Motivating Complacent and Entitled Middle School Choir for Adjudication

Motivating our singers in our middle school choir can be quite challenging...especially if your program is like pre-screening of any sort...anyone can sign up.

But as a public school teacher, that is how I think it should be.  Our job is to figure out how to motivate and help to thrive even the most difficult situation.

Before I get into specific things I have done and am doing, I want to emphasize a very important ingredient.  

It is so important for us to remember is that our students are motivated when we are passionate about what we are doing. Without passion, we will be unable to find a solution to whatever ails us.  We will only find frustration and obstacles.  When those are all we see, it is time for serious self-assessment or, in extreme situations, it may be time to consider moving to a new career outside of the classroom for your own benefit and for the benefit of the children.

Regardless of the passion that so many of us willingly share with our middle school students daily, our students can become complacent and minimal effort.  And with that minimal effort, they may still expect to get an "A" or to get to go on the upcoming field trip or any of the other privileges that should be ones that are earned.

...if we allow it.  

Like most choral music educators, I use many varied techniques based on the needs of the specific children I'm teaching.  As I have shared in previous blog posts and on my YouTube Channel,  I focus mostly on positive, fun approaches with my students.  In the program I created called S-Cubed Middle School Sight Singing Program for Beginners, I use the game, Forbidden Pattern as part of the "fun" of my program.  It reflects the philosophy that I believe works well with this age group.  Laughter and silliness are almost always the best way to win over our young singers.

However, once in a while, we have to wake our singers up and "get real with them" to help them dig deep and bring their best into your classroom each day.  

In this post, I will share several approaches that I use each year to motivate my students to help to cause them to give their best efforts as we prepare for our adjudication field trip, and I will also share an idea that I used this year with my 8th graders, who were truly the most complacent and entitled group I'd had in recent years.  The approach worked because it truly helped them to give the best performance of their middle school careers.

Not a single one of my motivation techniques has anything to do with auditioning singers.  I don't care whether they can sing in tune or not.  I only care if they show that that want to be there.  

When talking to me about an upcoming field trip, students will say, "I really want to go Mr. Duncan".   I always answer with a smile saying, "Telling me you want to go means nothing to me.  Show me."

Many of them simply want to miss school.  That isn't enough for me.  

We must push them toward demonstrating their desire with hard work and good listening skills every single day.  

Words are nothing.  Actions are everything.  

I watch them and take in information about them based on their actions.  

These ideas have worked well for me.  In my 23 years of teaching, I end up taking about 95% of my 300 un-auditioned students to the event...but I make them work to earn it!


Field Trips are a privilege that must be earned. 

Our adjudication is in early March.  In January, I start the semester by stating the fact that field trips are a privilege, and that while I'd like to take everyone to the adjudication, I will take the children who work the hardest on a daily basis.  Students love missing the school day, so hearing me say that I view field trips as a privilege and not a "right" starts them off with the mindset that they must earn the right to attend the event.  I also share with them that, after the adjudication, we will eat lunch off campus.  They always seem to remember that the most!  Hey...whatever works!


On the first day back from the holiday break, I show them the adjudication forms.  We talk about the rating system.  I share with them the official Georgia Music Educator's Association definition of a "1" (Superior).  We discuss the vocabulary repeatedly and often...tone, pitch, rhythm, diction, interpretation, ensemble and "other factors".   I play examples of choirs singing the songs they will sing for adjudication.  I discuss the scores I'd give those choirs in various categories.  


We start learning pitches and rhythms immediately in January.  

I want them to have ample time to truly dig into the music.  To keep them from getting bored, I mix in some of our spring musical music into the learning as well, but I think it's very important to give the music time to simmer.  "Rush teaching" usually doesn't work if you truly want to reach the highest peaks of music making with middle school children.


The Tutoring List


Sight Singing is a key component of our adjudication process.    I teach S-Cubed Sight Singing Program from Day 1 of the school year in August. and at the holiday break, I give a very important written sight singing test to see how they are doing.  If they fail that test, I put their names on a list on the wall at the entrance to my room.  As long as their name is on the list, they cannot attend the adjudication.

They are given a chance to get their names off the list if they attend tutoring sessions during the second week of January with my student tutors who are available during homeroom time.  Sometimes, our students can teach the material better than we can.  :-)

Knowing that not all of them will understand the material at the same level, I generally mark them off the list if they attend at least one session.  For students who are really behind, I make them come more times.  I am truly just checking their desire.  If they don't come back, they don't care enough.   For children who wait until the last day tutoring is offered, and who really need more help than we can offer in one session, I DO NOT scratch them off the list.  I let them's all about desire. The children who care the most come to tutoring on the first few days to make sure they get the help they need.   

