A spoonful of sugar: part 2

Posted on April 8, 2011

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This is part two of a two-part thing. Here’s part 1 in case you missed it.

Part 2

This year, among lots of challenging, “legit” choral literature, our Colorado Children’s Chorale Tour Choir has Owl City’s 2009 smash hit “Fireflies” in their repertoire. When the Tour Choir performs at schools in and around Denver and they start singing “Fireflies” the faces of the kids in the audience absolutely light up, and they start to sing along. Unprompted. From 1st graders to 6th graders, kids are singing their little hearts out right along with us. There are so many kids in the audience singing during the chorus at times that you could ask the Tour Choir to stop singing and still hear every word. Some of the kids in the audiences sing it with their eyes closed. Some sing it with their arm around the person next to them. It’s absolutely precious. A few weeks ago during a CCC show I was conducting, I asked the kids in the audience how many of them knew the song “Fireflies.” Almost every hand in the whole place went up.

As I said in my last post, while popular music may not be folk music per se, you can’t deny that it functions like pop music. It’s a language all its own among those who listen to it, and if you can figure out how to tap into it as a music educator/advocate from time to time, there is tremendous power and potential in that music.

When kids hear a song like Fireflies that is so familiar, so comfortable, and so chill, their inhibitions drop, and for three minutes you have the privilege of accessing their young hearts through a seemingly obscure and irrelevant medium like a children’s choir. Suddenly, before you can even get to the song’s chorus, even the most disinterested kids in the audience open up to the possibility that maybe singing in a choir isn’t so far from their world after all.

Isn’t that what we want kids to feel when they sing classical music? Uninhibited? Comfortable? Relaxed? Don’t we want them to feel as if it’s something that they can share with the person next to them? If so, then I strongly believe that a spoonful of sugar in the music classroom/choir rehearsal can go an incredibly long way to helping the…um… “refined” sugar go down (surely you don’t think of serious classical music as medicine, do you?), and in my opinion it’s not a tactic that we should be ashamed to use. If kids aren’t uninhibited, comfortable, and relatively relaxed singing the repertoire we choose for them, then we need to figure out a way to loosen them up. Pop music, in my opinion, is a great way to do that. Sharing “musical sugar” should be an experience that both the students and the teacher can enjoy and learn from.

Here’s something I learned the hard way teaching a bunch of kids at a Title 1 school in Killeen, Texas that seemed to hate “real” music and singing when I first started working with them: when you are trying to convince kids to sing in a choir that have never really sung before, and your choir only sings stand-still, legit-ish and/or “developmentally appropriate” choral repertoire, you aren’t asking them to take a leap of faith that it might be worth their time; you’re asking them to take three leaps of faith. At least. For a great teacher, a kid might dare to take one leap of faith, but ask a kid to take two and three leaps of faith (even if they like you)? You better be a freaking super hero.

In my opinion, here are the three leaps of faith a skeptical, “normal” 21st century kid makes when joining a choir for the first time (and perhaps even when continuing with a choir after one or two years):

1.  In a world where performing is not the norm, performing is not something to fear but something to enjoy.

2. In a world where singing is not the norm, singing is not something negative to fear but something positive to enjoy both alone and with others.

3. The “serious” music we sometimes sing in choir is not something to be bored by but something worth learning and performing both alone and with others.

But here’s what’s cool: by singing music that is familiar to the kids once in a while, you can bypass all three leaps of faith and suddenly transform the choral/corporate singing experience from something that is alien to their life experience to something that is intensely personal and special. Eventually, many of them will carry those feelings over to your other repertoire too, but hey. You’ve gotta start somewhere. And in those precious moments when their inhibitions drop, boy you’d better be ready to go to work. Because it’s in those precious moments that a good musical apologist can forever alter the course of a child’s musical assumptions, prejudices, and experiences to include The Repertoire and its mediums rather than exclude it.

No pressure. 😉

Thanks again for stopping by for part two. Check back early next week for a new post. Have a great weekend, and stay classy Planet Earth!

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