By Lance Burnett – Royster Middle School – KMEA All-State Middle Level Choir – Chair
The middle school years (grades 6-8) can be some of the most wonderful and exciting years of musical growth for our students. Unfortunately, for some young male singers, it can also be the most challenging and frustrating years, depending on when and how their voices change. I have been teaching middle school choirs for 20 years in the US and abroad, and I can tell you that male adolescent voice change is the same anywhere you go.
Let me begin by describing to you my typical day of teaching. I begin with my all-girls choir, which combines both 7th and 8th-grade girls. Next, I have my audition “select” choir, which is a mixed ensemble of 7th and 8th-grade boys and girls. Following that, I have three class periods of 6th-grade choir (boys and girls). My final choir is my all-male choir of 7th and 8th-grade boys. Each choir has its own unique challenges, but for the purpose of this article, I will focus on my approach when teaching the boys.
First of all, we should acknowledge the fact that most boys are simply built differently. They have more energy, a general lack of direction, and sometimes do things that defy all logic and common sense. Yet, if you can get them hooked, they will give you everything they’ve got! When dealing with middle school boys, I find that downtime is my enemy. When I plan my choir rehearsals, I make sure to have quick transitions, lots of movement, and lots of singing. If there is ever a time when they are left to their own devices, I never know what will happen! I learned this the hard way when early on in my teaching, I had a couple of minutes of extra time at the end of a rehearsal. The guys had put away their folders while I was organizing my music. When I looked up, I saw all of them standing with their noses against one wall. I promptly asked them what they were doing. They answered, “Holding the wall up with our noses.” Seriously, though, boys need movement, and they need to feel challenged. Sometimes this takes place in the form of pushups, jumping jacks, or even wall squats. Either way, movement helps get their blood pumping, and they are more willing to sing out after exerting themselves physically. One of our favorite movement activities is to sing “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” while doing push-ups. We sing in a push-up position and either go up or down every time we sing a word that begins with the letter “B.” When I say “we,” I mean that I am right there with them!
Second, we should discuss helping students find early success. Most people feel good when they are successful at something, and boys are no different. I always start the year out with fun, easy songs that all the students can sing. This allows them to know what it means to sound good as a group and helps see them through the tough times later when they run into music that requires more work and effort. It is also a great way to challenge them to be creative. For example, this year, my boys are into pirate songs. So, I introduced them to “What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor?”. I activated their creative side by challenging them to write original verses that the whole choir could sing. Once they were completed, I called in our principal (who is a huge supporter of the fine arts program), and the boys sang to him. He was super excited and lavished the group with an abundance of compliments. This really got the group excited!
Third – Knowledge is power! I find that boys respond well when you talk openly and honestly about voice change. They like to see what vocal cords look like (Youtube is a great resource). They love to see who can sing the highest and who can sing the lowest. Years ago, Jason Sickel led a session at KMEA ISW where he showed how he does his range checks with students. I have used that system ever since and have found it to be very successful. It involves finding their speaking pitch, then their lowest note, followed by their highest note. The students write these down on their own paper that they keep in their folder. I repeat this at the beginning of every quarter so they can “track” how their voice changes. It’s fun to see how they talk about changing from tenor to baritone to bass. Helping them know their place in the choir gives them purpose and direction. This leads to my fourth point…
Fourth – Choose music that fits their range and place them accordingly. There are a lot of great choral songs out there. Unfortunately, there is not a lot that fits middle school choir ranges. Either the tenor part is too low because it goes down to an F or an E, which my young tenors can barely sing, or the bass part goes too high! I suggest looking critically at songs to make sure that the guys can comfortably sing them. If you’ve done your range check correctly, then you will know exactly who can hit what notes. That being said, there is nothing wrong with re-writing a few notes to help them be successful. Sometimes I have the tenors jump up to sing the alto notes or have the basses sing an alternate note that is more in their range. If their voice begins to change and they can’t hit certain notes anymore, it is time to move them!
In closing, I would like to make a couple of suggestions. Number one, if you haven’t read “The Boy’s Changing Voice” by Terry Barham and Darolyne Nelson, then you need to go to Amazon right now and buy it! It’s worth every penny! Number two, the old adage “students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” is so ridiculously true – especially for choirs. I recently took a survey of my 7th and 8th-grade choir members and asked them why they chose choir and what they like about it. The majority of responses were “It is fun”, “I like the music, ”I like singing,” and “I like the teacher.” I encourage you to be joyful! Show your students that you love music and you love that they are in your choir. Find out about what is going on in their lives. Be at the door to greet them and notice when they change their hairstyle or get a new pair of shoes. Go watch them play football or basketball or ask to see their latest work of art from art class. This doesn’t mean, however, setting aside your role as teacher, mentor, and adult and becoming their best friend. I still require my students to call me “Mr. Burnett”. I still require my students to act respectfully and follow the classroom rules. I still maintain a safe classroom where students can make mistakes and not worry that someone will make fun of them. I also make sure my students know that I care for them and will work my tail off to make sure they become better singers by the end of the year than they were at the beginning!
Even though we don’t have control over the changing voices of our boys, we do have control over changing the way we teach to help them be successful. Embrace the challenge!