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You might be surprised at what a group of singing middle schoolers can accomplish.
Under the guidance of teacher Judy Abrams, the Tyl Middle School Chamber Choir has won three gold medals and one platinum medal at the Great East Music Festival-a medal for each year the extracurricular group has existed. They've sung the national anthem for the Harlem Globetrotters, the Providence Bruins and the Hartford Wolf Pack. They performed at the Olde Mistick Village Festival of Lights and were asked to sing Christmas carols with the New London Community Orchestra, an opportunity they lost because of an ice storm. They sang at the state capital and in a hot dog restaurant and at the Montville Senior Center.
In addition to creating the 30-person, audition-only chamber choir four years ago, Abrams has taught music at Tyl for 20 years. She teaches 6th, 7th and 8th grade chorus-each with approximately 85 to 100 students-as well as a general music class called Adventures in Music. We caught up with Abrams last week to ask about the program.
Q: What do you think it is about the chamber choir that has led to the kind of recognition they've received?
A: They love to sing. They like music, they like each other. They're like a family and I really encourage the whole family atmosphere. We do team-building games together-silly, non-musical games that we play.
We'll do crazy music singing things, because they can and they have the ability to do. So I stretch them more … they're able, in that time, to learn concepts that are more rigorous. They just have the drive. They want to sing, they want to sing difficult things.
They know that their job is to communicate the meaning of the text that the composer and the lyricist have written to the audience. I tell them all the time anyone can sing words and notes, but musicians make music.
Q: Why are music programs like this important for kids?
A: I see students who don't really feel like they belong anywhere else in school, but they belong when they come to chorus. That they have a voice. I tell them that they just have to try. They don't have to be the next American Idol to get an A, they just need to give me their best.
One student said to me, that's the first time I've ever got an A. And I said, "that's because you earned this A. I don't give you your grades, you earn them if you try hard and you have a good attitude and you're willing to take (gentle) correction."
I like to showcase kids. So we have a lot of small groups and solos to encourage the kids to sing. But they don't have to (do that).
Q: Why do you always have the choruses perform songs in a foreign language?
A: For their music education, but mostly because I want them to be world thinkers. I want them to realize they're part of a larger world, and a lot of times when you're an adolescent, your world revolves around you.
This gets them to think outside themselves. We learn about the country, we learn about the culture, and we make the song as authentic as possible.
In the past four years, we've sung in Japanese, Italian, Greek, Latin, French, Spanish. This year, some eighth grade girls in the winter time did a special piece in fifteenth-century Catalonian Spanish. And last year we did an Arabic love song.
I was able to Skype the arranger of (that song). And I got the girls out of a class, they came to my room and the kids sang for her. And she'd say, "Ok, do it this way," and we'd do it that way … that was really fun.
Q: Are there any accomplishments are you particularly proud of?
A: That I have students who can sing a cappella in tune. Especially with my chamber choir-we're working on it with the other groups, but especially the chamber choir. And that's huge.
I'm proud of the fact that I have boys that are finding where their new voice is when their voice has changed, and how I can help them make that transition. And then how to sing through that, in the middle, when you're not quite high or quite low.
It's challenging to be a boy in middle school, when you're self-conscious anyway, and then to get this squeak that comes out of your voice, it's challenging for them. But we let them know it's OK.
I think one of the other accomplishments is that … they know I care about them (and that) it's OK to make a mistake in class. Just sing it strong, and if it's wrong, we can correct it.