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!

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!

Steven Abramson is Presenting S-Cubed to his peers today...

Steven Abramson is hosting a workshop in his district to present the S-Cubed Middle School Sight Singing Program for Beginners!

...and I am hosting a giveaway to thank him and the participants!

Someone will win the Complete Level ONE bundle!

You will only be able to enter from 12:01 AM on January 25th until 11:59 PM on January 25th.

Winner announced Thursday, January 26th on my blog and on Facebook!

If you want to present S-Cubed to your district, click here!

Here is the link to enter:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The Challenges of Reading Words and Music for Middle School Beginners

It's a New Year!

It is highly likely that we are all teaching new music.

Reading music is so natural for all of us who've completed college degrees and taken piano since we were children.  Like speaking a language fluently, reading music feels natural to us.


...And it is highly likely that most of us whose families were able to afford to have a private tutor at the piano or other instrument also had lots of help from involved and engaged parents who helped us learn to actually read letters and words a bit earlier than children who did not.

During the early part of my career as a choral music educator in urban public schools, I never really considered the challenges of reading words on the page while also trying to sing correct pitches and rhythms.  

Think about it...

The words on the choral music octavo look so odd.

"See the love-ly birch in the mea-dow.

See the leaves a-dancing when the wind blows.

Loo-li look when the wind blows."

Think like a 6th grader...

"Um.  What are those dashes?  Why do they matter to me?  And why do we skip all of those lines with notes on them?  Do they mean anything?    OHHHHHH.   That word is "meadow"!   Why is it separated by a dash?!   What do these weird words mean?  What is "a-dancing"?  Who says that?"

And we wonder why they can't sight sing the pitches and rhythms too AND do the diction correctly?!?

They can't even read the words in this odd new world of choral octavo!

We must remind ourselves that all language learning takes lots of time.  

If we move to France in January with no previous experience with the French language, do we become completely fluent at reading, writing and comprehending all forms of the French language by July?

Music is a language just like any other. 

The students sitting in front of us just want to sing and enjoy the process of learning and our job is to help find ways to make that happen.

So, this week, I challenge all of us to dig deep to find ways to meet our students where they are and to make real learning happen in the public school classroom with children who don't come to us with all of the best advantages.  

...And share those ideas with your peers freely. 

With 21st century technology, it's become so easy to share.

Have a great week next week!

Dale Duncan

The Difficult Parent Conference "Working with Parents in your Choral Music Classroom" Part 3

Working with parents in your Music Classroom-Part 3
The Parent/Teacher Conference

This is the final piece in a three-part series about working with parents in your choral music classroom. 

In part 1 of this series, I shared some ideas about how to get started with parent collaboration.  
In part 2, I wrote about some of the fun characters that I have encountered as I opened my classroom up to parent volunteers. 

In this, the final post in the series, I am going to share ideas about how to handle the often challenging parent/teacher conferences.

Before I delve into my ideas and experiences with parent conferences, there are three philosophies we should consider:

#1:  First and foremost, everything we do as educators must be for the students.  As their teacher, we want to demonstrate the 3 D’s for our students each and every day:  Desire, Discipline and Dedication.  We want them to learn many more life lessons in our room than simply how to read music and sing a song, and it is our responsibility to help prepare them for successful lives.

#2:  Secondly, we have to be willing to awaken our students when they need it.  Sometimes, that means that we also have to help awaken the parents…and that isn’t always easy to do.

#3:  And lastly…a very important piece of my philosophy as a public school choral music educator of 25 years...

People of all ages change when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.

Why have a parent conference?

Classroom management can be one of our biggest challenges as teachers. 

During my student teaching experience, I remember my cooperating teacher gave me some of the greatest advice of my career.

“Deal with behavior issues in your classroom whenever possible.”

She encouraged me to find solutions that started and ended with me rather than pushing the problems out to the administrators.

I have heeded that advice for my entire career.

Are there situations in which you must turn a situation over to an administrator?  Absolutely…but a parent conference can go a long way toward fixing the most chronic disruptive behaviors so many public school teachers encounter.

I have rarely used detentions that are supervised by administrators or other teachers because they almost never result in the desired behavior change.   

I have found that parent contact and parent conferences solve almost every situation I encounter in my room. 

When should you have a parent conference?

Here is what has worked for me.

