Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Meet me on Facebook LIVE on Thursday, April 27 at 7:30 PM!

On Thursday night at 7:30 PM Eastern, I'll be on Facebook LIVE for about 30 minutes.  During that time, I will discuss several things I've recently blogged about including:  recruiting boys, working with sharp female singers, accountability, and dealing with difficult parents who make excuses for their children.  These are all based on my recent experiences, so everything is fresh!  :-)

We will also have time for questions!

As always, during the session, I will offer a freebie and a ridiculously good deal from my TpT store on one of the S-Cubed Middle School Sight Singing Program for Beginners!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Accountability...One of the many reasons I love Music Prodigy in My Middle School Choral Music Classroom

Every voice matters.

I teach over 300 middle school choral music students each and every day.

I've always struggled with the fact that it was difficult to find time to listen to them individually in order to assess them in my classes of up to 84 students, and I've also worked hard to seek ways to hold them individually accountable for their contributions in my very large classes.

So, when I found Music Prodigy, I was elated for so many reasons.  I could finally listen to the students individually on my own time, and I could pick the students I needed and wanted to listen to based on the work my ears had already done in class while they sang in the large group.

Learning any new technology is not easy, but learning this one has been well worth my time.

Today, I have the opportunity to share the fruits of that work.

I received this email after posting the grade for a Music Prodigy assignment:

Hello Mr. Duncan,

Rohan said that he completed the first assignment in class, that was due March 24th. Please speak to him about that. We don't normally let him take his phone to school. But, if that is required to complete assignments we will let him do that from now on.  Thanks.

Note:  I teach in a Title 1 school.  I offer class time for students as a courtesy about once per month. If a child doesn't have a phone to bring to class, I give them an additional month to complete the assignment on their home computers/iPads.  If they have none of those, I allow them to come to my room during the morning after they arrive to school to complete the assignment on the computers in my room.    

My approach is "No excuses."   

Here was my response:

Check out my blog!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

How Can I Help These Sharp Middle School Singers?!?


Teaching middle school chorus can hurt your ears.

Between the changing voices of the boys and those sharp singing girls, our ears take a beating.

Solving the issue of the sharp singer and any singer who sings out of tune takes time.  

In this blog post, I am going to share some of the things I've used in my middle school chorus classroom that have helped my singers hit the bullseye more often than not.

1)  I use solfege.  

I use it to teach sight singing.  I use it in my vocal warm ups.  I use it to when I introduce the main melodies of new pieces.  I use the hand signs.  I love solfege because it gives us the opportunity to help them with vowel production each day.  When you include the hand signs, they are given a physical place to put the pitches.  The kinesthetic piece is very important for the beginner, in my view.

One thing I've noticed is that when middle school sharp singers sing an ascending scale, they rarely sing the first "DO" in tune.  It's almost always "DO and 3/4".  Once you make them aware of that, their ears start the slow process of opening up.  You must not let them ever sing it sharp.  It becomes a physical memory that is difficult to erase.

The second thing I've noticed is that sharp singers don't return to "DO" very well when learning a melody in a song that goes back to "DO" after having ascended.

The third thing I noticed over time was that sharp singers also enjoy singing "RE" sharp.  If they didn't return to "DO" in the first place, then for sure we are going to have an issue with "RE", but even when they have sung "DO" in tune, sharp singers often enjoy a sharp "RE".

...and sharp singers always seem happy...but I digress.

2)  Sing it back to them.

When your sharp singers do something like I've listed in #1 above, stop.  Hold your ears.  Ask if there is any blood coming out of your ears.  Enjoy the laughter.  Then, sing it back to them exactly as they just sang it...

...and overdo it just to add a little bit of fun.

They'll be horrified for sure and are likely to laugh with you.

When I imitate my singers in this way, I always ask, "Do you want to listen to that?"

...And when we share moments of levity like this, we are continuing to open up the ears and, more importantly, the brains of our singers.

