Students, especially middle schoolers on the cusp of adulthood, long to be treated with respect and dignity; however, as music teachers, it is often tempting to search for music we think might be popular with our students regardless of musical, or spiritual, value. As soon as we recognize that kids can tell when we are trying to cater to their childishness rather than help lead them toward a mature adulthood, we can see how valuable hymns are in teaching our middle schoolers.
Music Class and the Middle Schooler
As a musical person, I have, quite naturally, been involved in and paid attention to music and my musical education for most of my life. I’ve noticed which kinds of music my teachers had us sing in music class and how effective their tactics were at engaging every student. Even those less perceptive teachers, though, recognized the creature who simply refused to sing well or sing at all: the middle schooler.
To be fair, not every middle schooler deserves to be grouped into the category of “bad music student.” In fact, I know many middle schoolers who love to sing and make music. In my experience, though, a large number of middle schoolers strongly dislike having to sit in music class or choir or a school performance (usually, instrumental music-making does not quite have the same heinous torture to it as singing). Understandably, these students have just emerged from those lower grades in which every child sang without embarrassment and have yet to overcome the peer pressure to appear cool. Trace it to whatever societal issues you will, though—the middle schooler’s less-than-eager-participation-in-music-class stereotype remains.
I’ve witnessed many tactics used to attempt to ease the pain of students in their middle school music classes. Teachers introduce all types of music like pop and rock hoping to pique the interest of their students and earn their participation. Teachers try teaching songs from popular movies or musicals, and some teachers think that if they include a song about sports, the boys will be excited to sing it.
The reality is, of course, that a student who does not want to sing will not sing no matter which music is presented to him or her. The students I teach always talk about rappers and pop singers, but even if our school subscribed to the notion that it is acceptable to teach these songs in class, I think that the actual execution of such an idea would fail. These students don’t want to learn to sing (or rap) these songs well. They simply want an excuse to not sing what they consider “boring” music and to listen to their favorite songs in class.
It is the teacher’s task to lead the student to that which is excellent. Middle schoolers who do not want to sing in choir will not sing whether it is classical music or Drake. In my admittedly limited experience, middle schoolers, both boys and girls, would rather a teacher present something meaningful and complex to them than simply cater to what the students may want. I have seen that the middle schoolers at my school at least recognize the value of good music and a strong text, especially that found in hymns. If they do not sing, it is because they do not want to sing no matter what the music, but at least they do not have to be embarrassed by being forced to learn cutesy songs with no real or true meaning in the text.
When we as teachers teach hymns to those budding adults, our students recognize that we are giving them something of value and excellence and truth. They recognize that we are indeed leading them into a mature and well prepared adulthood. They recognize that we are taking them and their abilities seriously. They recognize that they can trust their teacher because he or she not only has a sense of what is good, true, beautiful, and excellent, but is also teaching their students those things.
Forming Men and Women
The reluctance of students to sing only increases when forced to sing childish music. Although oftentimes students complain about the music they are being forced to learn and perform, they can recognize when a teacher is coddling them and when a teacher is challenging and stretching them. Students usually love and respect a teacher who stands his ground and challenges students more than a teacher who gives into what the students say they want.
Middle schoolers themselves often know that challenging, excellent music can be used to form them into mature, competent, wise, and loving men and women. Childish music that attempts to cater to the preteen or teenager mentality merely prepares these children to want childish things their whole lives and to demand that others give into these childish wants.
So teachers, teach hymns. Treat your students with love and respect by challenging them and showing them what rich, excellent, beautiful, and true texts and music look like. Help form these boys and girls into godly men and women. Believe me, it is truly what they want.
Find meaningful Christian music for your middle school choirs to sing.