Middle School Madness: Managing the Musical Menagerie

Middle School Madness: Managing the Musical Menagerie

The middle school student can be a bundle of enthusiasm, a deep thinker, an annoying eye-roller, and a ray of sunshine riding an emotional rollercoaster – simultaneously. Here are some ideas about dealing with this unique species in our ensembles, including thoughts on classroom management, lesson planning, and repertoire selection.

Who Will Sit in Those Chairs?

To start, let’s assess who will sit in these chairs and how they differ in technique and maturity. Let’s also consider those who will not be sitting in front of us in the coming months.

Differences in Technique

The motley lot before you may range from artist level to barely capable in the key of D. Those school districts that begin their string program in middle school have an advantage of a more level playing field, at least for a while! At the middle level, my main technical goal is to nurture competence with what I call “the usual suspects,” or those issues that are difficult to solidify in elementary school (if addressed at all) or which evaporate over summer vacation.

This includes: reading rhythms, reading pitches, “low 2s,” “high 3s,” vibrato, shifting, extensions, half position/third pos for basses, and fundamentals such as pitch, tone, and basic set-up.

Differences in Maturity

Oh my! We have boys with unchanged voices and those who are shaving. Some kids think deeply about philosophical issues and then fret all day about their bff. We have bodies growing in great spurts and in changing proportions.

We need to be very alert to instrument sizes, extending end pins (cello and bass), and using appropriate shoulder rests. This affects all aspects of playing including intonation. When faced with poor intonation always look beyond simple aural inattention for a physical reason as well.

Differences in Schedule

Often math or foreign language scheduling and can prevent young instrumentalists from being placed in your class. Once in a while, a student (or parent) can be convinced to study Spanish instead of French, but the bottom line is that we must embrace those in your class, and not take it personally. Often these forced-out kids will study privately and re-join when their schedule opens up. It is vital that you let them know you will miss them, and that you (or the high school teacher) will welcome them back with open arms.

Before You Meet the Kids

Your Place in the Building

If you are a traveling teacher it can be difficult to create visibility and to be a part of the school community. But the better you get to know the other teachers and staff in the building; the more you are there to contribute to committees, to the book fair, to Friday donuts; the easier it will be to get support for your program. And specifically, it will be easier to have conversations about the menagerie. Most of these teachers see the kids every day and will have insight and wisdom to share with you.

Classroom Management

This can be the scariest part for new teachers! The first step is to conform to the discipline format of the school, if it has one, such as an honor-level program or a demerit program. Support your village when you can. On the other hand, rather than posting the school rules on the wall, I simplify. My rule is: Respect each other, yourself, the environment, and your teacher. I dared them to find an issue that didn’t apply. One of the greatest middle level music teachers I have ever known distilled this even further. Her rule on the wall was: “BE NICE OR LEAVE.” Pure and simple.

Ultimately, for me, the best classroom management was to get to know each child and validate their contribution to the group. This, and a jam-packed lesson plan which strongly addressed the different levels of ability in the ensemble.

Dealing with Diversity of Technique

To me, dealing with diversity of technique means engaging the “haves” while instructing the “have-nots.”

But Engaging Everyone? Really?

Yes, everyone. We know that “Idle hands are the devil’s tools” but it has also been said that “Idle hands holding expensive instruments are the devil’s Disneyland!”

We can begin with basic differentiation (your principal will love this): You play it up an octave. You just clap the rhythm. You play only the open strings. You concentrate on your bow hold while you use vibrato. But this assumes you really know your students, that you can think fast, and deliver instructions even faster. I suggest an additional course of action – to remember that music education is about more than technique.

