Learning music should definitely not be fun, right?

Since I started sharing my ideas for teaching middle school beginners in 2013, I've been clear that my approach to teaching beginners in the public school middle school choral music classroom was part philosophy and part method.

The bottom line:

The journey of learning and experiencing music should be a joyful one.   ...Whether you are teaching music literacy to beginners or perfecting dynamics, tone and blend.  Ultimately, if the process is not an engaging and pleasurable one, people stop singing in choirs.

I mean...who wants to sit through rehearsals of monotonous drudgery?  It kills programs.  

Fast forward to fall 2017.

I am on my own search for a choir to sing in.

I love to sing in the choral music setting but I am struggling to find the right fit.   My time is limited.  I want to learn from the conductor.  I want to enjoy the rehearsal process.   I want to get goosebumps during rehearsal.   I want to laugh together as a group once in a while.  I can read music with no problem, but I am terrible at memorizing it, and I am competent at holding the music and watching the conductor at the same time.  I just use the music as a reference point most of the time.  

Of course, I want the group to sound good and have solid technique, but the day to day process of music making, for me, needs to be an enjoyable one.  Plain and simple.  

So, in my quest to find a choir that would be the right fit for me, I posted this in a very large support group of choral directors on Facebook:

The responses were 99% supportive.  People from the area offered suggestions about groups they enjoy being a part of, and I am going to check them out.   They shared why they like the group they are in.  It was exactly as I had hoped it would be and gave me lots of ideas as I continue my search.

Then...I wake up the next morning, and I get this notification:

Ok...I hear you.  But I'm on a search.  ...and this is a support group!  I wanted to be clear about what I'm looking for.  I didn't name the group nor would I ever!  We have hundreds of groups in this area, so I wasn't trying to call anybody out.   And I also think it is important for people to see why a person would stop singing in a chorus.  It helps us do our own self-assessment.

And a little later that day, I got this one...and that's when I thought...Oh wow...the word fun really upsets some people who teach choral music!  What's that about?  I mean, he spent a LOT of time on this response:

Did I say it ALWAYS had to be fun?  I don't think I did.  And since when did "fun" lead to disaster?  But, I digress.  

So...wow.  Clearly, I hit a nerve trying to search for an enjoyable music-making experience!  Oops!

Then came this awesome response:

That made me chuckle!  

The two negative responses weren't "liked" by anyone other than myself (out of respect) and the two who posted the harsh rebuke of my desire for fun in the music-making process by the way.   That is encouraging.  

So, at the end of it all, my question was this:  Why does the word "fun" rile up such deep passions in people who teach choral music?   

Could that be why there are so many teachers who several high-level degrees and either leave the classroom or run small programs that don't attract children?

I've blogged about this before.  I mean...it isn't really something I haven't noticed.   I have built my entire career and my sight singing program on making sure there are elements of fun and laughter and joy in every rehearsal.  

Part of our mission as choral music educators is to attract people so they can learn more about this incredible choral art that we all love.  

If a program is small, there is a reason.  It is either small because you designed it as a selective choir or because the people you've taught don't want to be there because their daily experience under your direction isn't one for which they want to volunteer their time.  

End of story.  

If the word "fun" offends you, then don't call it that.  

But the rehearsal process has got to be a convivial one.   Otherwise, they stop coming.  

We have to self-assess, and then we need to make adjustments.

For me, two and a half hours of lip trills once per week was not for me...nor was it good for about 30% of the rest of the people who departed that group under the leadership of that conductor who is an excellent musician.  He either didn't listen to the criticism or didn't care about what it did to the group.  Either way, the damage was done.  

I've seen improvements over recent years, but in general, as a community of choral music educators, we have got to continue to work to stop being so "exclusive"....so "high brow"...so "this is the only possible way to say this word or teach this technique"...so "you're doing this wrong"...so "I only teach 'high' music"...

It turns people off.  

I remember sitting in adjudications listening to a choir of all African American middle school students singing a spiritual.  The students were totally engaged and singing with heart...supporting their tone...great diction and dynamics...but their teacher had taught them to use authentic African choral tone quality (not the European version that scores 1's-Superior), and they walked out of there with 3's and 4's...totally deflated.  

This is the kind of stuff we need to keep working towards getting away from.  

I'm going to find the choir that is the right fit for me.  It might take me a while, but it'll happen.  My soul needs it!  I'm going to find one that is...yes...fun.  A choir that is led by an excellent choral conductor who helps us make beautiful music...one who opens our hearts and helps us experience and learn new things in a wide-range of new ways using varied techniques to help us achieve beautiful choral singing.  

I want the goosebumps when I sing, and I want the people who listen to us to get them too.

If you want to share your ideas about fun and effective ideas you are using in your middle school choral music classroom, request to join my group I teach middle school chorus! on Facebook.  Let's learn from each other and get more people singing in choirs!

And don't forget about the 10% discount you can get on your subscription of Sight Reading Factory!

Have a great Thanksgiving!

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Getting out from behind the piano

It's such an amazing instrument.  

Children love to go to it and hit the keys because it gives them instant gratification.

The smiles....

It is so much fun for them.

To master it (and any musical instrument) takes hours upon hours of practice.  

But anything worth anything requires that....

