Singing with fifth graders

This past week I wrapped up a several-week engagement at Harmony School teaching five fifth graders how to sing. It was a fun, challenging, eye-opening experience.

The teacher, Kathy Boone, approached me after Lara Weaver (who she’d worked with when Upstart was big Back in the Day) referred her to me. Kathy had a stack of songs that Upstart had shared with a class back in the ’90s and described briefly how they had come up with these fun and energetic exercises for the kids. My heart sank. I don’t have fun and energetic exercises. I just have me.

But we shall soldier on! I explained that my approach was more formal. Kathy was very supportive, bless ‘er. So on we went.

I met with the girls three times a week for several weeks, teaching them basics like “barrel breathing” rather than “bellows breathing,” “breathing in the flower breath,” onset articulation, hearing a starting pitch in your head before onsetting, and more.

They had never sung harmony before, so to start them off I split the group into threes and placed each sub-set around the room so we were apart from each other (Kathy and I sang with the girls throughout the class). We then sang a simple chord pitch and slowly moved towards the center of the classroom when we could hold our own notes and hear the other pitches in the chord. They really liked that. Oh, and we also worked on unison, which was really great because we were able to get some lovely resonance going. I thought later that I should’ve had an exercise where we raised our hand when we heard the resonance kick in so we could train our ears, but maybe that’s too advanced.

Anyway, after warm-ups we’d review the previous day’s song and then learn a new one. One was a two-song medley of Hey Mama (a Pagan chant by Gypsy) and Mother I Feel You Under My Feet (by a woman whose name escapes me but she’s a writer for the women’s music movement, not a Native American, as is so often claimed). (I just linked to a version of Mother I’ve never heard before but it gives you the idea. Order Kaia Live! 2006 at the Kaia store or download the Mamamerica mp3 at Amazon or iTunes for the full monty.)

Enough with the parentheses! We learned Shut De Door (wow, this is a scary version), Round and Round the Earth is Turning, So Glad I’m Here,  All Around the Kitchen by Woody Guthrie (where we learned how to bend a note), Go to Sleepy Little Baby (made popular by O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Bring Me Little Water, Sylvy by Ledbetter as sung by Voco, and the aforementioned mom songs.

Kathy taught Shut De Door and used it to pass around solos. Round and Round is, not surprisingly, a round, which proved to be beyond the capabilities of the group. Kaia’s version of So Glad I’m Here has 6 or 7 lines of harmony which I reduced to one high response line. Hey Mama featured a light harmony response line for one soloist and then an attempt at a round which never worked. All Around the Kitchen had a harmony response line and solos for everyone. Go to Sleepy was supposed to have simple body percussion where we slapped each other’s hands, but everybody got sick and I didn’t want to spread the pestilence. Sylvy featured simple body percussion (thighs, then right-left upper chest) and a high harmony line on the verses.

The girls were a quirky mix. Kathy said they all faced challenges, being at an awkward age where their personalities were fighting to emerge or be submerged due to peer pressure. There was one particularly bad day where some other kids made fun of the girls for singing (!!!), so Kathy posted cardboard over the door’s window for privacy from then on.

“Ab” was my most challenging student. She was continually disruptive and all “me, me, me.” She was just dying for attention, which made me have the opposite response of wanting to discipline her. Bad me. I so often wish I hadn’t been raised in such a strict home; it’s left me so few tools to deal with children successfully. She had a small, pretty voice. She loved Adele and wanted to sing Rolling in the Deep for the school’s Holiday Follies. For all her acting up and wanting to be in the club (it was her idea in the first place), she never volunteered for a solo or harmony line. She finally did one when asked, but she seemed self-conscious. On the last day, she tried to sing Rolling in the Deep for us but got thrown off by the karaoke version she was singing along with.

“Em” was the opposite of Ab. Painfully shy, she whispered/spoke her solo lines rather than sang them. But she volunteered for harmony lines and did a great job of quickly learning each song. When we sang harmony her eyes never left my face and she seemed to be holding onto my voice for dear life, but she did great. I really admired her.

“Ma” had the most defined personality of the group. She liked the band Skillet. I had never heard of them but when I looked them up I suggested she check out Evanescence, which has a similar sound. She of course had already heard of them and liked Bring Me to Life. (As a side note, Bring Me to Life reads like a particularly dysfunctional love song but it more interestingly makes a great statement of supplication to Spirit for spiritual development.) Ma was sick half the class so she would spend time up in the classroom loft, but she stuck her head through the bannisters to sing out her lines. Can’t help but love that!

“El” was the only one with formal choral training, having worked with IU Children’s Choir. She had a full, strong voice but struggled with learning by ear. She fully participated in the class, which was great, taking on harmony lines and singing fully.

“Do” was my favorite, hands-down. She was irrepressibly cheerful and game for anything. Her ear was not very good but she made up for it with enthusiasm! She laughed her way through class but wasn’t disruptive about it. And she had no qualms about calling me out when I sang the harmony line wrong on All Around the Kitchen.

If we’d had more time, I would have structured the class so they could bring in songs that they wanted to sing rather than hand everything off to them top-down. Ab had suggested the class based on her love of Glee. But then again, there’s a lot to be said for learning songs from scratch where no one has their own vision invested in a particular interpretation.

They kept sitting down! I’m old enough to be their grandmother and I was constantly telling them to get up. If I had my way, I’d hold all rehearsals on my feet, since I believe that helps focus energy and concentration and also makes for better breath support. But as soon as we were done with a warm-up exercise, bam!, they were back in their chairs. Then Kathy would harangue them until they got up again. And half the time they would kneel on their chairs instead. I didn’t get it.

They also weren’t into the body percussion, even if it were as simple as hand claps. Kathy and I kept the percussion going. I thought they’d enjoy getting their bodies more involved, but it just didn’t seem to interest them. I’d planned on doing exercises to clap on the beat and then off the beat so they could feel the difference, but their lack of interest tanked that plan.

On the last day, we reviewed all the songs we’d learned. It was such a joy to hear them belting everything out, when just a couple weeks before they’d been all mousy. Kathy said she could see a difference in their confidence levels outside the classroom as well and hoped this would contribute to their further development.

The best part of the experience was when Kathy told them to thank me and they all came barging over and gave me a group hug. They just kept hanging on and laughing and having a great time. Then I knew I’d done a good thing. That was fantastic.

There’s such a big debate about arts funding in this country, and while I’m strongly in favor of increased funding, I often have difficulty explaining exactly why it’s important. Of course, working with music increases your performance in math. There are other examples of how the arts reinforce “serious” subjects. In my mind, try to imagine a world without radios, without concerts, without shows, etc. It’s a paltry world, barely worth living in. Where’s that song that helps heal your heart? Where’s that play that broadens your mind or just makes you laugh your tail off? Art makes us more human. And in this class, even though we just had a few weeks, I saw how art could help take a disparate group of awkward girls and give them the confidence to sing out and shine. Certainly that’s got to be worth something.

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