Solving the issues of "out of tune singing" is never going to be a quick fix.

3)  Watch out for every MI/FA in every song you ever sing with your students.

Sharp singers enjoy making a half step too big.  Make sure your students are able to sing a perfect ascending major scale a capella as a group.  That goes a long way toward solving the issue of sharp singing.

4)  Make ear-training and listening a part of the training of your students very early on in your time with your students.  I start it with my new singers right at the start of the school year with a variety of approaches designed to help them listen.

Here are some ideas that I've used with my students that I video recorded:
Link #1.
Link #2.

5)  About mid-year, teach them to sing an ascending and descending chromatic scale DO to DO.
When you start teaching the chromatic scale, be very careful.  When I teach it, I write all of the solfege on the board for them so they can read it.  It's a lot to remember for a 6th grader!

I don't let them sing it with me at first.  They must listen to me sing it a capella and they must follow and imitate my hand signs while I do it.   Give yourself the starting pitch.  Then, sing it yourself while signing and while they imitate the signs with you.  When you finish, check your pitch by playing it on the piano and evaluate yourself in front of the class ("I was perfectly in tune because I landed on the high "DO";  Or, "I was a little sharp today because my pitch doesn't perfectly match the high "DO").

I don't let them sing it for about a week.  I focus in hand placement and getting them to listen to me (if I'm singing it for them a capella) and the keyboard (if I am playing it on the piano for them).

When I finally begin to let them sing it, I double it on the piano, and I urge the singers who don't believe they are ready NOT to sing it yet.  At the same time, I urge the singers who DO think they are ready to try it to sing very softly.  We must teach them to learn to listen while they sing.

6)  Record them a lot.

It's so easy now.  Just take out your Smart Phone and do a voice memo of their vocal warm up and let them listen.  Record their songs and let them listen.

7)  Teach them to create overtones with each other.

I like to use the vowel "oo" during the early weeks of the school year.   I have them sing melodies they know really well or scales or whatever you wish.  Once the "oo" has a great blend and is nicely tall and rounded, start having them sing melodies and scales using other vowels, but teach them to keep the "oo" in it.

To help them hear an overtone, get a volunteer from your class who has stunning vowel production and make overtones side by side with that singer on "oo" and let your singers listen to it.

Something about hearing and creating overtones mesmerizes even the least focused and least musically experienced brains in my classroom.

I hope that gives you a few ideas!

Check out my blog!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Recruiting Boys to sing in Middle School Chorus

Oh my...

Haven't books been written on this subject?!?   And aren't seminars almost always presented at every major conference about keeping boys in your chorus?

And I'm trying to sum it up in a quick blog post?


But...as I always say each time I write, I don't have all the answers...or even half of the answers.

I can only share some of the things that I do that work for me in the Title 1 Atlanta middle school classroom setting where I teach, and let you decide if you can use any of the ideas or not.

So here we go...

Right now, this video of my current class of 7th grade boys is my recruiting tool for next year.

Yesterday, these 40 young men went to the Georgia Music Educator's Association Large Group Performance Evaluation, and they scored the highest score of all four of my choirs.

So, what am I doing in this moment?

More importantly than anything, I am praising them.

But, let's get specific...

1)  Last night, I emailed a copy of this video to all of the parents of all of my students.  In the email, I featured the video of the boys and also commended the other choirs for their superior ratings and thanking them for their work.

2)  This morning,  I emailed parents of 6th graders to ask them to encourage their children to recruit boys for 7th grade chorus, and I included a link of this choir's performance.   In the email, I write, "I don't care whether they think they can sing or not.  I just want students with a desire to sing and a strong work ethic."

3)  This morning, I also sent a "remind" message to all of my 6th graders asking them to help recruit boys.

In both of the correspondences, I gave specific times and places for the interested boys to meet me to express their interest, and I included a deadline for signing up.

4)  I needed to find a way to meet the students where they are...

OH!  Their peers!  That's what matters to them the most.

