The middle school boy. He’s an interesting character. A conundrum. Especially where singing is involved. Ask any middle school choral director about his or her male singers and chances are you’ll get a few eye rolls and maybe even an audible sigh – even from experienced educators!
Indeed, the changing voice always provides challenges, but with a steadfast rehearsal plan and a positive approach to teaching the middle school boy, you can keep each rehearsal period moving in the right direction.
Principle 1: Budget rehearsal time for the boys
In this day of shrinking programs, with rehearsal time disappearing from the curriculum, your allotted rehearsal times are more important than ever and it’s essential to make the most of what you’ve been given, especially in a school setting. Because of this, the director might be less inclined to isolate the boys during any given rehearsal and provide them with extra practice. However, that time is ESSENTIAL to growing a quality and confident young men’s section in your choir.
So, don’t hesitate to build in time during your rehearsal to work ONLY with these young men. This doesn’t have to be one isolated chunk of time, however. There are many times during the rehearsal when you can simply insert some boys-only time. From my experience, the girls LOVE to watch this process!
During warm-ups is one of those times. Warm-ups that are crafted specifically for your changing voices is essential. You’ll be designing these warm-ups for success, of course, providing these often-tentative young men the opportunity to feel good about their singing.
The best warm ups for adolescent boys, choral pedagogues agree, are those that attempt to cover their entire range – both the highest high and the lowest low. However, this doesn’t always occur during unison warm-ups where the boys are all singing at the same pitch level. Often, many experienced choral leaders suggest, an improvisatory vocalise works better. For example, one might ask the boys to simulate what a wavy line (drawn on the blackboard) might sound like. As the director traces the line, the boys can move their voices up and down according to the dips and rises.
Separate rehearsal moments should also happen while rehearsing repertoire. (If you anticipate a phrase or two that might be a trouble spot, incorporate those into the warm-ups as well so that when rehearsing the repertoire, the boys will be able to make an immediate connection.) As you plan, isolate the spots that are sure to be a problem for your changing voices and be ready to spend some time on those passages as soon as issues arise.
Principle 2: Anticipate musical and vocal problems in your rehearsal plan
You might be the best rehearsal planner on the planet, but when it comes to working with the adolescent voice, it’s inevitable that problems will arise, even for the most organized conductor. So, don’t be so married to your rehearsal plan that you’re not willing to make changes where necessary, especially when it means keeping the boys engaged for the duration of the rehearsal time.
Chances are you’ll regularly encounter some issues with vocal technique that will need fine tuning. Issues that seem easy to tackle with your girls might become a real challenge with the boys, requiring a few extra minutes here or there to ensure success moving forward. Items such as leaps between registers, tessitura, and vowel modification at the extremes of the boys’ ever-changing ranges might need some attention that you hadn’t planned. Don’t just skip over them. Again, work on fixing them when you first recognize the problem.
Principle 3: Use the girls to provide vocal support and build confidence
Even if you’ve worked hard to do everything possible to make rehearsal comfortable and vital for your boys, there will still come a time when you’re going to recognize frustration on their faces. This is usually a result of two things: 1) The individual boy is uncomfortable with the sound of his own voice; and 2) they are struggling with making a cohesive sound TOGETHER.
One way to help with these issues is to involve the girls. Quite simply, let the girls sing along with the boys’ parts, but in their appropriate octave. This will serve a three-fold purpose: the boys will be more likely to sing out if supported and they will better be able to hear their part. The girls, as an added bonus, will gain some extra experience in sight-reading. It’s a win-win situation!
Principle 4: Solve discipline problems before they arise
Though you’ve planned for all the pitfalls of rehearsal with your group of adolescent boys, behavior issues do arise. Any teacher – on, indeed, any parent! – can tell you that the key to maintaining control is to keep things moving. Idle time provides a chance to become disruptive, so keeping the boys engaged is essential.
Shift activities often – probably every 10-12 minutes is best. Middle schoolers in general, not just boys, often have short attention spans. So don’t try to tackle 3 pages of your hardest song when 8-16 measures might be more appropriate. Chip away over time!
Expect a lot from your male singers. Make it clear that your expectations are high and that will keep them working hard. Show them that singing is a worthwhile activity and that “real men” do indeed sing.
Recognize that for many boys the choir room is a little uncomfortable and that’s why they act out. Chances are they’re been provided with labels from other boys who think singing is less-than-masculine. Make the choir room a safe place to be. Keep the lines of communication open between you and your adolescent singers and assure them that they can come to you with appropriate questions.
Talk to the girls in the choir (when the boys aren’t present, of course) about encouraging the boys in rehearsal. Tell them to give a cheer when the boys nail a section!
Most of all, you need to provide positive reinforcement and help your singing boys build solid self-esteem at a time in their lives when confidence seems to usually be at an all-time low. This builds their trust in you and inspires respect, which allows rehearsals to proceed with fewer problems.