One of my values as a music teacher is to use quality repertoire no matter the age or level of the students I am teaching. This can be challenging, especially for the least advanced students. There is a wealth of “educational” music published, some of it of very high quality. Even so, there is more literature for advanced students that is of high quality, probably because there are more composers who choose to right for more accomplished musicians. Be that as it may, I don’t think our younger students should have to wait years before they can “get to the good stuff.” Sometimes, in order to make quality music accessible to younger students, I edit advanced music down. I don’t mean I spend a lot of time writing out parts, or preparing manuscripts. No, instead, I judiciously select parts from the score that my students can handle and omit other parts to keep it simple.
One example of this is when I teach “Wade in the Water” to my fourth grade classes. This is a great spiritual, and certainly fourth graders can easily sing the melody in unison. My objective is to improve their part singing. There are excellent choral arrangements for SATB choir, but fourth graders aren’t ready for four-part singing. I take Moses Hogan’s excellent arrangement and teach it as an abbreviated two-part song. I transpose the music from C minor to D minor, and then use the melody and the bass line as my two vocal parts, with the bass sung up an octave.
The children love singing that bass part with its catchy syncopation and fun lead-in to the next phrase. At measure 15, the bass and melody begin again. In the original four-part version, variety is achieved in the inner voice parts. Because I omit those parts, without them the music is a literal repeat. This presents the opportunity to teach the use of expressive elements to create variety, and to practice vocal improvisation, creating rhythmic and melodic ostinatos from phrases in the lyrics. Using an arrangement in this way, unintended by the arranger, is only for instructional purposes in a classroom and never for public performance.
Other SATB publications are useful for younger students as well. I always start with the melody, and then find harmony parts that my students will be able to learn. Often, this is the alto part, or a combination of the alto and tenor parts, adjusted to the same octave. Older elementary students do quite well singing in close harmonies in the middle of their range, and the alto range is comfortable for most of the boys. Of course, none of this precludes using two-part and unison music. There are versions of many SATB publications and original music for 2-part choirs that are of high quality. Music Theater International’s Broadway Junior series stands out as being particularly good. It includes numerous musical comedies arranged for unison, two and three-part choir for the chorus parts, and the entire shows are transposed to keys for the young voice, and edited down to about one hour length. There is no need to settle for mediocre music when selecting repertoire for our students. With thoughtful selection of original works and careful editing of works for older students, we can provide high quality music for our students’ musical experiences.