How Can I Help These Sharp Middle School Singers?!?


Teaching middle school chorus can hurt your ears.

Between the changing voices of the boys and those sharp singing girls, our ears take a beating.

Solving the issue of the sharp singer and any singer who sings out of tune takes time.  

In this blog post, I am going to share some of the things I've used in my middle school chorus classroom that have helped my singers hit the bullseye more often than not.

1)  I use solfege.  

I use it to teach sight singing.  I use it in my vocal warm ups.  I use it to when I introduce the main melodies of new pieces.  I use the hand signs.  I love solfege because it gives us the opportunity to help them with vowel production each day.  When you include the hand signs, they are given a physical place to put the pitches.  The kinesthetic piece is very important for the beginner, in my view.

One thing I've noticed is that when middle school sharp singers sing an ascending scale, they rarely sing the first "DO" in tune.  It's almost always "DO and 3/4".  Once you make them aware of that, their ears start the slow process of opening up.  You must not let them ever sing it sharp.  It becomes a physical memory that is difficult to erase.

The second thing I've noticed is that sharp singers don't return to "DO" very well when learning a melody in a song that goes back to "DO" after having ascended.

The third thing I noticed over time was that sharp singers also enjoy singing "RE" sharp.  If they didn't return to "DO" in the first place, then for sure we are going to have an issue with "RE", but even when they have sung "DO" in tune, sharp singers often enjoy a sharp "RE".

...and sharp singers always seem happy...but I digress.

2)  Sing it back to them.

When your sharp singers do something like I've listed in #1 above, stop.  Hold your ears.  Ask if there is any blood coming out of your ears.  Enjoy the laughter.  Then, sing it back to them exactly as they just sang it...

...and overdo it just to add a little bit of fun.

They'll be horrified for sure and are likely to laugh with you.

When I imitate my singers in this way, I always ask, "Do you want to listen to that?"

...And when we share moments of levity like this, we are continuing to open up the ears and, more importantly, the brains of our singers.

Solving the issues of "out of tune singing" is never going to be a quick fix.

3)  Watch out for every MI/FA in every song you ever sing with your students.

Sharp singers enjoy making a half step too big.  Make sure your students are able to sing a perfect ascending major scale a capella as a group.  That goes a long way toward solving the issue of sharp singing.

4)  Make ear-training and listening a part of the training of your students very early on in your time with your students.  I start it with my new singers right at the start of the school year with a variety of approaches designed to help them listen.

Here are some ideas that I've used with my students that I video recorded:
Link #1.
Link #2.

5)  About mid-year, teach them to sing an ascending and descending chromatic scale DO to DO.
When you start teaching the chromatic scale, be very careful.  When I teach it, I write all of the solfege on the board for them so they can read it.  It's a lot to remember for a 6th grader!

I don't let them sing it with me at first.  They must listen to me sing it a capella and they must follow and imitate my hand signs while I do it.   Give yourself the starting pitch.  Then, sing it yourself while signing and while they imitate the signs with you.  When you finish, check your pitch by playing it on the piano and evaluate yourself in front of the class ("I was perfectly in tune because I landed on the high "DO";  Or, "I was a little sharp today because my pitch doesn't perfectly match the high "DO").

I don't let them sing it for about a week.  I focus in hand placement and getting them to listen to me (if I'm singing it for them a capella) and the keyboard (if I am playing it on the piano for them).

When I finally begin to let them sing it, I double it on the piano, and I urge the singers who don't believe they are ready NOT to sing it yet.  At the same time, I urge the singers who DO think they are ready to try it to sing very softly.  We must teach them to learn to listen while they sing.

6)  Record them a lot.

It's so easy now.  Just take out your Smart Phone and do a voice memo of their vocal warm up and let them listen.  Record their songs and let them listen.

7)  Teach them to create overtones with each other.

I like to use the vowel "oo" during the early weeks of the school year.   I have them sing melodies they know really well or scales or whatever you wish.  Once the "oo" has a great blend and is nicely tall and rounded, start having them sing melodies and scales using other vowels, but teach them to keep the "oo" in it.

To help them hear an overtone, get a volunteer from your class who has stunning vowel production and make overtones side by side with that singer on "oo" and let your singers listen to it.

Something about hearing and creating overtones mesmerizes even the least focused and least musically experienced brains in my classroom.

I hope that gives you a few ideas!

Check out my blog!


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