A spoonful of sugar: part 1

Posted on April 7, 2011

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Perhaps you remember this from around the time of our last Presidential election. The Ron Clark Academy is famous for taking hit hip-hop/R&B/rock songs and using them to help the kids understand and retain important concepts and content from the classroom. They use music to not only enrich the student’s comprehension of the subject matter, but to perhaps make the content a little more kid-friendly, aka “fun.” And based on their enthusiasm and their ability to break down some of the issues in the song above, I’d say they succeeded in accomplishing both of those objectives.

So if music can make politics more fun and accessible, why aren’t there more people using music to make MUSIC more fun/accessible/etc.?

In my work with some of our Colorado Children’s Chorale community choirs (free, non-auditioned choirs in under-resourced areas of Denver), I’ve pulled a Ron Clark twice, and with incredible results. Over a year ago, I changed the words to that popular Baby Bash song “That’s How I Go” to “That’s How I Sing,” and made all of the words about how to act in rehearsal, the excitement of performing, and how to bow and appropriately accept the audience’s applause as a member of a choir. Sounds stupid, I know. But the kids LOVED it. They couldn’t get enough of it. They constantly nagged me to get a copy of the song (I used Garage Band to re-create the whole song, then rapped and sang harmony vocals over it), so for Christmas that year, I made them all a copy. They were PUMPED.

This year, I decided to try again at a different school. At this particular school, it had been difficult to convince the kids to take a chance on singing in a choir. For many of them, singing and dancing was something they perceived to be boring or cheesy, and it wasn’t going to be something that most of them wanted to spend their time doing (side note: I can relate to that attitude towards choir). Our numbers were very low. That is, until I took Taio Cruz’s song “Dynamite” and changed the words to make it about being in the Trevista Trevoices choir. Instead of “We gon rock this club, we gon go all night, yea we gon light it up like it’s dynamite,” we sing:

“We gon rock this choir, we gon go all night

Trevoices lights it up light it’s dynamite.

Same effect as at the first school. Numbers more than QUADRUPLED what they were at the end of last year. I know for a fact that there are some kids in Trevoices that would never come if we didn’t sing that song. How do I know that? They tell me to my face. Plus, whenever I ask what their favorite song is,  the unanimous vote is for our Trevoices theme song.

Am I selling out by doing this? I would say no. But perhaps you say yes. If you think I’m selling out, let me tell you why I would disagree with you (non-musicians might want to skip number one).

  1. Both of these songs have pentatonic melodies. Last I checked, a vast majority of the repertoire in elementary music textbooks or Kodaly/Orff/etc. methods are pentatonic. When you analyze the two songs I used from a theoretical/technical standpoint, the only differences between the songs I used and the songs in textbooks are: a. one of them has some rap in it (much more rhythmically complex rap than some spoken piece you might do out of 5th grade textbook, mind you) , b. the songs I used are new, and c. the songs I used are and/or were- gasp- popular.
  2. When kids with little to no choral or corporate singing experience sing a song they know, they bring  a lot more energy than they typically do to songs that are unfamiliar to them. They get more excited. They use more air. They sing with more confidence, and they typically smile more frequently. All of those things are important for good singing and performing. You can easily use the pop stuff they know to make connections to what you want to see and hear the kids do when they sing standard choral repertoire. If you can’t get them to be enthusiastic about some random “proper” choral piece, let them sing something they know and watch them blossom.
  3. Pop music isn’t really folk music, but what no one can deny is that it functions like folk music. It’s a common language among the millions of kids and adults who listen to it. It’s comfortable, it’s comforting, and it’s familiar (in other words, it’s the opposite of what the choral experience can be for kids who aren’t familiar with the arts or being in a choir). In my experience, anything you can bring into the choral experience to make young, inexperienced kids feel more comfortable and less inhibited in rehearsals and performances will only help in the long run.

A healthy diet includes some amount of sugar, right? Our bodies can’t function without it. So why do so many in the classical music world- choral/instrumental/opera, youth/professional/amateur- have this terrible habit of running away screaming into the night at the first sight of any brand of sugar that they can’t find at their “Whole Foods” music store like they’re allergic to it? Personally, that makes no sense to me. When we do that, in my opinion, we do more harm than good to our audiences, ourselves, and worst of all, to our kids’ attitudes towards music.

So don’t ignore or disparage the music that is so near and dear to the hearts of so many of our young students regardless of whether or not you think the music is “good” or “developmentally appropriate.” Ignore their music and you ignore countless teaching opportunities. Be like Ron Clark and find creative ways to leverage kids’ passion and obsession with the music they love (no matter the genre or artist) to teach valuable musical content and concepts that will make them better performers and better people in the long run. And remember: if Ron Clark can pull off that Obama/McCain election song in his classroom (which he did), and he’s one of the dorkiest-lookin’ white dudes on the planet (which he is), anyone can.

Thanks for stopping by, Planet Earth. Come back tomorrow for part two, where I’ll share a story about what’s causing kids all over Denver to sing along with the Colorado Children’s Chorale Tour Choir this year during school assemblies…without us even having to ask them to.

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