Want the boys in your choir? Challenge them!

Use a competitive challenge system to motivate and teach

A number of people over the last few years have asked me to write down the concepts I use with my Middle School Choirs. The Choirs are grounded on a highly competitive challenge system where students challenge each other on rhythmic clapping, sight singing, ear training and a myriad of music knowledge concepts. Students that go through the system usually have a good grounding in music theory and sight read reasonably well.

When I came out of college over thirty-five years ago I was, like most music grads, well equipped to work with a good mixed choir.  Standing in front of a junior high choir for the first time, however, was quite a cultural shock.   Somehow I survived the first few years and convinced an administrator who was up to the challenge that I should have the boys and girls in separate choirs. I was unaware of the literature on the subject but knew that there had to be a better way than what I was doing.

I will skip the background information on why a Changing Voice Boys Choir is a good idea vocally. That information is well documented and available elsewhere.  Be aware that Title Nine does not prohibit a choir organized around voice quality, range and tessitura. Some administrators, unlike the ones I was blessed with initially, will use that as an out. On the other hand setting the up schedule will involve a little extra work.

From here on I will be writing as if I am speaking of a boy’s choir, even though the girl’s choir is run in much the same manner. The girl’s choir will utilize fewer competitive challenges and a little more vocalization and somewhat more difficult literature. The competitive aspects of the challenges using music theory seem, especially, to hold the boys interest in choir during a time when their changing voices lead them to doubt their singing abilities.

A Normal Rehearsal

A typical day in the middle of the year will find the students entering class and immediately looking to the board where I have written the skills to be challenged on that day. Usually it will be a short four bar melody like Example #5 in Appendix A.  The room will erupt with a wonderful cacophony as the students all begin to clap and count the rhythm. During this time attendance is being taken and whatever disasters there are, are taken care of. After a minute of two I will move to between the sight line of the boys to the board and clap my hands twice. The room becomes silent and anywhere from five to twenty hands go up struggling to gain my attention and be called upon to challenge one of their peers. I will call on a student, say Joe. Joe indicates that he is going to challenge Bill, another student that sits above him in his section. Bill must clap and count the rhythm first. Joe goes second. I then must call the challenge a “switch, stay, or draw.” On a switch Joe has won by performing the challenge better and the boys change places. On a stay Bill has performed better, on a draw they are about equal and on both of these they remain in their places. If both are perfect, then the faster temp wins.  I will then take another couple of challenges. As those of you who teach junior high know, after 2 or 3 minutes of an activity the group will become restless unless you change the activity in some way. Then I would ask one of the boys who clapped the exercise correctly to clap the rhythm while the rest of the boys count it. Unless the choir is filled with the fear of death in your presence, group clapping can be risky business and the group can get away from you.

I would than explain the tonality, get their heads into it by singing the syllables do re mi do re ti (below do) do, and then give the boys a minute or two to practice the exercise. I will have some comments on numbers versus syllables later. I try hard to keep the exercises in a key that all the boys can sing. Bb is the key that works most often. If we have one that is outside of some of their ranges I will tell them to use whatever key feels good to them and I will not set a key. I let the boys help each other and walk around the room trying to reawaken those who look like they are daydreaming. Again you get this wonderful cacophony as each boy struggles to learn the exercise so that he can either defend himself or get back at the boy that got him yesterday. There are some times when you will have to talk about friendly competition, like a game of touch football, if there is some evidence of mean spirited competition. After 2-4 challenges the entire group will sing the exercise.