And we have to get away from behind it when we teach.   


It's like a wall.  It separates.  It's comfortable back there for folks who play it well.  ...but it stands between us and the humans on the other side of it.  

...Especially for music-making. 

Kids need to experience our spirit...our passion.   When we get out from behind the piano, classroom management is better.  

That means that we have to figure out how to use it and not rely on it completely.  

We need the piano...for sure.

But the longer we are back there behind it, the less we connect to the humans who sit before us.

We have to help them come up with ways to solve the challenges they face in the music without it.  ...And the ultimate goal is for them only need one pitch.  

The rest should be in their brains...

It takes time and lots of effort, but it's possible.

We need them not to need us.  That's the aim of teaching.  

With beginners, it's about the manner in which we help them do it...It has to be fun for them.  Otherwise, it's drudgery.  

And while we do it, we teach them life lessons.  Really big ones...about failure...about getting back up again when they struggle.   About survival...

In my 26th year of teaching public school children in a Title 1 school, I feed off of the energy of the children who have landed before me, and I love watching them beat the page.

They want to beat the page.  All I have to do is to give them the tools to do it.

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They won't stop talking! What do I do?

I recently saw a post from a frustrated teacher with the following information:

*Very talented kids
*Won't stop talking
*Leave their seats
*Distract each other
*Off Topic
*Ignore procedures like raising your hand
*Don't come in quietly
*Takes forever to get things done
*They are sensitive

The teacher was thinking about having a "procedure day" to practice the things she'd like to happen but was worried they'd be resentful.

She is searching for a way to make it fun for them but was concerned that perhaps it shouldn't be fun.

The students are 11 (6th grade).

Here are some thoughts...

First of all, we have all been there!  I remember feeling this way vividly early in my career.  I was so frustrated by it.

Then, over time, I realized three things:

1)  6th graders, specifically, need an incredible amount of daily structure that is impeccably planned and executed.
2)  Yes.  It needs to be fun as much as possible.  
2)  And finally...people change when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.

...And that doesn't just apply to students!

So, with those things in mind, I'm going to share what I would advise this teacher to do.


Here we go...


Practicing procedures is important....but just once...maybe twice if you have the softest of hearts.

If they don't hear it, then you must, as says the navigation programs we all have access to today on our smartphones.... "proceed to the highlighted route".

That's code for "follow through".

Do what you said you would do when they don't do what you asked them to do.

With a smile of course.

Warnings are warnings.  They should get one.  Maybe two at this age...but don't be too generous.

Take action.

When a child stands up to walk over to get tissue to blow their nose while you are teaching measures 17-35, stop.  Tell the child in front of the other students.... "If you anticipate that your nose is running, then get the tissue when you walk in the door at the beginning of class.  I don't like the walking while I teach."

And then... keep teaching.

Otherwise, five more of them will do it while you are teaching.

Middle School children follow the leader...and their peers are the leaders to them.  One gets up...five get up.

So, don't let it be a "thing" in your classroom.

If it is, you are letting it happen.

And you don't have to be mean when you handle it.  In fact, you must not be...They are doing what you've allowed....So, you should just state your desire clearly while looking into the eyes of the children, and then go to measure 12 to handle the "FI" that they think is "FA" and help them sing it in tune.

That's all.

"They won't stop talking".

Ok...that's because you are letting them talk.

So stop.

Yes.   Really stop.

Just look at them.  Stand still.  Be quiet.

Stare at the talkers.

And then, watch...As the kids who would never disrespect you that way take over and start saying "sh".

Then, teach.

Postive peer pressure.

Use it.

And remember...if they are talking, it could be because your teaching isn't really that good in that moment.



It happens to the best of us.  We are all human.

Maybe the method we used to teach that section of music really wasn't effective for your beginners.

So, accept it.  Go home that night and self-assess.

And don't disrespect the children.  When you do, you lose them, and they talk more because they don't like your energy.

They ignore procedures because you allow them to do so...and sometimes because we encourage them not to like how we treat them.

Things I do to get them quiet:  Use echo clapping....use "follow the hand" from S-Cubed Sight Singing Program.

Both are magical...if you've built a culture of mutual respect in your classroom.

Otherwise, they'll ignore you.

And this is big...

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

So...what are the consequences for not following your procedures?

There have got to be some.

Work with the child first.  Give them a chance to fix it themselves.  If they don't, go to their parents.  For me, it works almost every time.   I almost never have to write up a child.   It should be rare that we turn it over to a principal or assistant principal.

Do you have your email parent contact list ready?  Is it easy for you to access?

Do you write digital notes in the grade book?  It's the 21st century.  Parents and children can keep up with what is happening if they want to do so.  They appreciate info that is given in time for corrective actions to be taken.

...And this is so important....

We must praise publicly and criticize privately.

If a child is doing what you want him to do, honor him quickly in public...and then go to measure 17 and keep on rollin'.

So, if a child isn't doing what you expect, handle it in private.


Should it be fun?


These are children.

It must be fun as often as you can make it so.

If you find that you can't or don't want to try to figure out a way to make it fun for your middle school students, it's time to consider moving.

These children need us to self-access and come up with ideas to help them succeed in a way that brings them...and YOU...joy.

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