Frequently I hear people my age talking about how much things have changed in our lifetime. These conversations inevitably arrive at a statement of how much better things were then than now. Of course, things weren’t as great then as we remember them. That’s what makes our memories nostalgic. There is one thing, though, that by and large has been lost—families singing together, gathered around a piano or guitar. I remember every Sunday afternoon, my Dad would get out his guitar, and with my Mom and younger brother, we would sit on the floor in the living room and sing folk songs together, often in front of a fire in the fireplace during the colder months. It was great. I loved the singing, and I loved us all being together. Later in my college years, I remember get-togethers around the holidays. Because we were all music students, someone among our company always played piano, so we would invariably gather around it and sing at the top of our lungs our favorite songs. It didn’t matter to us how we sounded, it was just plain fun singing together.
Back when pianos were more common in homes than phonographs, music publishers were the main purveyors of commercial music. Instead of buying the latest CD or MP3, people bought the latest hits in printed music, took them home, and played them on their pianos. Families provided their own entertainment. Though I never heard them, my Dad has told me that his parents frequently played music together, his Mom playing piano, and his Dad on the violin. I still have some of my Grandfather’s old music books, full of fox trots and 2-steps that he played while Grandma accompanied him on the piano. And who can forget the famous Danhauser painting of Liszt at the piano surrounded by Dumas, George Sand, Berlioz, Paganini and Rossini.
There is a kind of community bonding that takes place when people make music together. Music brings out expressiveness that becomes all the more powerful when multiplied by others singing or playing with you. Students in our school ensembles experience the power of making music with others, and of the closer relationships that tend to form between members of ensembles. One has only to look in on the band or choir students gathering in their rehearsal rooms over lunch, many times with the teacher, realize the unifying affect of community music making. Sometimes, we can provide opportunities to make music in community that rise above the everyday ensemble experiences. For years, the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) has sponsored “The World’s Largest Concert.” Children from schools all over the country sing a concert, led by a video feed, so that they all sing the same songs at the same time.
The district in which I teach, a large urban district, holds a similar event each March. We call it “Spring Sing.” A repertoire of music is chosen, music teachers across the city teach the songs to up to 35 students each, and then hundreds of children go to a large auditorium and sing the repertoire together. Music teachers take turns conducting and accompanying, and children from one or two schools at a time come to the front to lead the singing for one of the songs. The event is open to the public, and school VIPs are invited, and frequently attend. Doing our own event enables us to select our own theme, and have control over what music is used. We always include one song in Spanish, some songs in two or three parts, and others in unison, so that children from grades 3-6 can participate. In addition to being a lot of fun, the event calls attention to the benefits of community singing. Children love the event. Young children look forward to getting old enough to participate, and those that have gone before excitedly look forward to going again. I have students eager to go for their third year in a row.
Big events such as these draw attention to community singing, but what about the rest of the year? I often encourage my students to sing for their parents or other family members at home. They are often excited to tell me they have sung a song they learned in music class for their parents. When children really love to sing, they are eager to sing for anyone who will listen. Today, I was reviewing a song I had taught my fifth grades last week. They have taken to the song quickly, and enjoy singing it. In fact, once we had corrected some rough spots, they wanted to keep on singing it. We sang it five times from beginning to end, and then, just after I had collected the music, their classroom teacher arrived. They wanted to sing it for her, and assured me (anticipating I would object to passing the music out again) that they had it memorized. The teacher agreed to listen, and so they sang it, full of joy, energy, and delight. The teacher was still smiling about it at the end of the day. This kind of experience can only come out of singing with others, out of community singing. Keep the children singing. Their music is one of our greatest assets.