USE “rote teaching” to give me opportunities to vary my teaching techniques while helping them become better musicians?

I had to let go of some of those voices in my head from my college professors.  I had to focus on finding ways to help my beginning students enjoy the process of learning a new song.

Most of my students had never taken a private piano lesson, so I had to work to find ways to keep them engaged during the learning of a new piece while instilling, unveiling and building the important skill sets they needed for sight singing.  Literacy is key to their continued growth and involvement as choral music singers, but finding the proper balance wasn’t easy.

Now, I take about 10-15 minutes per day to focus specifically on theory and sight singing, and I use the rest of the time while I am teaching repertoire using rote techniques mixed with literacy teaching.  If there is an opportunity to connect some dots from the sight singing lesson of that day, I do it.

I started allowing my beginners to listen to recordings on the first day of learning a new piece, and I turned it into a fun form exercise to help them develop their ears.  When working on form with our beginners, however, we cannot turn it into a sophomore college theory class exercise that uses terms like “ABA” form etc.  Instead, we must find ways to teach form that are engaging for them at THIS age.  

Here is a form exercise I often do with my beginners:

While they are listening to a piece of music for the first time, I ask them to draw pictures to represent new musical ideas when they hear them.  I encourage them to be as crazy and creative with their pictures as they want as long as they indicate the shape and form of the song.  If the chorus happens twice, but the second chorus has a different ending than the first, for example, their pictures should indicate the difference.  If they drew a smiley face for the first chorus, then they might draw a smiley face and add hair to the drawing when they hear the chorus that has a slightly different ending.  

It is hilarious to see some of the drawings that they create.  When I call them up to share their drawings on the Smart Board in front of the class, there is lots of laughter!   The best part is that they get to listen to the song multiple times while they are creating the pictures.   We can teach many good listening skills during an exercise like this one when we teach them to listen to the smallest differences in various phrases and to indicate those differences in their pictures.

Creating excitement over a new piece of music is critical.  If the students “check out” on a piece because we’ve introduced it poorly, it’s really difficult to get them to give the song a chance.  The last thing we can be with our middle school students is boring.  It’s a nail in the coffin of our programs.   We must be open to varied teaching techniques, and we must constantly work to find ways to help them stay engaged and excited as we ease them into the learning of a new song.

To learn more about my middle school sight singing program for beginners, click here!
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  1. As always, I absolutely love your teaching tips! I think another benefit to your method of mixing rote with literacy, is that the students enter your room ready to be challenged and alert. Then, they have the foundation for you to help them connect the dots or make connections on their own. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you Jennifer! It means a lot coming from you! Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

  3. I agree 1-million percent and find the rote/literacy balance to be the most anxiety-producing part of the job. What other "introducing/picking a part the song" methods do you utilize?

  4. Dale, let me just tell you that this five-part series was exactly what I needed. I was seriously looking forward to quitting teaching in two years to go back to school to do something else. At this point, I am struggling with my 6 grade for the very simple reason they don't want to sing, and after reading this blog, I can ultimately pinpoint my problem: my music isn't fun. I guess I didn't realize I was a snob. I'm usually so caught up in pieces in foreign languages that contrast and vary from major and minor that I just forgot that singing should be fun. (Duh.) If they hate the pieces I pick, they don't want to sing them; I mean, I don't pick certain pieces because I hate them, whether or not they teach certain skills. I guess what I am trying to say is thank you. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I think you just saved my teaching career.

  5. Wow! You made my day. This is why I do this. Keep going and doing what you love to do!

  6. @ Dale

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


  7. Yes!! I like you am finding myself literally frozen in fear when introducing a new piece at times. Do you have any more tools/ideas in this area? I was moved to middle school after teaching elementary for several years. I have Kodaly training and for many years as the students I taught up-cycled through middle school, it was amazing. Because I was able to lay a solid foundation with them in elementary, those first few years were so rewarding, and... I already new they could hear, read... And that they enjoyed it. After moving me to the MS, they changed the elementary schedule and replaced me with an aging band colleague who doesn't sing. In fact, it's VHS videos, crossword puzzles and composer projects now 100%. They are learning "about music".. And people who "make" music... But are not music-inch themselves. Now, the students are coming to me with 0% aural and singing background... And what's worse.., many seem to have an aversion to it. ( American Idol may have backfired... Some think only the "really talented" people should sing). When I taught the littles, it was not an issue to sing and play. I am now getting students that are coming through with little to no background. I can't pull out a square dance, game and sing the way I did so naturally in k-4. I consider myself nerdy enough to roll with the age group of middle school...But it's the song approach I struggle with the most. Any more ideas, or, samples plans you had success with with specific songs would be amazing. More posts please!! Unless you walk a mile in middle school, it's hard to explain to older colleagues how you can't just "teach them the song" without artistry and creativity. They don't have the attention span.. Even though we do need to teach focus and discipline... We also have to meet them where they are at to lead them. These are the things that keep me at school till all hours!!! Thanks for your many contributions to us "choral tweeters"! And again... More song approach ideas would be lauded!!!!

    1. Thanks for your kind words! I'll keep that in mind for future posts!