So,  this morning, I emailed the teacher in charge of creating the morning announcements and asked her to include a link to the video and to congratulate all of the chorus groups on their results yesterday.  I had other videos of other choirs who did a great job, but featuring the video of the boys would help me give their classmates the visual they needed and would also instill an enormous sense of pride in the boys who achieved the result.

In our school, being featured on the morning announcements makes you a celebrity of sorts.

So, this is what I've done in the last 24 hours since the students achieved their results to help keep the energy flowing.

I knew I needed to make the most of this moment.

What about "before" this moment?  How did I get here?

One gradual step at a time...

Here is a quick summary:

1)  In 6th grade, most boys are treble, so in my view, it's most effective to include them all together.

2)  In my experience, I had the least success when I combined 7th grade boys with 7th grade girls. The girls are getting shy at that point about boys.  Some of the boys voices are starting to go crazy.
The girls are singing sharp.  They boys whose voices are changing can't match pitch so well.
I just felt like they needed to be separate...even if some of the boys voices weren't ready.  I felt like the boys needed some time for me to teach them about their changing voices without the glare of the girls...who were singing sharp as I mentioned, but that's another story.  Somehow, the girls manage to feel superior to the boys and to convey that to them...which discouraged the boys from singing.
...And I always leave the door open for boys who really prefer to stay with the girls to stay with the girls because I know that not all of the boys voices change at the same time.

Everyone wants to feel successful at what they do.  When my boys weren't feeling successful while they sang, they chose to take other classes.

So, I worked to split the genders in 7th grade.  Did my administrators support it in the beginning? Absolutely not.

But I fought.

And fought.

And created good results to continue to gain their support.

That isn't the only answer though.  You have to look at your situation at your school and make the decision along with your administrators about what works in YOUR circumstance.   If you change schools, your circumstance may be different.  As the leader of the choral program for your school, it is your job to assess the situation you are facing and to make the decision that is best for the program.  Whatever your recommendation is, remember that achieving it is a collaborative effort.  Choral music is not the only consideration of the administrators.

3)  Use competition.  Boys love it.  They love to win.  Stoke the fire.  I use it with my forbidden pattern game for sight singing.  I keep score all year, and I always point out who is winning the most.
I have many other ways that I encourage competition, but, in my experience, the boys seem most interested in being the best.  It even surpasses their need to be silly and to impress each other.  They love to be the best.

4)  Help them sound great.  Find their voices.  In sixth grade, teach him to listen.  Don't assume that he "has to be in the basement" or that he is tone deaf.  Also in sixth grade, help him learn to use his falsetto if his voice has changed and encourage him to continue to use it in 7th and 8th grade when it is needed.  Tell him that matching pitch is part of being a smart singer and then help him do it.

5)  Help him FEEL the energy it takes to match pitch and support his new voice when it changes. You can talk until you are blue in the face about imagery or what he should feel when he sings, but until you actually get him to feel it, he's going to keep droning along an octave below middle C when you want him to sing middle C.  Remember that teaching middle school boys is not the same as teaching class voice while you were a master's student.

6)  Find songs they can sing well.  Modify when you need to.  They want to look and sound good in front of the girls, in front of their peers and in front of their parents.  In fact, peers are often more important to them than their parents.  :-)   When they don't feel successful, they leave you and sign up for band because it's easier and less personal to blow a horn.   I've listed some of the songs I use with my boys here.   Use what works for you, and email me with ideas you've found that work well, and I will add them.

7)  Find what you enjoy teaching them and teach it to them.   I enjoy teaching musical theater songs to my students.  During fourth nine weeks, we do a big fund-raiser.  When I pick songs for that show, I always try to find songs that excite the boys.  For example, songs from "Newsies" really get them going.  Songs with silly humor like the sort used in Spamalot seem to get them excited.    Keep in mind that in 7th grade, most of them bottom out at F below middle C.

