Teaching the Middle School Choir to Sight-Sing
by Dale Duncan
Armed with a master’s degree in music, a wonderful student teaching experience, and lots of excitement about beginning my teaching career, I’ll never forget the incredible dark cloud that seemed to descend over my classroom during my first year of teaching at a middle school when I would ask my students to pull out their sight-singing books. I can still hear the moans and sighs like it was yesterday.
Sight-singing was a chore – a necessary evil of sorts.
What was the problem? I had purchased the best sight-singing books. Shouldn’t that have done the trick? Apparently not, as I was completely unable to get my 300 inexperienced middle school students to be successful at sight-singing and, most importantly, to enjoy the process of learning it.
Over time, I determined many reasons for my lack of success at teaching this important skill and none of those reasons had anything to do with my students’ intellectual abilities or the types of students I was teaching. It had to do with me. I simply didn’t know how to instill the skill sets required for them to successfully sight-sing, and I didn’t respect how incredibly difficult this skill is for this special young age group.
After six years of being immersed in academia surrounded by highly trained musicians, most of whom had never taught middle school, I had lost touch with some really important ideas:
- Reading music is very similar to learning a foreign language.
- At least 95 percent of my students had no private instrument or voice lessons in their background. Whatever they learned about sight-singing was going to have to come from me. I couldn’t rely on having Peggy Piano in the back row who had taken piano lessons for nine of her 11 years to lead everyone else into the promised land.
- Success and fun are the magic potion for this age group. I had to figure out how to instill the skills in my students in a fun way. So, over time, I developed a four-part philosophy of teaching students to sight-sing.
Part 1: It Can’t Feel Like Work
I felt sure that the Kodály hand signs would help my students improve, but they didn’t seem to like using the signs. I soon realized that this age group loves to compete against the teacher so I made up a game that I called “Forbidden Pattern,” where the students played against me.
Here are some basic procedures of the game:
- Everyone must use the Kodály Hand Signs while they sing.
- I sing and sign a three-note “forbidden pattern” followed by a rest, and they immediately have to sing and sign it back to me. Then I’ll move on and sing different variations of that pattern, which the students have to sing back to me. This repeats over and over again until I finally repeat the “forbidden pattern” of the day.
- Each day, there is a different “forbidden pattern” that the students aren’t allowed to sing.
- If one student sings the forbidden pattern, I get a point. If no one sings the pattern, they get a point.
- Whoever scores three points first wins the game. I keep score daily. I make the score public to all of my classes so they will begin a friendly competition with the other classes in addition to competing with me.
Classroom Management Guidelines:
Students are likely to get very excited during the game, and that is a good thing. However, you need some rules in place to keep the game fun and manageable!
First, students aren’t allowed to warn each other that the forbidden pattern has been sung. You should only award the students a point if they’ve been absolutely silent and still when the forbidden pattern is sung.
Second, have fun with the game! Use what I call the distraction technique. In the middle of the game, talk about your cat or what you did over the weekend. Then, sing the forbidden pattern. Soon, they will realize what you are up to! It helps them focus even more because they think you are being sneaky (and you are!) because you want to win! The possibilities are endless, and the relationship you will build with them when you let loose with playful competitiveness in this way will help you bond with your students as you teach them!
Part 2: Set Them Up for Success
If we were teaching our students how to build a house, we wouldn’t simply take them into a room full of tools and say, “Go!” We must teach our students how to use the “tools in their toolbox” by introducing one tool at a time and allowing them to perfect the use of that tool before moving on to something else.
Here are a couple of tools that I use that have helped my students:
“Chaos.” This is the word I use to describe a one or two-minute independent practice period that occurs after I’ve established tonality. When I teach this concept, I compare it to how an orchestra warms up before a concert. During Chaos, each child must place himself into a bubble world and block out the other singers. He must sing and sign the example out loud. He must do so for the entire one or two-minute period. Once you stop the Chaos session, re-establish tonality and then have them sing the example as a choir. Emphasize the importance of holding onto “do” during Chaos. If you hear them wander from “do” when they are first using Chaos as a tool, stop and ask them to sing “do.” This will give you a chance to drive home the importance of never losing the root. I always tell them that it is like knowing where you live – you should always be able to recite your home address. It is critical that students sing out loud during Chaos and that they are encouraged to work at their own pace.
Accenting. I teach rhythm separately from pitch, at first. We must help students to feel and experience the importance of beat one, or the downbeat. Helping them to physically feel it by doing body percussion exercises is a great tool. Also, using the Kodály “TA” system works well. I have my students over-emphasize beat “one” with their voices when they “TA,” and rev their voices like a car engine to keep the beat steady as they perform rhythm exercises. Instilling strong accenting skills helps greatly as they learn to cope with different time signatures.
Hand-Pulsing. Once we combine pitch and rhythm in a real sight-singing exercise, we should only use quarter notes, and we should teach them to pulse their hands to the steady rhythm in addition to using the Kodály hand signs. If we do this successfully, it will be much easier for our students when they encounter their first half-note or dotted half-note in the middle of a sight-singing exercise. Dealing with varied note values in the middle of an exercise is a challenging feat of incredible coordination for beginners. It must be taught deliberately and carefully, and practiced daily. In the early days of teaching sight-singing, I failed to recognize how hard it is for most students to combine singing accurate pitch and rhythm at the same time.
Part 3: Be Consistent
I have an American friend who lived in Paris from ages one to 11. He speaks both English and French fluently and beautifully. It seems so simple for him. For me? Not so much.
Sight-singing is not easy. It requires so many skill sets that trained musicians often take for granted. The dots on the page with stems that go different directions are filled with information that their brains have no idea how to interpret until we carefully show them. Ten minutes per day, every day, will go a long way. It will give us the time to teach our students what the tools in their toolbox are and how to use them. Successfully identifying the symbols on a matching quiz isn’t enough. They have to use the symbols and interpret them each and every day with simple, progressive sight-singing examples that are appropriate for their age. Like a new language, they must speak it often in order to improve their skills.
Part 4: Praise Your Students
We all know how important it is to praise our students when they get it right. With sight-singing, it is even more important to acknowledge every single small success – especially with this age group. For example, when I see a student “pulsing” correctly, I call his name out and tell him “Great job on the pulsing!” Immediately, the students around him make sure they are also pulsing.
I often compare sight-singing to life. It will not always be perfect. Sometimes, you will sail right through. Other times, you are going to hit a huge obstacle and get knocked down. Do you just lie there? Or do you get up, dust yourself off, and keep on going?
As their teacher, it is incredibly rewarding to help them on this important journey. It is our job to guide our students toward music literacy. And when we take the time to teach them how to use the tools in their toolbox and share a little fun, laughter, and celebration along the way, we will have had a great time instilling a skill in our students that will last them a lifetime.
Dale Duncan teaches choral music to over 300 middle school students at Henderson Middle School in Atlanta, Georgia, where his students have consistently been rated Superior at state festivals. He has presented his sight-singing materials at state and local conventions as well as presenting national webinars on the subject. He gives sight singing tips and free samples on his blog at: inthemiddlewithmrd1.blogspot.com/