Sight-read the music you will perform

Unless we are within about two weeks of a concert, skills games will take up around 1/3 to 1/2 of the rehearsal. The rest of time is spent working on the music. You will find a list of music I use with the Changing Voice Boys Choir in Appendix B. When we are learning new music (which is most of the time) the rehearsal part of the period begins by attacking a short phrase – four bars or so. Their parts are pointed out and they again are given time to prepare their challenge. The challenge could be clapping the rhythm or singing their part on numbers or syllables. As they begin to work ask, “Who needs help?” Move around the room helping those who request it and checking on those whom you think need help anyway. Remember, finding your way around a choral score the first couple of times is not easy. Some of the boys, of course, will not be on the correct page. You will find many of the boys beginning to pencil in numbers or syllables at this point. They’ll usually start to do it on their own, but if they don’t you might point out they have a better chance of winning if they do – just ask them not to use pens. After some encouragement you will see the scores begin to fill up with markings.  I suggest to the students that use only the starting letter of the syllable unless it is chromatic.  After this study period I would clap twice to regain the attention of the class. The same challenge format is used. Play a note or two of the part for each boy so the right tonality is reestablished. Of the few teachers working on sight-reading I find too many of them work on sight-reading exercises and then teach the music by rote. Why not sight-read the music?  The kids then will know why they are working on the sight-reading.

“Cheat Sheets”

When the boys walk in the first day I give them a sheet of paper that we have come to call “cheat sheets”. It has key signatures, note values, letter names of the staff, and the keyboard on it. The boys started writing down answers to the current challenge on the this piece of paper and eventually we evolved an allowed use of “cheat sheets.” When the challenge is on chords, key signatures or lines of spaces of the staff I let the boys write down the answer on any piece of paper. These “cheat sheets” are then allowed on the first couple of challenges and then later not allowed. This is another way of keeping the beginning students with you while still challenging the more experienced students.

Starting the year

At the beginning of the year I will first voice the choir using a method similar to Irvin Cooper’s classification technique for large groups. First have all the boys sing “My Country Tis of Thee” in the key of Bb. I will usually have them stand in a circle for this.  Move around the room tapping on the shoulder those who are singing in the lower octave. Each boy should stop singing when tapped on the shoulder.  These are the changed voices and should remain silent for the rest of the classification. The remaining boys sing in the key of F.  Those singing in the upper octave are tapped and asked to be silent. These are the unchanged voices. The boys left are changing voices and should be able to sing the song in the key of Ab. This usually works with about 70-80% of the students. The rest of the kids I have to figure out by “hunt and peck.”  The boys choir is not selective. We take anyone who walks through the door.  Those who are having trouble matching pitch are a little harder to figure out, but this can get you up and running in a very short time.

After voicing is complete we will sing a simple song using numbers with the boys following my finger symbols. The eighth graders have been through this of course, so it works just fine. I will inform them at this point that it’s obvious to me that they can all sight-read music. They’ve just done it. Now all they have to do is learn the symbols. We will then start the challenges using simple whole notes for pitches and rudimentary rhythm exercises. For a couple of days first year students can only challenge first year, and second year to second year. If a first year student would like to challenge a second year, he may, but then he is no longer protected and opens himself up to challenge from all second year students.


LINES AND SPACES – Put a grand staff on the board. Put 10-12 whole notes on it, each in its own numbered measure as in Example #6 in Appendix A. Give study time. Take a challenge. Start the challenge by putting your hand up in a stop position and say, “Ready … Number … 9!  Drop your hand as you say “9”.  The first person to answer correctly wins or the first person to answer incorrectly loses. Take a few challenges with and without “cheat sheets”. Then “call” a few that are not on the board. Take a challenge. “Ready … bass clef … 3rd space.”

KEY SIGNATURES – List 8-10 key signatures on the board as in Example #7 in Appendix A. Give study time. First allow challenges with “cheat sheets”, then without. Take the challenge. “Ready … number … 4!” The first person to answer correctly wins and an incorrect answer loses. These go pretty fast. Then try “calling” key signatures not listed on the board. Then provide the answer and make the challengers provide the question. That is, you give the name of the key and the challengers must answer with the number of sharps or flats in the key signature. I introduce minor keys about mid-year.

WRITTEN INTERVALS – I don’t use written intervals very much, mostly as an introduction to aural intervals. Write 6-10 intervals on the board numbering each interval. Don’t worry about using sharps and flats to make each interval major or perfect, you can add that later. Just get the concept of space across. Use the same challenge call as in keys.