I leave that tutoring list up from mid-January until the day before our trip.  Most names have been marked off, but some have not.  I refer to the lists often.  "As long as you name is on the tutoring list, you cannot go to adjudication."  Slowly, as the time of adjudication approaches, more children show up for help and more names get scratched off the list.

I allow them to get their names scratched off until the week before the adjudication, but I don't talk about it or remind them.  I let them "drive the bus".


Permission Slip List:

I give the permission slips out five weeks before the event because it helps to make it "real" for them.  They have one week to turn them in.  I count is as a homework grade. Then, on Friday, I make another public list that I post on the wall of the kids who didn't turn in their permission slips.

On the following Monday, I talk about the most recent list to my classes.  "If your name is on the "permission slip list", that means that you haven't turned it in, you got a zero on a homework grade, and that you will not go to the adjudication.  If you bring it in tomorrow or Tuesday, you will get a "50" instead of "0", and you will get to go to the adjudication.  After that date, who knows? Maybe you will get to go, maybe you won't."

This puts the ball in their court.  



The "Behavior" list and the "Effort" lists.

During the two weeks prior to the event, I press a bit harder.  At exactly two weeks prior to adjudication, I please two more lists on the wall.  One of the lists is labeled "Behavior" and the other one is labeled "Effort".

At the beginning of class, I say, "If you name is on the behavior list, it is because you've been unfocused or talkative or disruptive in some way while we learn.  I will watch you over the next two weeks.  If you improve, I'll remove your name the day before, and you will get to go.  If your name is still on the list the day before adjudication, you stay at school."

I talk about the fact that I must be able to TRUST the children I take off campus.  If I do not trust you based on your actions act school, then I cannot take you off campus.  

The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

I do the same with the "effort" list.  I explain that every single voice matters, and that some of the students haven't been contributing by singing their fullest and best or by using their best singing posture, for example. That's when I teach the two new vocabulary words:


I reiterate that I don't care who the best singers are, I only care who the best and most dedicated WORKERS are.   I talk about how giving my second best effort is never an option for me, therefore, it cannot be an option for them.  I discuss that I do not always knock it out of the park.  However, if I step up to the plate, I am going to take my best swing, and so must they.

These two lists seem to get the biggest reaction from the students. They check them daily.  During that two weeks, I add and delete names as needed.  For the most difficult students, I leave their names until the very end.  I tell them that immediately after the final rehearsal, they need to come up to me to ask whether they will get to go.  When they do so, I ask them if I can trust them.  They always say yes.  I ask why.  I let them talk.  Then, if I feel comfortable, I say "Are you going to make me proud?"  They say yes without fail.  I mark their name off.

There are some children who do not get their names marked off, and that is ok.  It is always a small number of students because I've made them work to earn the field trip privilege for so long.

In our final large group rehearsal, I emphasize the fact that the students are representing themselves, this school, me and their parents with their singing, but more importantly, with their behavior off of the stage.

They always seem to respond to this.


Two weeks before the event, I tell them that, today, you will pretend you are at the adjudication.  You will sing your two songs, and I will score you in all categories so you know what your rating would be if you were there today.

I record their performance.

I grade pretty harshly.  I commend where commendations are due, but I am clear about the weak areas and the fact that there are two weeks left to fix it.  Combine that with the three field trips and a snow day or two, and you have about a week.

That wakes them up too.

I take four choirs to the event, so I show the scores of all of the classes to the others.  I like to set up a bit of competitiveness between them to generate more desire to work hard and to clean up what is messy.

6th Graders Versus 7th and 8th grade...

For 6th graders, this process is key.  Most of my students have never been to something of this high caliber and expectation in their lives.  They are truly "waking up" to its importance with each of the steps listed above.  Often they don't wake up completely until the day before we leave.  It doesn't matter.  As long as they wake up!

Most of my 7th graders took chorus last year, and they all understand this process of earning the right to represent our school.

8th graders...well...they are always special.


Motivating the 8th graders this year...

This year, I had a particularly talented group of 8th graders.  They are truly one of the best I've taught.  Here is a link to their performance at the adjudication on March 10, 2015.

...and, in January and early February, they were the definition of Complacent and Entitled.  They were giving about 50% effort. They were talkative.  

So, one day, in the middle of a lesson, I told them to close their music, place it inside their folder and sit back.

"As of this moment, after having already paid the money for the adjudication, I have decided that the 8th graders will not go.  I will take the other three choirs as planned, but not the 8th grade."  I stated a few of the specific reasons, kept it brief, and told them to put their folders away into the slots.

They were shocked.

I never do this to them.  I am not a lecturer.  It's a waste of breath.

They silently walked over to the folder containers and put away their folders while I sat at my desk answering emails.

Later that day, I composed an email to them.