When I encounter a child who demonstrates chronic undesirable behavior issues in my classroom, First, I work directly with the student by changing his seat, by having a conversation about how the exhibited behaviors are hurting the learning process.  I let the child know that if the behavior doesn’t change, I am going to contact his parent. 

When the behavior continues, I start with parent contact via email first.  When I email the parent, I always start with some positive information about the child.  Then, with as little judgment as possible, I list the behaviors I am seeing in bullet form.  I ask for support in changing those behaviors, and I make it clear that I am open to suggestions.

Then, I wait for the parent response.

Sometimes, there is no response, but the behavior changes.  This indicates that the parent has handled it and doesn’t want the bother of meeting with me or exchanging more emails. 

Sometimes, there is no response and no change in behavior.  We must remember to also view this as a “response”.  We must hear it so we can continue to move forward to correct the behavior.

Most of the time, I get a response saying, “You won’t have any more issues.”  This is also an awesome outcome. 

Responses like this one indicate that the parent is listening, and they are partnering with you to respond to the situation.

…But sometimes, the behaviors continue. 

When that is the case, here are the actions I take:

 Over a three-day period, I watch the child closely, and I very carefully and discreetly jot down specific information about the behaviors.

A note about scheduling conferences:  Always schedule parent conferences “as needed” rather than waiting until specific conference nights that are scheduled by your school or by your district.  

Individual, “as-needed” response is best, in my view. 

If we wait to long to meet with the parent, the behaviors become habits which are very hard to break.

What should you do before the parent conference?

1)  You should carefully prepare all documentation.

*Print out copies of the child’s grade and any notes you’ve written inside the gradebook about behaviors.
*List all of the behaviors you’ve observed.
*If you taught the child in a previous grade, as many choral directors do, you may want to obtain any other documents you have that support the behavior patterns you continue to witness in your time teaching the child in order to awaken the parent.

2)  Carefully prepare what you are going to say.

Soul search.  Dig deep.  Evaluate yourself.  Have you done everything you can do to elicit a positive response from the child?  Or are you cutting to the top person (the parent)?  Do you like it when parents bypass you and contact the principals? 

Plan to speak to the parent in the same way you’d like to be spoken to if you were the parent.

It’s so important to effectively and clearly communicate and stay very focused on the intended outcome. 

With that in mind…

…What is your objective?

Clearly define it for yourself  so you can communicate it well to the parent and to the child.

3)  After you define your primary objective (which is usually to improve behavior and work patterns), you need to determine a secondary objective in case the parent is absent, uncooperative, in denial about their child’s behavior or if you perceive that the child is simply no longer interested in being in choir. 

I have 340 un-auditioned children in my choirs who voluntarily sign up
for my class, and sometimes their interests change.   It’s ok.  I don’t take it personally and neither should you. 

At my school, there is some flexibility in moving children into and out of choir at the end of each quarter, so I always walk into every conference with a schedule change form ready in case we need to consider that as a solution.  Thankfully, I rarely have to use it.  However, I am thankful to have the option.

If there is currently no flexibility at your school on moving children into and out of your class during the school year, begin working toward that goal and be patient as you do.  Choir is not the only consideration for administrators who create the schedules in your buildings.

Who should be present at the parent conference?

*The student
*The parent
*Another teacher or administrator.

If you sense that it is going to be a particularly difficult conference based on your correspondences with the parent or if you believe the parent will escalate to the administrators regardless of how the conference goes, ask an administrator to come to the conference as well to save yourself more strife after the conference is complete.

What do you say at the parent conference?

Go without fear and focus on the fact that your goal is to help the child, the parent and the other children in your classroom who are impacted by this child’s poor behavior and/or work ethic.

Remember that this is probably not the first time the parent has heard what you will say, but make it your objective to help them to hear it and take action on it, for perhaps, the first time.   To help a parent really “hear” the information you are sharing, you must carefully plan the words you use and the flow of the conference so that you can obtain maximum impact that will result in behavior change. 

*Start with examples of positive behaviors.  If a child or a parent perceive that you don’t like the child, you will not gain their support.  If you start the conference negatively, you are likely to start a battle between parent/child and you that will be a waste of energy.   Remember:  Until now, the parent has only heard his/her child’s side of the story.  If you start by listing positive behaviors (and every child has them), you can help avoid this complication and disarm the parent and possibly even the child.

