Awkward, difficult, strange and beautiful

Liz Batey, R&S Chair for Middle School/Junior High Choirs

Middle School. It’s the most awkward, difficult, strange and beautiful time in a young person’s life. I know I’m crazy for saying this but…I’m a middle school teacher for life.

There are just under a million reasons why teaching middle school or junior high singers is a challenge. Some of them are physical, mental or emotional, while others are scheduling conflicts or enrollment issues. Regardless of the situation, there is hope and the possibility of building a program, retaining singers and creating beautiful music.

I’ve created a short(ish) list of music that most choirs can find success in performing. There are always ways to modify the music for your choirs and I’ve done my best to include some of those accommodations. My last suggestion is to be adventurous when it comes to literature. Try new things. Write your own music or write harmonies for songs that you like. There is no wrong answer when it comes to fostering a love of music and teaching your choirs.

One final note before the music list, these suggestions are just suggestions. Some of my ideas are silly and childish. I admit that I choose music based on what I want to accomplish. Sometimes I worry about recruitment and I will select music that I might not select for festival. Middle school singers need variety and excitement. For example, I find that while preparing for festival I can be intense and the music doesn’t always appeal to middle school tastes. Because I know they need a break from Latin, polyphony and all the other advanced (for middle school) lessons, I choose something for the end of each day that they like. A chance to unwind and feel good about choir that day.

For the unchanged voice, usually 6th grade mixed choir

Bist du bei mir (Schrimer-First Book of Mezzo-Soprano/Alto Solos) The first skill I try to teach my singers is unison. What does a good unison sound like? This song is the perfect piece for unison. Your singers must practice listening to themselves and others to create a homogenous sound. The German is just challenging enough to make this a natural progression from elementary school to middle school. The difficulty I run into with this song is the copy issue. Instead of copying the music for my class I project the lyrics/sheet music for the entire class to read.

Tuimbe (Alfred-David Waggoner) Your students will LOVE this song. You can order a two part version, SAB, or SATB which makes this perfect for any of your choirs but I’ve found that this is attainable for sixth graders. It’s upbeat, the melody and harmony make sense to their ears, and it’s begging for percussion. This song is great for classes that have students who have special needs or require accommodations.

Man or Muppet (From McKenzie) This was an experiment of mine this past quarter. I am at a new school, I see my 6th graders every other day, and I needed a partner song that would interest any kid. As I was watching “The Muppets” with my family one night this song came on and I thought I could make this work. The boys sing the melody and the girls do the echo of the muppet. The students all made sock puppets and they perform with choreography. It may sound ridiculous but it has been the topic of conversation at our school and my students love it. They don’t know that they are learning, it’s just fun.

For treble choir, usually 7th, 8th and 9th grade girls

Do Not Stand at my Grave and Weep (Alliance-Laura Farnell) If you are looking for a festival piece, look no further. The poetry is beautiful, the texture is lush and this will challenge your choir. This song resonates with them personally as well so it’s not hard to make an emotional connection.

Niska Banja (Boosey & Hawkes-Nick Page) The best thing about this song is the meter. It takes your ladies beyond common time signature. I find it best to have them sway with the beat to help them feel the pulse of the song. The language is challenging but it repeats for most of the song and the translation is fun. There are four parts which can be difficult but you can rehearse them in sections first, combine 1st soprano with 2nd alto and 2nd soprano with 1st alto until they are comfortable. Definitely a piece worth the effort.

We Sing, We Dance (Heritage, Ruth Elaine Schram) This song is great for learning to sing in three parts. The sopranos sing together for much of the song but separate at the ends of phrases to create a fantastic effect of a major chord. The legato section in the middle is great for contrast and it challenges your students to sing longer phrases which is always a struggle in my choirs. Your students have the option of clapping and stomping in this piece which is exciting and can be visually stunning. My 8th grade ladies are doing this at our fall concert and we have opted to include some percussion to add another layer of interest.

For the changing male voice, usually in the 7th and/or 8th grade

Kyrie Eleison (Walton-Dan Davison) Mr. Davison has many songs that I love but this one is perfect for my gentlemen. I love the fact that it is two parts which makes it less confusing for my singers who have a hard time matching pitch. They only have two choices. Middle school basses usually are not really basses but this song makes them feel like they are. The language isn’t difficult and the tempo is upbeat.

Down in the Valley (Santa Barbara Music Publishing-D.S. Berry) If there is one song that has made an impact on my gentlemen, it would be this one. I find that many times we as adult choir directors, shy away from songs with depth when teaching middle school. My students crave something with emotion or with a life lesson. This is a song where they can sound like men and show their emotional side.

Be A Man ( Wilder) This is a piece I use when introducing my boys to what a tenor, bass and baritone sound like. I used the sheet music from and adapted it to fit my choir. The tenors took the melody of the chorus while the bass/baritones took the “Be a man” line at the beginning of each phrase. After we learned the melody and the harmonies I wrote into the piece, we added some choreography and it was the most memorable song of the entire concert.

For a mixed choir, either SAB or SATB, usually 7th and/or 8th grade

American Folk Rhapsody (Heritage-Linda Spevacek) This song has everything I look for when programing for my mixed choir. It’s energetic, fun for my students, memorable at a concert, contrasting sections, challenging for middle school and easily adaptable for my choirs. This song is great for cross-curricular lessons with your social studies department when your students are studying early American history. I recommend using a few movements to help your students with the difficult phrases. For example, the gentlemen’s part at measure 17 would lend itself to a bend in the knees on the beat. This song is a confidence booster for each section because the melody travels throughout the choir. In fact, I can’t think of a single thing I don’t like about this piece!

Shut De Do (Word Music-Stonehill arr. Hayes) This song requires a few basses if you have them! I find that my students love world music and this is a gateway song into more difficult pieces they might encounter in high school. My men love how they are featured in this song and every year after we’ve performed it, my numbers rise in the male sections of my choir. The kids love the groove and you can be creative with percussion.

Earth Song (Hinshaw-Frank Ticheli) Mr. Ticheli is a staple in the band world and it should be noted that he writes beautifully for chorus as well. If you want to work on dissonance or explore more modern music, this is the selection for you. It’s not as difficult as Whitacre but has the same ideas written at middle school level. I cannot perform this without weeping. It embodies everything we are as singers and choir conductors. Oh, and your students will love it too!