The Right Music Mix

-Creating a fun yet educational annual choir program
By
Ken Kraintz

What does it mean to be a truly GREAT middle school choir teacher? There are likely as many opinions as there are teachers surrounding this particular question. This topic is seemingly as old as the profession itself. On one hand, to be an accomplished choir teacher you must deliver certain outcomes and industry learning objectives, which of course are always changing. On the other hand, to achieve a successful music program students must want to participate; and dare I say, have a little fun. So which is it:  work or play? I argue that you need a bit of both.

Getting the group buy-in
Younger singers, particularly if they have never sang in a classroom before, will sometimes hesitate to sing out loud. Picking songs that are familiar, i.e., played on the radio, TV shows, or in movies, is a possible way to overcome this initial reluctance to sing. Students want to hear what the song is meant to sound like. (This is one of the reasons each of the ChoirMix tunes includes  MP3 parts!)
Equally, as a new teacher, you might lean towards choosing pop music selections kids recognize to spark immediate singing inspiration. While this particular method produces quick results in terms of getting the group to start singing, the music itself may lack substance or opportunities for teaching points. The excitement you feel teaching popular tunes is gratifying initially. However, as a professional musician yourself, you may eventually feel as though your students are missing out on learning important musical skills.

Singing multi-part music
At some stage in their life, anyone who participated in choir will remember the moment a multi-part song came together. Regardless of which part they were singing, the sound of voices singing in harmony no doubt was priceless. Life lessons are learned in the  classroom. The accumulation of hard work and perseverance, as well as the pleasure of sharing something beautiful as a group, are what make choir so special. After months of consistency, hashing out parts, feeling confused, and/or hating the melody or the lyrics, the end result is usually worth it. When a song comes together and is performed successfully, something truly magical happens.
Now try telling that to a 6th grader who just ate a box of cookies for lunch and just wants to sing the latest Top 40 charts! So how does one marry the excitement of singing popular music with the inner fulfillment felt when successfully performing more complex music? An option would be to offer a bit of both and throughout the year progressively offer more challenging selections into the mix.

Variety-based teaching
You probably already know this:  Once students have been led to sing more in-depth music, they soon find it more appealing than mass media music. It is a subtle shift that happens within the vocalists themselves when they begin to reach new possibilities with their voices and shared musical experiences within the group.  This changing expression can only be observed when students are introduced to a variety of music with melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic diversity. For example, Rainy Day Getaway was designed to introduce younger voices to the style Calypso. Exposing students to a wide range of music styles, while encouraging them to explore outside their comfort zone, not only builds a strong musical foundation but also builds self confidence.

The conclusion? Mix it up!
Don't be ashamed if you gave into the desires of your adolescent learners and bought the latest Justin Bieber cover. Conversely if you only offer complex chamber choir selections, younger singers will feel stretched, frustrated, and ultimately bored.  When it is done with the intention to build on the singers' existing interests and competency, feel confident in introducing a piece that challenges their vocal capabilities as well as their group-based skills.