Let’s Take a Cue from the NAfME Standards:

  • Create (Imagine, plan and make, evaluate and refine, present)
    Try including composition/improvisation/arrangement exercises as homework outside the classroom.
  • Perform (Select, analyze, interpret, rehearse evaluate and refine, present)
    Not a problem. This is what we do.
  • Respond (Select, analyze, interpret, evaluate)
    Do we ask the students to respond? Do we listen to their responses? We can allow students to respond to spontaneous situations with thumbs up-thumbs down, or with fist to five response. Let them contribute to the interpretive process. Use a journal for responding to listening activities, rehearsing activities, post-concert evaluation/commentary, etc. I discovered that the good-old “blue book” from our college exams was by far the best journal for my classes. They can fit in the student folders and can be easily and quickly accessed. So, when you want to work for 3 or 4 minutes on that tough spot in the viola part, you can have the rest of the class write about the question of the day that is on the board.
  • Connect (Synthesize and relate with varied context)
    The more a student can connect the dots between various aspects of a piece of music, the more they will perform it accurately and musically. Knowing the context of the piece gives greater meaning to – and understanding of – what the composer is looking for in the reproduction of his/her ideas, and what the teacher is expecting of the students. This can include knowing the composer, the time period, the culture of the community, and how these aspects relate to each student and to the world around us. And don’t forget about creating multi-disciplinary units with other teachers in the building!

To generalize, delving into these parallel knowledge/skill standards not only provides essential enrichment for all students, but makes your classroom especially valuable for the student with established/advanced skill in the performing standard. Most importantly, if you ask a student what they learned in orchestra class this semester, we ideally want an answer deeper than “I learned the 2nd violin part to songs x, y, and z.”

And on the First Day of School?

My tried and true, go-to lesson plan for September, with kids I may or may not know yet, has 3 main components:


I begin the year with lots of unison. Rounds, familiar tunes, the national anthem, etc. I believe these to be much more valuable than starting with an easy orchestra arrangement which is just not fun to practice at home because you cannot appreciate the context. This also allows me to instantly address the “usual suspects” of technique that slip through the cracks. The national anthem in unison in the key of G is great for this. They have low 2, high 3, shifting in the cello/bass.

Imminent Performance

Nothing like upcoming performance to provide motivation and urgency. I have them play the national anthem in unison at the first pep assembly.

Teeny Tiny Test aka Mandatory Competence

This is a strategy I learned from my CMP friends in Iowa. I assess each student by having them play a designated spot in their music for me, usually no more than two measures, and they all have to pass it to my satisfaction. I will have 2 or 3 TTT’s (Teeny Tiny Tests) in the first 3 or 4 weeks of school. For instance, in the upper strings, in the national anthem, they must master “by the dawn’s early light” (high 3) and, “and the rockets’ red glare” (low 2).

How Do We Get the Standards into the Lesson Plan?

My teaching changed dramatically, for the better, when I discovered the comprehensive musicianship planning model advocated by the Wisconsin-MEA Comprehensive Musicianship through Performance project (CMP).

There are 5 points to this model:

  • Selection – selecting quality repertoire
  • Analysis – comprehensive score study
  • Outcomes – goals, benchmarks, objectives
  • Strategies – activities to support your outcomes
  • Assessment – determining if outcomes have been met

To go into more detail about outcomes, we articulate three types of outcomes in a CMP plan:

  • Skill – What we want the students to DO
  • Knowledge – What we want the students to KNOW, UNDERSTAND
  • Affect – What we want the students to VALUE, APPRECIATE, FEEL

After thorough score study we articulate – before we begin rehearsing – what the piece has to offer us in terms of skill, knowledge, and affect; and then we strategize accordingly. 

I am not alone in my regard for affective outcomes:

“Although skill and knowledge outcomes are the easiest to define, to observe, and to assess, they are not the real essence of the musical experience. They are not the reason most students sing in a choir or play an instrument, and they are not the reason most music teachers choose music as their profession. It is the humanity expressed through music that draws us to and sustains our relationship with this art form.” – Shaping Sound Musicians, GIA Publications

“Institutional assessment efforts should not be concerned about valuing what can be measured, but instead, about measuring that which is valued.” – T. W. Banta, J. P. Lund, K. E. Black, & F. W. Oblander

You can download the template for the comprehensive musicianship planning model here.


Let’s look at some repertoire. Here are some examples of how the CMP planning process, especially the “intentionalizing” of affective outcomes, has influenced my teaching and has created an environment with high levels of both student engagement and achievement. I will briefly indicate how I taught them more comprehensively, to address the standards, or to be more middle-school friendly.