8)  Recognize that teaching them is not the same as teaching girls.  For me, teaching 84 girls is far easier than teaching 40 boys.  Boys are louder.  They need to move more.  They need to be sillier. Many days, someone is going to pass gas and the students who are nearby are going to pinch their noses while you are teaching.  You can laugh about it, you can ignore it or your can fight them about why it's not appropriate. I choose to laugh sometimes and ignore it sometimes.  They already know it isn't appropriate.  Mom and Dad taught them that already...but they do it anyway.  It's a rite of passage.

Let it go.

9)  For parents, in my experience, in general, boys are harder for them to raise in terms of behavior. Recognize it.  Perhaps you may have taught their lovely daughter 3 years ago.  She did everything she was supposed to do without any work from you.  She just did it.  Her parents don't even know why she did it.  She just did.  Then, in walks the son who is loud and out of control.

Accept it and move with it.

Have the hard conversation.  Tell them you are sorry that this is their difficult child, but that you still need for him to do the work and to be held accountable for inappropriate behavior.   Hold both the boy and the parent accountable and create structure for him so that he can be successful.

I can't tell you how many hard conversations I've had with parents who are struggling with their boys. Parents sit across from me and cry when I break it down for them real time.

They already know.

They live with their child.

...But hearing it from a teacher who is working hard to help them have success is hard for the parent.

Many times, they are embarrassed, and they feel like failures.

I don't subscribe to that at all, but perception is reality.

So, do your best to help the parent.

And for the parents who copy every administrator under the sun when you are working so hard to help hold their boy accountable for his poor behavior because they simply can't accept that their little boy isn't perfect in school even though he is a terror at home, go in.

Be real and don't be afraid.

You know what you've seen from their child each day.

Document the actual behaviors and deliver the information to the parents without judgment.

...And when the parents keep making excuses, you say:

"I have you son for 1-3 years.  You have him for life.  I am doing my best to help your son.  That is why I am taking the time to deliver this information on a Monday morning at a 7 AM conference that I arranged to help you and your child."

...And, by the way, sometimes we need to say that to the parents of girls too.

So, those are the things that have worked for me as I've recruited boys for my program.

I hope it gives you some ideas.

It's worth the effort.

Check out my blog!

Monday, March 20, 2017

A letter I sent to Chorus Parents After Adjudication Today

Hello Parents!

Today was a magical day.  Your children were magnificent.  I am so proud of their hard work, dedication, discipline and perseverance.

On Remind, I sent photos of all of the results from every judge.  Some of the comments from the judges were truly amazing.  There were times today when the judges stood up and clapped for the HMS students after they sang.  All four groups received Superior Ratings on their songs and on their sight singing.  This is not an easy accomplishment, and it is something in which they should take great pride. 

I had professional audio recordings done of each group.  Once I recover from the events of today, I will figure out a way to get you copies of the recordings so you can truly appreciate the hard work your children have done.

After I returned from the adjudication, I uploaded several videos from todays events onto YouTube.  If you go to this link and look under "most recent", you will find samples of their work from today.  I've tried to label each one for you so you can find your children.  Some are still processing, but they should all be up and ready for viewing by 7:45 PM. I included videos from all four singing groups.  

Thank you so much for the parent volunteers today who helped to chaperone and take video of the activities of the day.   And thank you to all of the parents who donated on Donor's Choose to help get the students back to school.

The last thing I said to each group today before they sang was a quote from Maya Angelou.  "People forget what you say, but they don't forget how you make them feel."  Your children gave me goose bumps multiple times today, and I have no doubt that the audience was moved in a similar way by their performances.  I firmly believe that your children inspired teachers and children from other schools who heard them sing today.  

Thank you for your support in helping the students learn the importance of working hard and more importantly, the fruits of their labor.  They may stop singing one day, but life lessons like these will serve them for a lifetime.  

With gratitude,

Dale Duncan

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Myths about Classroom Management

This week, I found this article about classroom management, and with permission from the author, I am sharing it here with you because I believe firmly in the ideas presented in it!

