When I began teaching middle school, I faced this dilemma: voice placement. How could I listen to each student to assign them a voice part within the ensemble without intimidating my adolescent singers or spending a significant amount of class time?
My solution was simple: I taught the entire class a simple canon (“Viva la Musica,” “O Music,” and “Jubilate Deo” all worked beautifully because the range for each is only M9 or less). Then all the students stood in a circle around our classroom, singing the canon over and over. As they all sang together, I slowly walked in front of each student, smiled, and just listened for a few moments before showing each singer either one or two fingers. I had told the students in advance to make the number with their own fingers at their side so that they could remember the number I assigned them. After I heard every child, I asked everyone to show me the number they had been shown.
For the “One” students, I explained that their voices sounded like ice cream- light, “floaty,” and perhaps a little creamy. I told the “Two” students that their voices to me sounded like chocolate- rich, yummy, and filling. I placed “ice cream voices” on the soprano part, the “chocolate” voices on the alto part, and the changed voices into the respective tenor, baritone, or bass part (depending on the level of divisi we were able to achieve).
Knowing that early adolescent treble voices are versatile and should not be pigeonholed into a specific voice part, I intentionally chose quality repertoire that would not confine voice parts to a singularly low or high tessitura. Students who were in more than one ensemble with me (choir class, extracurricular honors mixed choir, and extracurricular men’s choir or women’s choir) often sang different voice parts in each ensemble. I also refused to call the parts “soprano” or “alto,” but instead referred to them as “Part One” and “Part Two.” This helped to build the confidence of the boys with unchanged voices so that they would feel less self-conscious being labeled as a “soprano,” and it also helped to reduce the dramatic diva-like symptoms of what I called “Heartbroken Soprano Syndrome [HSS].” (HSS occurs when a student who has always sung soprano, for forever and ever in her 12 years of life, is distressed when she is asked to sing a voice part other than the melody. HSS also manifests as “I can’t possibly sing as low as the Part Two students need to sing” even though the lowest note was almost always unison for Part One and Part Two – and perhaps only a B3 at that.) 😉 I’d always reassure the sufferers of HSS that this request to sing Part Two was NOT permanent and that I wanted them to try it out and check in with me every so often to let me know how they were feeling about it.
Before listening to the students sing together in the circle, I told students that I was so shy in middle school that I might have cried if asked to sing all by myself in front of my class. That’s why they were going to all sing together. (A few parents shared with me that their own shy child had relayed my story at home, relieved that they were understood.) 🙂
After listening to my students sing, I always raved to them that I was so glad that I’d gotten to hear each of their beautiful voices and I thanked them for being brave!