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


  1. I appreciate your positivity, Mr. Duncan. I've been following your blog for quite some time, and even when you need to lay some "hard truths" down about middle school teaching that our profession needs to hear (Your 'Why won't my middle school choir sing?' series comes to mind), you never come off as condescending or superior. You are just speaking from experience and keeping things positive. There are some other choral bloggers out there who are getting a lot of notice who do the opposite. They seem to use condescension, insults, and an "I Know Better Than You Do" attitude to drive traffic to their blogs and get attention. I don't like it at all and I think it goes against the collaborative, supportive nature of the choral art as it should be. So anyway, I was just reflecting on that this morning and I thought I would tell you that I appreciate what you have to say and I especially love the way in which you choose to say it.


    Phil Drozda
    Fellow Middle School Choral Director

  2. I thank you so much for taking the time to write this comment. I can't tell you how much it means to read it.

    My first year teaching was terrible. I barely survived it. For the first three years, I wasn't sure if I'd continue being a choral music educator.

    Once I started to figure a few things out, I swore to myself that I would do everything I could to share it with other teachers one day. I had no idea how...I just knew that I wanted to do it.

    25 years passed and brought technology changes and the ability to find ideas on the web. My brain started spinning.

    I was scared to death though...afraid of possible criticism...but like I tell my middle school children. "Make a decision out of love and passion and not out of fear". I put on my big boy pants and followed my heart.

    I do not have all the answers. None of us does. I do my best to let that be my guiding light as I write and make videos. There are so many ways to do our jobs, and we can all help each other by sharing those ideas freely and respectfully. I plan to stick to that philosophy as long as I have things I believe might help someone who is struggling as they try to reach their singers. I want great choral music educators to stay in the classroom, enjoy the process of teaching as much as possible and help their students enjoy learning to sing.

    Today, you gave me a shot in the arm that will help me keep going.

    Thank you again!


  3. Here's another thing to consider... This applies to hymns in particular. I have found that kids will get lost right from the start. They will not instinctively follow the staff but rather read the words. So if a hymn has 4 verses they will read the first line of all the four verses. They treat that first group of words under the first staff as a paragraph. I have learned from experience that I need to explain this to the new kids that join my choir.

    1. This is a totally logical mistake for a beginner in middle school. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Whenever I have a new choir, I love pairing up kids who are more proficient score readers with kids who are just starting to learn the skill of reading a choral score. The pairs take turns using their finger to follow the lyrics, notes and form as both kids follow with their eyes, sing along and tap a steady beat. To figure out who needs to pair with whom (using the mixed ability grouping method), I'll pre-assess students' choral score reading ability and then pair strong readers with newer readers. It's, of course, important to set up a growth mindset and supportive environment when using mixed ability groupings so that learning and growth is flowing both ways.

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