AURAL INTERVALS – Play an interval, notes apart … notes together … notes apart. Let all the boys think about what it is. Take the challenge. “Ready … GO”. The first person to answer correctly wins and an incorrect answer loses. This is great in a planned part of the rehearsal but also good for fitting into awkward little pieces of the period, like the last 45 seconds. Early on play only major and perfect intervals. Later add minor, augmented and diminished. I usually add 9ths and 10ths quite early.

CHORDS – Put 8-10 chords on the board. Mix in root position, 1st and 2nd inversion. Give the boys some time to study and help each other. Ask for their attention. Take a challenge. “Ready … Number … 6!” The first person to answer correctly wins and an incorrect answer loses. First allow “cheat sheets” then without. As with written intervals when you first introduce chord study leave off all sharps and flats, what we call “not having to be spelled correctly.” Not quite right, I know, but that’s how it evolved. Later put them in. We would use only root position chords at first, not spelled correctly then quickly add inversions and after a week or so introduce why correct spelling is necessary. The notes in major scales make major chords is usually a good way to explain it at first. After a few challenges call for a challenge on spelling the chords. You call the chord, “Ready … Eb – 1st” and first person to answer correctly wins or the person who answers incorrectly loses. First not spelled correctly and after a few challenges spelled correctly.

When I start with chords and inversions I just want the kids to understand the concept of space. Talk about any three notes being a chord and musicians being able to build a “good” sounding chord by using a triad chord. We will be using triads but calling them simply chords.

SEVENTH CHORDS – The challenge would go the same for seventh chords as for chords as discussed above. When you introduce them play through part of a circle of fifths and listen as each triad chord becomes unstable as the seventh is added and where it wants to go or resolve.

RHYTHMIC DICTATION – State a time signature. Count a measure. Clap a rhythm problem. Very short, perhaps only one measure. Take a challenge. Highest chair tells you what the notes are, than the challenger. You can also try having the boys write them on the board.

MELODIC DICTATION – Tell the boys that you are going to have melodic dictation. Using a model you have drawn on the board, have them get a two measure staff ready. Tell them what the key signature and time signatures are and give them the first note. Play the example through, play each measure separately, and then play the whole example again. Take a challenge. Have the two boys write their answers on the board. This does take awhile.

MINOR MELODIES – Minor melodies usually come later in the year. Use the same procedure as the challenge in the opening of this article. Introduce minor by singing do re mi do re ti (below do) do, (and then continuing below do) ti la sol la ti sol la ti do (above do) re mi (below) la ti sol la. Talk about which note felt like the most important note in your head after the first seven notes and which note feels like the most important note in your head at the end of the phrase.

PLAYING THE VISUALIZER – I use a Keynote Visualizer constantly, to demonstrate concepts. It is a wonderful machine that displays the notes on a grand staff as you play them on the keyboard. It was originally manufactured by Wurlitzer but is now handled by SCI Music Products; 730 NE 15 St; Owatonna, MN 55060 (on the web at: thevisualizer.com). In order to use it as a challenge game first take a “Visualizer challenge.” The two boys come up to the

Visualizer keyboard. Call the note (or the chord or the interval). “Ready … f.” Hold the notes played on the display so the class can see the results. First correct answer wins, first incorrect answer losses. You can use piano but the fact that the Visualizer can display the notes makes it easier for the rest of the class to “keep their head in the game.”

FIND YOUR WAY AROUND THE MUSIC – Take a challenge. Call slowly “page 5, bottom system, 3rd measure, changing voice part, second note, … what’s the pitch number” or “how long is it held.” You can also ask general questions like what’s the key, or the time signature, or how long is dotted half note held or what syllable or number would a “g” be.