Educators tend to think about the reactive part of challenging situations when it comes to classroom management – how to respond to inattention or misconduct.

But the truth is that classroom management is mostly about being proactive so that less of those situations arise.  According to author Harry Wong, “The number one problem in the classrooms is not discipline; it is lack of authentic learning tasks, procedures and routines.”
Laying a good foundation from the beginning will motivate most students to work up to expectations and reduce the number of confrontations that cannot only disrupt but also completely de-rail good lessons.  Unfortunately, there are still many common misconceptions among some educators about classroom management that persist despite 21st century research and reforms.

Friday, February 24, 2017

What is your experience with Perfect Pitch?

On Monday morning, I was on the treadmill running, and I came across this article about a child in Atlanta who has perfect pitch.

I've always believed that perfect pitch was far more rare than some of us believe.

Maybe it's because mine isn't perfect!  :-)

I certainly appreciate the information that expert researchers in our field contribute to our work, but doing it is not a passion for me.  

So, today, I am asking for data from YOU based on your experience!

Here is mine!

I've often said that my research lab is my middle school choral music classroom where I've taught well over 10,000 students over the course of my career.

During that time, to my knowledge, I've never encountered a child who had perfect pitch.

Maybe someday soon?!  

The reason I am pretty certain that I've not encountered perfect pitch is because of how I structured my sight singing program, S-Cubed.   I didn't follow the traditional model of singing in the key of C, then F, then G, and so on.  

I didn't follow that model because early in my career, I noticed that my middle school beginners struggled reading notes below the staff on ledger lines.  Starting the teaching of sight singing in the key of C seemed to created a barrier to learning.  I also noticed that my beginners struggled reading notes when the stem directions changed.  For example, going from A to B on the treble clef...Some of the children thought the B was lower than the A simply because the stem pointed down.

For that, and many other reasons that are too detailed to cover here, I decided to create a program that at least, in part, would focus on training their young eyes on how to interpret the "dots" and "stems" regardless of key or key signature in the early days of their training and to do it all while using what I call "varied but comfortable DO".   This concept means that, in the beginning of their training, we choose to have our beginners sight sing in keys that are comfortable for their voices (usually C, C#, D, D#, E) regardless of the notes that are written on the page.

Don't panic...we don't do that permanently!  After several weeks, we move to the real keys and use moveable DO!

One of the other reasons I use "varied but comfortable DO" early in the program is because middle school children whine "This is too high" when they try to sight sing in the keys of F and G.  So, I removed the obstacle.  When our beginners are learning this new and complex skill of sight singing, they are already self-conscious.  If they are worried about it being "too high", they stop focusing on building the skill sets we are striving to teach, and they shut down.

...At least that was what I experienced.

...And almost every sight singing method I encountered in my early days of teaching went from the key of C to F to G and gradually added more sharps/flats to the key signature, and for singers, I realized it wasn't necessary.   Later?  Absolutely....but there was no need to follow the instrumental model for young singers in the early days of learning to sight sing.  We don't teach conjugation to them while they are learning to speak their first complete sentences, so it made sense to me to build other skills first.

During the time the students are sight singing notes like high A on the treble clef without any accidentals in the key signature, there hasn't been a single middle school student in 25 years who has said "Mr. Duncan...is that the real DO?"  Or "That isn't the right pitch."   

When I made the decision not to use the real keys in their early training with sight singing, I didn't think about the students who might have perfect pitch.  I was only focused on how to help my true beginners to be less confused about turning those dots into sound.

Once my students have developed strong skill sets and problem solving techniques, then we learn the theory behind the key signatures, and all of the things that singers need as they work toward becoming literate, educated musicians.  

So, here is my question for all of the middle school music educators out there who've encountered hundreds and even thousands of middle school students:

Have you encountered students who had perfect pitch?  If so, how many times have you encountered students with this incredible gift?

Check out my blog!

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