Here is the content:

8th graders,

Most of you who read this email are the good ones...the ones who work hard every day.  

Please print this email out and share it with those who don't bother to read their emails.  Put positive peer pressure on them to do what is right.

As of this moment, as you know, I have decided not to take 8th graders to the adjudicated festival.

Limited effort is given daily by a large percentage of the students in the class.  Today, for example, there were 10 altos who barely made a sound, and I saw 5 boys who didn't even make an attempt to sing when the baritones were supposed to sing.   Many students contribute very little.   Some do not sing at all when we are learning new music.  

You should definitely check your grades, by the way.

I work too hard preparing to help you be the best choir you can possibly be, and many of you do not give that back in return.

For me, it is very disappointing.

Singing and music are too special to me to have it treated in this manner.

I am going to keep an open mind until February 6th.   On that day, based on what I see between now and then, I will make a final decision and announce it to you at that time.  

If we do not go, 8th grade chorus will become a general music class with tests, homework and projects for the remainder of the year.  If I decide to do that, 8th grade chorus will also not participate in the spring musical.  

That would be a sad ending to your time with me here at Henderson...which is very quickly coming to a close.

As I said today, I don't understand people who bring less than 100% to anything they do.  You are practicing to be 2nd.   Second place is never my goal, and it shouldn't be yours.   Even when I don't "win" or end up with the best result, I know that I gave it my all.  

Many of you cannot say that right now. 

I cannot take a choir that has my name on it and put them in front of a panel of judges when, based on what I see, too many of you simply don't care.  I'd rather work with a less talented choir filled with students who give 100% every day than a talented choir that doesn't work.

You get out of something what you put into it.

It is up to you.

Change my mind by proving me wrong.  I'd love it.

I sent it to every single one of my choir members.   I did it on purpose.  Some of the 7th graders responded and said, "Mr. Duncan, I think you sent this to us by mistake."  I simply responded and said, "No.  I did it on purpose."

It sets the standard.  For now....and for the future.

Immediately, I saw improvement.

About one week later, I announced that based on the improvement, I was taking them to the adjudication, but that, per the state rules, I was only required to take 19 people of the 84 in my room.  

So, over the weekend, I chose my top 19 students who always give 100%.  I chose a balanced choir of Sopranos, Altos and Baritones.  I put the list on the wall and announced that I was going to definitely take those 19 children because their work ethic had been amazing all year every day.  That way, I wouldn't waste the registration money, and I'd have a balanced choir.

They say stunned.  

I was comfortable with that decision since I had spent money to send them.  I want to always be responsible with the use of funds as they relate to our choir.  Going to the event with 19 children would work.  They would be balanced, and they would sound good.

At the end of class, they ran to see the list. 

Some were stunned they weren't one it.

So, over the next two weeks, I saw a different class of children.

They gave it.


10 days later, I announced that they had re-earned my respect.  They sounded awesome, but that there were a few who were still giving less that 100%.  I announced that I'd place the names of those children on the wall on Monday.

Again, they all came into the room and rushed to the wall.

There were only 4 names.

Those children brought 100% over the next week, and the choir soared to their best performance.

We do what we must to motivate.  To get the children out of their complacent, entitled space, and to get them to reach higher than they thought they could.  7th Grade Girls in the Sight Singing Room 2015.  These girls are 100% motivate daily.  Awesome group with great positive energy.

These are my 8th Graders...the ones I had to work so hard on.  It paid off in the end.  They were committed and because of the hard work, they deliver a stellar performance.  

My seventh grade girls in the Warm up room.  

The hard work to motivate matters.  

This year, Norma, a sixth grader, gave me this note on the day after the adjudication because she was so excited to have been a part of something so positive.  

She made my day.  All of the days of pushing her 6th grade class to dig deeply to achieve the skills required to sight sing, to learn to listen while they sing and to achieve the skills required to sing in tune a capella and to have good diction and beautiful tone...all worth it.

...Even more so because they didn't audition in the first place.  They signed up because she liked to sing.

That is why I teach.
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This is why I share...So happy when I hear that my materials are helping middle school choral music teachers.

Posted on my Facebook page this morning:

I watched the video of the LGPE sight-reading to show to my kids because I can talk about it but them being able to see it in action was MUCH better, even though many of the 7th and 8th graders have gone and know the process it was a great refresher AND it taught me a new solfege warm-up...taught it to my kids and they LOVE the Re-Fa-La-Fa-Re-Ti,-Do part! Me too! I pointed out to my kids, even though I have said it until I was blue in the face...practice over and again, out loud, do not stop, even if you know it, sing it again, and again, and again...they got to see your kiddos doing it and after watching the video they did MUCH better, as I knew they would! Thanks Mr. D!!

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