NEW MUSIC – As discussed earlier, announce four measures that you think the boys can sight-read. Make sure they know which syllable or number they start on. Give them time to practice. Ask, “Who needs help.” Move around the room helping those who are lost. When ready call for challenges. Give each boy 2 or 3 notes to establish tonality.

MUSIC UNDER REHEARSAL – Tell the boys to listen to the persons around them. If they think that they can do a part right that someone else is making a mistake on “challenges will be allowed after we finish the song.” Watch what that does to concentration. You can pick or let them pick the part they wish to challenge on. You may have to adjust their choice at times if it is an awkward phrase. Give each boy 2 or 3 notes to establish tonality.

MEMORIZATION – When you are getting closer to a concert, announce that after singing the song this time you will allow memory challenges. After the challenge is called let the boys look at that particular section for about ten seconds and then let them start. Announce that they must keep their eyes up during the challenge. If they look down they will be disqualified. This will avoid problems with “stealing a look.”  Any skill or piece of knowledge will work for challenges, not just the ones I use. Let me know what works for you.


Numbers versus Syllables – When I started teaching I liked to use numbers rather than syllables at the beginning of each year because it seemed to make talking about and demonstrating music theory easier for the boys. An interval of the fifth is from one to five. A triad chord is made up of three notes a third apart; a V chord is based on the fifth note of the scale. A jazz chord might have a ninth in it and a seventh chord has an added note seven notes away from the root, etc. The boys could be sight-reading from day one using numbers where it took them longer to learn the system of syllables. We sang sen instead of seven to avoid the problem of having two syllables on one note. I introduced solfege after a few weeks and gradually shifted emphasis away from numbers as the year went on.  Later in my career the Elementary Schools began using Solfege and I reduced my use of numbers to what seemed appropriate to teach theory concepts.  I highly recommend using the solfege hand signs.

I think it is a good idea to sing on syllables (or numbers) and words throughout the course of a piece of music’s life in your rehearsal. Even when close to performance it does not hurt to go back and use syllables again. It will help keep those boys on the part that are inclined to drift back to the melody line.

When using the more difficult challenges pick first on boys that you think have a chance of doing the challenge correctly and later on the more marginal students. You will have modeling going for you this way and the other way the boys will be likely to make fun of the music because they know they cannot do it. All people have a tendency to do this you know, not just junior high boys.

If not many boys are challenging, the challenge is too difficult. Either ease up or put two exercises on the board, one easier and one more difficult.

You should probably cultivate the habit of double speak. Nothing Orwelian here, but talking about music and musical terms in more than one way at a time. That way you can keep the beginners with you while moving the more advanced singers along. (i.e.  “Start at the bird’s eye, the fermata.” or “Begin at the top of page two, the pick up to the second bar, on the word ‘Stars’.”

Sections of a Middle School Boys Choir

Our sections are unchanged, changing and changed voices. I try to move boys whenever I hear that moving to a different section is called for. Still there are some times when a boy has trouble singing the notes in a part. Maybe it’s four days before a concert and he doesn’t have time to learn the new part. Maybe he’s just fallen between the cracks for a time. Talk about “it’s OK to drop out if notes are too high or too low. Also talk about high voice. A lot of rock groups make a lot of trips to the bank because they sing in high voice.

I generally revoice the choirs after each concert. This time I don’t use the group classification technique but take the time to listen to each student. I generally do this, in class, by passing a sol fa mi re do around each section in different keys. With boys it’s to make sure they’re in the right section and with the girls it’s to move them around and not get them locked into the same section all the time. The nice thing about listening to challenges every day, however, is that you can be moving singers whenever you hear problems develop. In the boy’s choir I am moving a kid to a different section at least once every two weeks.

The seating chart for the choir will have the customary four rows with each section using all four rows arranged vertically. The changed voice section is in the middle of the choir early in the year because that is usually the smallest and weakest section.  The unchanged will be in the middle from about mid-year to the end of the year. Row  4, seat 1 is the top chair in each section. The fact that the strongest singers are in the back row will also help the other boys learn music. I use a spreadsheet to keep the seating chart current because the word processor on my computer software is not very good when using columns. I change the names by pencil during the rehearsal and redo them on the computer every couple days.

