Middle school-aged kids love adventure. Now that the Christmas season with all its attendant concerts, caroling and mall mobbing is over, we have a chance to reconvene our classes with a bit of adventure before post-season boredom has a chance to set in. Here’s a musical activity I call “huddle and scrum” that can be done in an open space in the choir room. Like a football team’s huddle, the kids will gather in a circle, shoulder to shoulder. And like a rugby scrum, they’ll lean in and “mix it up”. However, what we’ll be mixing up in this scrum is voices. Instead of a ball, we’ll use pitches and vowels. That’s where the adventure starts.
The goal here is to encourage listening, full participation, and the joy of singing together using very basic tonal expression without having to sing printed repertoire. This is done by concentrating on tones and sounds rather than actual words and melodies. It’s challenging and adventurous, and addresses solely non-literate parts of the creative process. It can be used as either a “wake-up” to get quiet kids singing, or a warm-up to get kids focused on singing and listening to each other to build a unified sound. And the way I like to do this combines ancient forms of expression with modern technology.
I’ll have my group stand in a circle shoulder-to shoulder with me in the middle. This close circle has them singing at each other, which magnifies their awareness of their voice as part of the whole. I’ll have three things with me. One, a guitar or melodica, or any small instrument that can produce reference pitches and rhythms as needed. Two, a pocket recorder that I place at my feet. Recording and playback play a big part in this activity, so make sure you have that set up. Nothing fancy, but I want the kids to hear what they do right after they do it. Three, I have some flashcard-size cues that we’ll use to move things along once we get everyone singing.
I’ll play a starting pitch (C is usually safe). I’ll have everyone start with a chosen vowel-like sound (my short list is aye, ee, ahh, oh and oo). I’ll have a flash card for each of those. I’ll tell the kids to sustain the note, breathe when they need to, and then get right back on their note and sound. Kind of like keeping a hackey-sack in the air, they’ll need to sustain the tone by passing it among each other so the sound is sustained. So, for example, we’ll start with “aye” and the C note, and build a unison tone (8ve unison as needed). Once we have that, we’ll raise & lower the dynamics (my hand raised or lowered) and see if we can stay on pitch and get louder and softer together. I’ll encourage the kids to make sure they can hear each other’s voices so we have a unified sound. As soon as we have that, we move on.
We’ll take a rest for a moment as I start the recorder. We’ll get the pitch, vowel and dynamics started again before I face part of the kids and expose one of the flash cards with a different vowel sound on it. The kids are instructed to slowly change to the new sound as I rotate slowly around the circle until everyone is singing the new sound. Lots of giggles here, but the recorder is running, so with a bit of encouragement they focus on singing and listening. At this point we’re recording the sounds of them singing a unison sustained pitch and moving through different vowel sounds and dynamics. I try to get to this point as soon as I can, with a short rest to listen to a playback to start the intuitive feedback process and give the kids a chance to adjust their singing as they look for a group sound.
Now, the adventure begins. I’ll start the recorder, and then start a light drone of the original pitch. I’ll play a simple triad to identify another target pitch they can move to. I’ll instruct the kids to start carefully, responsibly wandering on their own through other vowels and dynamics, even other notes. The challenge is for them to listen to each other and slowly change their part while hearing others do the same as the wholeness of the group sound changes. The kids will choose an initial vowel, start singing, then slowly, tentatively at first, we’ll all explore how to move through dynamics and pitch as individuals strongly committed to the group. Auditory feedback is given by the recordings. With each playback they get ideas about what they’ll do next.
I’ll give some short directions at this point, asking the kids to try a pass that is focused on a feeling – joy, anger, sadness, peace, and record each, with the kids able to comment on the playbacks. Their sense of adventure is cultivated as they decide how to adjust their choices of pitch, vowel and volume to contribute to the best result. I find each time I do this that they build an awareness of their voices as part of an intentional whole.
The recorded results of these “huddle & scrum” events can be interesting. You can encourage the kids to think about how these shimmering, moving vowels could be used in concert as accompaniment for recited poetry, or even (yes, I’m going to say it) a good rap. This open free-form kind of creative expression can really change the way kids look at music and its place in their lives. Solfege, sight singing and repertoire will always have a noble raison d’etre in middle school choir, but it can be a useful sorbet moment to dive into a bit of huddle & scrum!