*Listen.  Ask questions about how the child is doing in their other classes.  Ask about the child’s outside interests/passions.  Often, you will hear things from the parents about the child’s work in other classes that support your arguments about the child’s sub-standard performance in your classroom that support your position.

*Then, it’s time to “go in.”

When you “go in”…

State the behaviors objectively and without judgment.
Be accurate.  If you state a detail inaccurately, the child may seize the moment and hurt your credibility in front of their parent causing the conference to go awry.

Remember…you are dealing with a difficult child.

In the conference, what do I do with unsupportive parents?

Most parents of difficult children are thrilled you are taking the time to help support them, but some parents are not. These unsupportive and, in my view, ineffective parents are the ones who have enabled the types of behaviors you are seeing in the first place.  In the face of mounds of evidence, these types of parents will not acknowledge or react to what you are alleging about their children, and they will make excuses for their child.

To help awaken those parents, I have a laundry list of effective things I say that are aimed at awakening the parent.  Here are two of my favorites:

“I have 83 other children in your child’s class period whose learning is impacted by the behaviors I’ve shared with you today.  It is my job to teach all of them.  Anything that stands in the way of that learning has to change.  Your child’s behavior is standing in their way.”

“I have presented lots of information about your child’s behavior in order to help you and your child.  I teach your child for one to three years.  You have him for life.”

“I initiated this conference, and I prepared for it in great detail because I care about your child and for all of the children who are impacted by his/her behavior.  I hope you will consider partnering with me in the best interest of your child so that we can get him/her on the right track.


During my 25 years teaching choral music in urban public schools in North Carolina, New Jersey and Georgia, most of my parent conferences have gone without a hitch and the desired outcome was achieved.

However, that is not always the case.  Once, a parent came out of his chair, and I thought he was going to assault me. 

Other times, parents have worked to manipulate the administrators which added another layer of stress to the situation.

Recently, I had a very difficult situation.  It involved a parent volunteer I’d worked with and known for many years.  I’d taught her two older daughters.  

Rewind:  Upon enrolling in 6th grade, her child chose band over chorus, so I was sad to lose a committed parent volunteer.  Half-way through her third child’s 6th grade year, she came to me to complain about the band teacher.  She asked if he could start chorus in January…half-way through this 6th grade year.   

I willingly took him.

After recognizing that her son was one of my new challenges and following the processes I’ve outlined above, I decided it was time to hold everyone accountable…including the parents.

Suddenly, after watching 4 years of excellent results in musicals and adjudicated performances and after I’d accepted her third child mid-year into my class, they didn’t like my approach.

Right before Thanksgiving break, they wrote emails slamming my approach and calling me a bully while copying myself and administrators.  In addition to the word “bully”, they used many other code words to make sure their case was pushed to the front of the line.

I followed every step I’ve outlined here, and I gathered every bit of documentation I could get my hands on.

We met.  We had an administrator present per their request.  I met on 3 hours notice on the Monday after Thanksgiving break because I was very clear about what type of parent I was dealing with. 

When the parent told me that my techniques to awaken children and parents didn’t work, I calming stated:

“You’ve seen my work with your first two children.  You’ve volunteered in my classroom to support my work.  I accepted your child into my classroom in the middle of the school year when you complained he was being bullied by his band teacher.  Now you call me a bully.   When you’ve taught public school for 25 years with 84 children in a classroom, and led a program of over 300 non-auditioned middle school children who volunteer to take my class, then you can tell me how to do my job.  Until that time arrives, I am telling you that your child needs to wake up.  I hope that you will work with me to help that happen.” 

I offered a schedule change form.  They refused.

I said…

“Today, you have questioned my integrity and called me a bully.  Why do you want your child to stay in my class?”

Response:  “We like what you are teaching.”

I didn’t respond. 

Her child has been doing great since that time.  She knows it and so do I.

Stay calm.  Trust your gut instincts.  Don’t be intimidated.  Know that you are doing the right thing.  Always know that there is a solution for you and all of the other children you teach in your public school classroom.

I always make sure my heart is in the right place and more importantly, that my documentation is 100% in order. 

Parents talk, and students talk about how we do or don’t hold them accountable. 

The ripple effect is worth the effort. 

Partnering with parents is really what education is all about…even when it’s difficult.

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