A music teacher recently asked for suggestions on how to teach The Star Spangled Banner to her kindergarten and first grade classes. She didn’t say why she wanted to do this. Perhaps she was asked to have her youngest children sing it for a program, or perhaps she just felt it could never be too soon to teach their country’s national anthem. To be honest, I had never considered teaching The Star Spangled Banner to children so young; it encompasses a range of an octave plus a perfect fifth, and is a challenge for adults to sing well, let alone 5 or 6 year old children. It even has a secondary dominant that introduces #^4 to the melody in the very first phrase. It’s enough to make any Kodaly teacher cringe! If dissuading this teacher from pursuing her plan of teaching the song to those children was not an option, I would support other ways of handling the song that avoided having to attempt its formidable challenges. For example, the children could chant the words in rhythm. They could be told the story with vocabulary they can understand, and then set to expressing the story through movement while listening to the music. Or, it could simply be used as a song tale, sung by the teacher for the class to listen to. The seeds of learning the song would be planted for a future year when their voices and audiation skills were suitably developed to negotiate the range and pitch set.
While it is true that the Star Spangled Banner is unquestionably on the list of songs every American school student should know, it is not necessary to teach such a difficult song to such young children. They can study the singing of it when they are in upper elementary or middle school grades. The question of how to teach a song must always be considered along with the related question of when to teach a song. In fact, this principle equally applies to any number of other concepts. Surely, if you follow the Kodaly pitch sequence, you would not teach the tritone to a first grader, but would not hesitate to do so with a high school junior or senior (especially if they were cast as Tony in West Side Story).
Because one of the purposes of music is to celebrate occasions and holidays, and because most schools, especially elementary schools, have music classes for children, when the need arises for singing for an event or occasion, music teachers are from time to time asked to prepare children for singing engagements which may not be developmentally appropriate or which may come at an inopportune time within the year’s curriculum sequence. When this occurs, whenever possible it is a good idea to create a context in which the request can be fulfilled in a developmentally appropriate way, or in altering the request to something more educationally sound. For example, getting back to the Star Spangled Banner, if I were required to have a first grade perform it, I might have them chant the words in rhythm while I played the music instrumentally in the background. I might also display children’s crayon drawings of a fort under rocket siege as part of my presentation. If pressed, I would explain the impossibility of children that young singing The Star Spangled Banner successfully, or of getting anything positive out of attempting to learn to do so. We surely wouldn’t ask a child that age to recite Shakespeare or Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake; it is just as unreasonable to ask a child to sing The Star Spangled Banner. The argument must be made.
The point now must be made that there is nothing wrong with using music with children that is too difficult for them to sing, as long as they are not asked to sing it. Many songs should be presented to children to hear, respond to, and audiate that they will not sing perhaps for another year or two. It is good pedagogy to familiarize children with songs of varying tonalities and meters, and containing many rhythm and tonal patterns so that these become familiar, even before teaching them as material to be sung. Words to a song chanted in rhythm, as noted above, is an excellent readiness activity to precede singing the song to a class. The children can then recognize the rhythm patterns as they listen to the entire song sung by their teacher. Rhythm patterns learned this way can also be clapped or played on drums, and even used as ostinato accompaniments for repeated performances by the teacher. All of this is building musicianship with advanced repertoire without asking the children to do something, like sing intervals of an octave or greater, before they are ready to do so. In fact, children should regularly be introduced to new concepts this way before they are asked to perform them.
A related principle is that tonal and rhythm patterns that children have become familiar with through musical experiences outside of school can be used to good advantage in the music class. My older students never tire of sharing with me their favorite rap beats that they have learned simply by listening to rap songs by their favorite artists. This is a great foundation from which improvised drum circle performance can be built. Students naturally organize themselves into leader-follower relationships, and teach each other patterns to expand what started as a solo drummer. Contrast this to a music teacher who tries to teach rap drum beats by passing out notated rhythms and requiring that students learn the patterns from notation. Teaching rhythm notation from rap beats is likely too big a jump in music reading proficiency. Students will always be, and should always be more advanced in their aural learning than in their notational learning.
These students also enjoy singing songs they have learned through listening. This joy of music making can be a starting point from which other songs can be introduced. For example, teaching the guitar chords or keyboard chords to another song by their favorite singer sets up the ability for a friend or two to collaborate with the singer and make a joyful solo into a fun group music-making experience.
Keeping instruction developmentally appropriate, relevant, and within the context of well planned and sequenced instruction is of paramount importance. While administrators or civic leaders may be well versed in what poems and proclamations students can read publicly, it is likely they are not knowledgeable in what children of a given age can be expected to do musically. We must be true to our wisdom, realistic in our expectations, and consistent with our curriculum as we navigate requests for our students to perform. Getting students out into our communities to sing and play music is a great way to promote our music programs and to enrich the experiences we provide within our schools, but we must manage these opportunities with wisdom.