In Fall 2013, I stepped into my first full-time teaching job after receiving my Master’s degree in Music Education with Kodály emphasis, and I realized that I had my work cut out for me. It’s hard to start a new job anywhere, but it’s especially challenging at a school where you are following in the footsteps of a much-beloved chorus teacher. Did I mention that the majority of my students were middle schoolers?
What I noticed immediately is that my students had never been taught to sight-read before. While they thought they “knew solfège” because they had seen The Sound of Music, they did not know how to use solfège correctly. Where could I start with them? Since they were 4th-8th graders, they were considered “older beginners” and beyond.
I couldn’t start so-mi with middle schoolers and expect them to buy into it. In addition, I couldn’t use the general music format and teach them folk songs the whole class period because they had to learn repertoire for two concerts a year. I taught warmups that used the diatonic scale and mixed diatonic sight-reading with simpler pentatonic sight -reading of folk songs. This produced mixed results among the students and still continues to be a work in progress.
Another issue I was contending with was that the students equated shouting/belting with good singing. The strategy I used to work on this was to teach them game songs like “Al Citron,” “Four White Horses,” and “Aquaqua del a Omar” and pitch them appropriately so they were singing in their head voices. Most students have the awareness now to decide when they should access the head voice instead of the chest voice and the overall tone of all the ensembles has improved.
In addition to the skills-based areas that needed tending to, I also had to manage the students’ overwhelming desire to sing pop music in chorus. Whenever they argue that singing songs they hear on the radio would be more fun, I respond by saying “That wouldn’t be learning; that would be karaoke.” In response to their enthusiasm, I have used parts of pop songs as warm ups, canons and sight-reading exercises. I firmly believe, as do all who receive a Kodály education, that students should learn music of the highest quality. While I admit that I have bent this rule at times, I do my best to challenge my students and broaden their musical horizons with the repertoire I choose.
Now that I’m halfway through my third year, I still am trying to find the balance between giving my students musicianship training and preparing repertoire for the concerts. This year, my students’ musicianship consists of a hodgepodge of diatonic interval practice, singing through Denise Bacon’s 185 Pentatonic Exercises and sight-singing rounds from 150 Rounds. I freely admit that I still have not found THE way to integrate musicianship into chorus, but the curriculum that I’m using seems to meet the students where they are and give them the tools to progress. The students have come a long way in the last few years and I am starting to see a difference in how quickly and accurately they can sight-sing and learn repertoire. Most importantly, the growth in their musicianship has improved the artistry and musicality of their performances. Every semester, the choristers push the limits of their perceived abilities and I continue to learn right alongside them.
As we are hitting our stride in this new semester, I am looking forward to future music-making opportunities for my students. In April, my middle school a cappella ensemble, Gator Tones, will be participating in the Children’s Choral Festival at HNU and in May the Sacred Heart Lower and Middle School Band, Chorus and Strings programs will put on the Spring Concert on the Hill.
Amanda Poon has been a part of the Bay Area music education community since 2006. She received a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education and a California Teaching Credential for Music K-12 from San Francisco State University. Her passion for educating children led her to continue her studies at Holy Names University in Oakland, where she received her Master’s degree in Music Education with Kodály Emphasis in 2012.
Amanda has taught general classroom music to children ages 2 months to 4th grade at various schools, including St. Lawrence O’Toole, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Day School and, through Music Team SF, Woodrow Wilson Elementary. She has worked with the San Francisco Girls Chorus Prep Chorus and conducted Ragazzi Boys Chorus Primary Group (2012-14). She currently directs the Lower and Middle School Choruses at Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, where she teaches 4th-8th Grade Chorus and leads a middle school a cappella group, the Gator Tones.