What do you do if your students won’t sing? If they don’t sing well? Anthony describes three principles to keep music practice enjoyable and effective:
- Invest in a positive school culture.
- Be patient.
- Sing in small segments.
- Stay positive.
- Make singing a special event.
- Compliment students for their work.
- Use programs as motivators.
Speaker 1: Sometimes teachers ask, “What can I do to get my students to sing?” Sometimes maybe the question is, “How do I get them to sing better?” and at times, “How do I get them to sing at all?” I’d like to talk a little bit about school culture and how that maybe impacts your singing culture. If you have a good relationship with your students and the culture is positive, you might still have a problem with singing in your school, of course, but if you have a difficult relationship with your students and things aren’t going very well, there is a fair amount of tension, you find yourself frustrated and showing that frustration, you have a sense that they’re talking behind your back and there’s just a lot of restlessness, there’s a good chance you’re going to also have problems when you go to sing. I would encourage teachers to think about that. If you’re struggling with an overall singing culture, are there other things going on in the school that when you go to sing, you’re down one already because of what has been going on in the classroom before?
Take the time to build relationships with your students. Now, I know there’s cultures that it seems like there’s a lot of negative feelings towards school and the necessary evil like we talk about. There is some of that, but I still believe most students in most of our schools come to school with a sense of “I would enjoy making this work. I want to make it work.” We teachers need to believe that and capitalize on that. Take time to talk to your students, eat with your students. At times I hear of teachers that they sit at their desk to eat, there’s a group of boys there and a group of boys there. They don’t interact with their students hardly at all. I would say they’re missing an opportunity to build a relationship with their students. Talk about farming, talk about raising dogs, talk about subjects you don’t care at all about. I’m not a hunter, but my students love to talk about hunting, so it gives me an opportunity to show interest in them. I think I gain something then when I’m standing in front of them and trying to get them to sing.
Wow, good, good job. Okay, nice good breathing now. Not necessarily loud. Maybe we can be faster. Good breath.
If your school struggles with singing and even a negative attitude, there is no easy fix. Teachers have to know that. This is not, “If we do these three things, it’s going to work.” It just is not that simple. Be patient.
Maybe do singing in smaller segments. Sing 15 minutes—“Good job, thanks for trying hard today”—and go back. If you’re frustrated, you can’t afford to show that frustration because singing is an opportunity to express good feelings and joy. If a teacher is frustrated and starts talking in a way that—”Can’t you get this part?” Or “Come on, what’s going on?” Or “Can’t we do any better than that?”—that is going to go downhill quickly. Now, I’m not talking about when students are misbehaving to call them out in a way that gets the job done. They’re supposed to stop, they’re supposed to pay attention, we need to do that, but keep your attitude positive.
Good job. You faltered a little bit in a couple of spots in the chorus. Do it again. Don’t push your voice. Listen, I like this feel.
One thing that I think my students enjoy doing and we do this just a few times a year is say, “Let’s drop a class and spend time singing.” You can’t do this often, of course not, but I think it’s a way that if you’re struggling with an attitude of singing say, “We’ll drop English class, we’ll maybe sit in a circle, we’ll maybe do some extra fun exercises, voice exercises or sing some easy songs or whatever.” Most students—you might have a few that say, “No, I’d rather have English class than sing,” but most students are going to see that as a positive thing. I think it can build some energy into it from the get-go. This isn’t music class, this is taken off from another class and hey, we’re singing. Then use that as a way to just build some momentum in a positive direction.
Compliment them when you can. When they do open their mouths well, when they do show some interest, “Thank you, I see some improvement. Good job.” Rather than always negative. Because improvement often is about talking about what they do wrong; well, talk about what they do right as well and try to feed that.
Another thing that my students I think enjoy is when we do something purposeful with music, and most schools do, like a spring program. But Christmas caroling can be an early one in the year. “You know what, I don’t think we’re ready to go Christmas caroling,” and tell your students, “Really? Do you think we are? How do we look when we sing? Are we singing enough that we can carry this? Why don’t we work hard and I’m willing to work hard if you’re willing to work hard? In the next two months before Christmas, let’s go ahead and sing some Christmas songs. Let’s see if we can build our volume, build our expression so that we have something that’s worthwhile presenting. If you work hard, I’d love to take you.”
Maybe you have a grandmother, maybe a neighbor. For our school, of course, we’re a little larger, we can go to the mall, we sing there, we sing at Teen Challenge, those places where there is an audience, but we can’t go unless we can sing loud enough. We find that to be a very energizing thing where there is purposeful opportunity to sing, and it’s tied to, “You have to work hard too.” It’s not a punishment, it’s an incentive.
Do fun things when you sing not just heavy songs: voice exercises, the scale—doing that in various ways I think can have—there are lots of resources to find ideas for that.
I think another thing we must be careful with and that is, “What is the singing appreciation and culture?” Let’s say you’re choral music, and you’re in a community, maybe it’s your own or you’re teaching in a different community and they despise choral music. You know, you’re going to have to learn to work with that carefully or you will really ruin things. Music is a sensitive thing and if you talk against certain singing groups that you don’t enjoy and that’s what they like, they can be very offended, and it will go downhill quickly because this is almost a tension, almost a personal slam that you don’t like their music.
Rather than bringing in choral pieces,—of course, you going to have a hard time singing them anyhow—but even holding that up that “We want to be able to sing—here is what I’d like you to be able to do.” Be patient. Sing their songs at least at the beginning. I already one year, sensing some frustration with that, I said, “You know what, why don’t you bring in some music and we’ll sing it.” Now, they brought in all kinds of music that wasn’t quite what I enjoy, but we sang them anyhow and they enjoyed it. I didn’t use those for program songs, but I think they had a sense of “Hey, here is our opportunity to bring in our kind of music.” I didn’t mock it in any way, I didn’t talk about “What’s this music?” We photocopied it, put it in our binders, enjoyed singing it, tried to make it positive, and I think gained a lot by just showing that “I don’t look down on your music.” Then when it was the music I enjoyed more, some arranged music or choral music, I think then they were a little better or more willing to cooperate.
Be patient, compliment them when you can, make sure you’re not expressing frustration, sing in small time segments so you don’t overdo it. Keep it positive and realize that really if you’re going to change a culture, this is not going to be done in a year probably. This is probably years of work to change a culture from a negative singing culture to a positive one.
And at the same time, be thinking, “What might I be doing that hurts this culture relationally that maybe is then creating a problem when I go to trying to get to singing?”
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CONTRIBUTOR: Anthony Hurst