Middle School Boys Choir Seating Chart

Unchanged Section    Changed Section     Changing Section

Row 4        |  6 5 4 3 2 1          |     1 2 3                   |    1 2 3 4 5

Row 3        |     5 4 3 2 1          |     1 2 3 4                |    1 2 3 4 5

Row 2         | 6 5 4 3 2 1          |     1 2 3                   |    1 2 3 4

Row 1        |  6 5 4 3 2 1          |     1 2 3 4                |    1 2 3 4 5


When things get a little too complacent, everybody seems to be sitting exactly where they want to be and there are not many challenges being made I will throw in a “row challenge.” Starting with row 4 each row in turn claps a rhythm or sings an exercise.  When a whole row gets switched there will be a flurry of activity again.

Continue the challenge type of game by using a correct answer to dismiss a row or section at the end of class.

Never ask for things that cannot be done. For example, never ask for it to be quiet when you are passing out music. Wait until the music is out and then ask for quiet. If someone enters the room wait until they are seated before proceeding. If someone is talking, wait before you continue … in mid-sentence if necessary. Look to see who is talking, but don’t always look too fast. Sometimes it is better not to catch and deal with an insignificant problem. As you slowly react to the disturbance and look for it allow the person to be aware that you are looking and to be quiet without getting caught, thinking that they got away with something. Many times what might happen is worse than what happens.

If no one volunteers a challenge then I get to call one. I usually call on better students in this situation. If a boy thinks he is going to embarrass himself because his skills are not good enough he is allowed to “forfeit” whenever he wants. I encourage them to  “give it a try” because they usually are better than they think. The second boy must perform the challenge even if the first boy forfeits. If both boys forfeit I usually move them to the end of the section.

Do challenges hurt the self-esteem of some of the boys? No more, I think that life in general. We are always comparing ourselves with others in order to find out what our capabilities are. There are some ways in which you can buffer the boys. I tell the seventh graders that they are up for “tough sledding” because the eighth graders have been through most of the material already and that they cannot expect to be too successful unless they work pretty hard, are lucky, or both. Tell the boys that those who have had experience, especially piano experience, have an advantage and that they have to take their victories and defeats with a grain of salt. Tell them that at their age their voices may go through a period where nothing seems to work right. Stress that this is normal and all of their fathers, brothers and every other man from the beginning of time has lived through it, but that it might account for some singing problems for temporary periods of time. Tell them that not everyone has the same kind of talent. Just as in football some people make better blockers, some better passers and some better runners because of their abilities and attributes, also in music some will be better at rhythm, some better at figuring music out and some better at pitch.

Don’t be afraid to talk about football, ask how the deer hunting went, or opening fishing, etc., whatever is something that guys do in your locale. I think some music teachers tend to be too prissy with boys. Boys want to know that it’s all right for guys to sing.

I create whatever material I put on the board on the spur of the moment. I find that I spend too much time looking through a book for the “right” exercise otherwise. You can also use material related to songs you’re using at the moment. For those of you not wishing to start cold I have included some examples of the kinds of things I use in Appendix A.

WE ARE IN THE BUSINESS OF HELPING STUDENTS TO EXPERIENCE SUCCESS IN MAKING AND LEARNING MUSIC. WE WANT THEM TO BECOME CONFIDENT OF USING THEIR SKILLS. We are NOT in the business of tricking students. I have seen teachers and especially student teachers use material that students could not handle. Sometimes it seems as if it is a contest between the teacher and the students and the teacher must win to prove they are better. You may want to challenge students, take them one step beyond where they are and keep them interested, but you do no want to reinforce their fears that they cannot do this. BUILD ON SUCCESS!!


Stan Carlson
104 Park Road
Staples, MN  56479
218 894-1899
Rev 6June00