A Context for some Productive Music Lessons

2011Symposium_1_2Throughout the school year, one of my biggest challenges is getting my eighth graders to sing. Apart from  rapping their favorite songs, many students this age are not interested in singing unless they have a specific interest in music. There are always the choir students who do like to sing, of course, but for the rest, they are happy to play, respond to, evaluate, improvise and compose, but not sing. In spite of this, as the last marking period gets underway, I and they must turn our attention to preparing for graduation. It is the custom at my school to have the entire graduating class sing a song together at the graduation ceremony. This wonderful custom sets the stage for a unit of culminating activities and new learning related to singing that would otherwise be much more difficult. Because the students must sing this song, they have an interest in singing it well, and in learning how to sing better. For many of them, it will be the first time they have sung in public, so there is still plenty of reluctance going into the unit of study, but soon they become invested in learning to sing better, developing their singing voices, and becoming proficient in singing the song.

I use the opportunity to teach them vocal exercises for deep breathing, vocal production, using a continuous flow of air, vowel production, consonants as articulators, and managing upper, middle, and low registers. While none of this is really new to them, because they have been learning these things since first grade, this time of the year breathes new life into the singing skills of non-chorusters after they have been left underused for much of the year by many of the students, and reinforces the techniques of singers who do sing in chorus, or, as many do, in their church choir, all-city choir, or an excellent local boys or girls choir.  Though most do not become conservatory-ready singers, they do improve enough to overcome their initial reluctance and ultimately enjoy the performance for friends, familiy and teachers on graduation night.

The selecting of the song to be sung at graduation also provides an opportunity for the students to practice the selecting repertoire to perform piece of the core arts standards for music. The first step in this is to have thegraduation students develop criteria to be used in selecting a graduation song. Students have a pretty good idea of what is and is not best for a graduation, and are able to agree on some things to look for. This year’s class came up with four criteria: the song must have happy,  hopeful words, must have words about having achieved, have no profanity in the words, and must be in a popular style. It is always interesting to me that although many of these students listen to rap music regularly, rarely do they suggest a rap song for graduation. Part of this is because it is hard to find one without profanity, but they also seem to sense that a softer touch is needed for graduation, and tend to favor pop and gospel styles to more edgy musical idioms. I have two eighth grade classes, so each class goes through the process of developing their own criteria, and selecting 1-3 songs that fit those criteria. All of the songs that meet the criteria are then put before both classes and voted on. The most popular song is the one they sing at graduation. In addition, the graduation also provides a venue for one student to sing a solo. Sometimes this is a student who is active in the music program, and has sung solo before, but often it is a student who has an excellent singing voice but hadn’t sung for the school community before. The added notoriety and pleasure this solo opportunity brings these kinds of students is a very positive added benefit of graduation.

While graduation can easily become an unwelcome chore tacked on to the end of the year, seen in a constructive perspective, it can be a positive force on your music program, and an exciting and memorable musical experience for your students. It just makes good sense to get the most “bang for your buck” out of everything you do, and graduation has the potential to be highly worth while.

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