Sahara CrossingRichard Meyer, Alfred Publishing, Grade 1
This piece greatly engages the imagination with imagery of camels and desert. Upper strings “low 1,” and cello back-extended 1 become the Teeny Tiny Test to preview technique in key of F.

Adirondack SleighrideRichard Stephan, Kjos, Grade 2
Even though their Bbs were securely established with a piece like Sahara Crossing, my students had difficulty playing in tune on this – our first foray into the key of F. Rather than giving up, or accepting questionable intonation which persisted despite all the warm-ups in the book, I decided I needed to build ramps or scaffolding to the key of F specific to this piece. By inputting the main theme into a music publishing program, I had all students learn the tune in unison in the key of D to cement it in their ears. And then I kept transposing the tune, taking away a sharp every few days until they could play it in tune in D, G, C, and F. Then, and only then, would I put the piece in their folders.

Las Mariposas Exoticas (Exotic Butterflies) Doug Spata, Alfred Publishing, Grade 2
Thanks to Linda Calhan in Ashland Wisconsin, this lesson plan includes using regular printer paper to cut out big butterflies (one per sheet) and have the students decorate them with markers and glitter glue. We then attach a pipe cleaner to the butterfly and then to the tip of the bow. This is incredibly effective during the pizzicato moments—lots of fluttering butterflies! If you cut out the butterflies from a template before class you can do this with very little class time.

Soon I Will Be Donearr. Gruselle, FJH Music, Grade 2
When we direct our students to do something, we have to ask ourselves why should they care? Why would it matter to them if they follow the dynamics and articulations? If they understand why, they will be more likely to comply and ultimately will play the piece more expressively and musically.

By sharing the text of this spiritual they can better understand the reason for the interpretive directives they have been given: “Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world,” followed by the declaration: “NO MORE weepin’ and a-wailin’…” The anticipation of release from bondage, either through escape or death, elicits a broad range of emotions, and thus a broad range of dynamics and articulations. Thanks to Patty Schlafer of Mt. Horeb. WI for this lesson.

Finale from the Posthorn Serenade Mozart/Dackow Tempo Press, Grade 3
So what the heck is a posthorn? By researching this piece before I started rehearsing it, I learned that the posthorn was a valveless horn used by mail carriers to announce the mail! That explains why the opening of both the first and second themes begin with arpeggiation. I think it is time to talk about harmonics and the harmonic series!

Variations on a Well-Known Sea Chantey arr. Richard Stephan, Kjos, Grade 3
This piece uses a different bowing/articulation for each of its variations. Another great opportunity for the Teeny Tiny Test. Also, an opportunity to explore the consequences of letting down a team (like your orchestra!) They way I teach this lyric is “What shall we do with a lazy sailor.”

Several of these titles are now in SmartMusic.Try the new SmartMusic for free!

Some Quick Philosophy

Cautious? Frustrated? Terrified? Read Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach:

“As good teachers weave the fabric that joins them with students and subjects, the heart is the loom on which threads are tied, the tension is held, the shuttle flies, and the fabric is stretched tight. Small wonder then, that teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart – and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be. The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that the teacher and student and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require.”

Bottom Line: Embrace the Madness

The middle school child is a unique creature. Because of my advancing years, I look back and realize that I was never a “middle school” student. I was a “junior high” student. We were treated like high school students, but with easier curricula. We were being trained for high school. And I remember those years not at all fondly. They were dark and dreary. Middle schoolers are what they are, and we must embrace them as they are and celebrate them for what they are. By enjoying their quirks and allowing their oddities to become a part of the culture in your room, you can enjoy their spirit, their imagination, their spontaneity, their loyalty, their passion and their playfulness each and every day.

Carrie Lane Gruselle

Carrie Lane Gruselle is a native of Stevens Point, Wisconsin. She received a Bachelor of Music Education degree from the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, and a Master of Music Education degree, Suzuki Emphasis, from the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. Ms. Gruselle currently teaches elementary and middle-level strings for the Appleton Area School District in Appleton, Wisconsin, and teaches for the Lawrence University Academy of Music. Her arrangements and compositions for beginning and developing string players have been performed across the nation and in Australia.

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