Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Kindergarten Song Repertoire: Yikes!

Hi folks!  Christopher here.

Back in September, a parent walked into my classroom at the beginning of the day to tell me how much her child loved music class.  She gushed with enthusiasm, telling me that her daughter came home singing all the time.  It’s always nice to get a compliment, and I thanked her, and smiled.  But inwardly, I thought: “Oh no!  She thinks that this is what music is all about!”


Because for the past 18 years, I have always started each kindergarten class during September with the same song that I picked up somewhere along the way:


Now, I realize that there are no absolutes when it comes to musical preference, but to me – well, that’s just a stupid, stupid song.  And I’ve been teaching it for over a decade.  Literally, it’s the first song that the students ever hear when they step foot into my music classroom, as scared five-year-olds who don’t really know what’s going on. 

Which of course means that this is the song that the students take home, and sing to their parents.  So not only was it the kids’ introduction to what the content of the music class, it was the parents’ introduction as well.  Nothing like setting the bar low, I guess.

The reality is that I’ve always struggled to find repertoire for kindergarten that is (1) age-appropriate and engaging to the students; and (2) musically interesting enough that I would find myself singing it at the end of the day -- even when there were no kindergartners around.  It’s so good to see you, I could hardly wait?"  If I ever caught myself singing that one outside of the normal class period, I would smack myself upside the head.

That parent interaction in the beginning of the year made me put my foot down with myself: 

NO MORE CRAPPY MUSIC FOR KINDERGARTEN!  

I’ve always tried to hold myself to that rule, but in kindergarten, it’s been a challenge for me.   The range that they can sing is limited; their focus is limited; the range of skill among kindergartners is all over the place, just due to differing rates of development; and in my context, many of the movement games that are so great for lower elementary lead to management issues for the kindergartners.

Everything that follows comes from folk traditions.  I believe that there are people out there that can write good original music for children.  I also believe that I’m not one of those people - composition is just not my strength.  And, to me, a lot of the composed pieces for the youngest children cross the line into cheesiness.  This is not to say that I never do anything other than folk music – I mean, my last post was about Taylor Swift.  But, generally speaking, when you have a folk song that has stood the test of time, it has done so because there’s something indescribable about it that just makes it a good song; if it wasn’t good, people would have stopped singing it.

In particular, I sought good songs for opening a class period.  In Grades 1-5, I typically start with some sort of non-competitive singing game, because it often seems to help them get the wiggles out, and then they can sit down and focus on more intellectually complex tasks.  For my kindergartners, movement activities get them riled up, and they are best saved for later in the class period.  So I'm in need of songs that would be fun to sing, and help them center themselves to start the class.

Here are some of my finds from the year:

  

Source: Seeger, R. C. (1948/1975).  American folk songs for children.  New York: Doubleday.  p. 66.

Sound source: Adults singing the tune in parts: http://www.culturalequity.org/rc/ce_rc_lessons_boats.php

On my search for good music, I turned to the classic: Ruth Crawford Seeger’s American Folk Songs for Children. This is one of the best books out there for children’s folk music from the United States – every time I return to it, I find some new gem.  This is one of those songs.

This particular song is actually from the Bahamas.  I like it because:
  • The tune is catchy, with syncopation that propels the melody forward.
  • The text is about the wind blowing “sunshine” right down to town.  At the beginning, the kids brainstorm other types of things that might be blown by the wind.  The students came up with ideas including leaves, branches, trash can lids, a cat (“Really?” I asked, envisioning a cat being impaled on a wayward branch.  “Oh, yes,” the child assured me, “I’ve seen it.”  Kindergartners: There you go.)
  • Cultural context: This song is from the Bahamas, and the text evolved out of a hurricane that swept through the region.  The “Sunshine” in the first line was actually the name of a boat.  I live in Seattle, so the children visualize a passenger ferry being plopped down in the middle of Second Avenue.  On future days, then, they brainstorm other kinds of boats that might be blown about in a storm.
  • Although the range is a little large, the majority of the notes fall within the range of a major sixth.  With the students this year, I have also dropped the words "Oh the" on the refrain, because it's too low. 
There’s a great field recording made by Alan Lomax and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle which you can stream for free on the Lomax website.  You can also purchase the CD (or mp3 recordings) Deep River of Song: Bahamas 1935: Ring Games and Round Dances. 

  

Source: Seeger, P. (1955/1998).  Birds, beasts, bugs, & fishes, little and big: Animal folk songs.  Folkways album 45039.  Transcribed C. Roberts, Feb, 16, 2015.

Earlier source: Seeger, R. C. (1948).  American folk songs for children.  New York: Doubleday.  p. 119.

I’ve known this song for a long time, actually, introduced to it by Pete Seeger’s fabulous album, Birds, Beasts, Bugs, and Little Fishes, Little and Big.  This album was one of the staples for my family in long car trips, and I’d always loved the song.  But I hadn’t done it with students.  It’s great for the following reasons:
  • Great text, kid-appropriate, with lots of opportunities for creativity.  What’s a different kind of bird we would sing about?  What do you think molasses candy is?  Who has ever eaten a sugar lump?  What other candy should we sing about?
  • Small range: Most of the notes fall between do and so, with “la” as an upper neighbor.
  • The meter changes between duple and triple, within the phrase.  So cool!  Most children’s songs are straight up 2/4 or 6/8, so this provides some metrical variety.  Note, by the way, that in other versions, the words "fly through" are in one 2/4 measure, followed by "my window" in 3/4.  I always heard the accent on the "win-" of "window," so I've notated it that way.


Source: Seeger, R. C. (1953/2013). American folk songs for Christmas.  New York: Doubleday.  p. 55.

V. 2: Hail you! And where are you bound for?  Hallelujah!
         Oh, I’m bound for the land of Canaan, Hallelujah!

No, I didn’t choose this song because the Mariners are our hometown baseball team, but it didn’t hurt.  I found this when I was looking for a Christmas song to sing for my school’s Christmas concert.  (I teach in a Catholic school.) But  I think that the song is completely editable, if you need to use it in a non-religious setting. 

This comes from another Ruth Crawford Seeger book, American Folk Songs for Christmas.  I just bought the book this year.  I think it will be one I will mine for years to come, as I look for seasonal repertoire.  I own the recording of the same title, made by three of Seeger’s children, which is also fantastic.

Why I like it:
  • It’s only in a range of a fifth, and it’s interesting!  There’s something about the combination of text and melody that lends the performances a naturally pulsive quality.  The kids loved singing it.  (The trick is to ensure that they don’t yell – often a challenge with young children with songs they love.)
  •  There aren’t many verses of this, so the kids made them up.  Because I’m in a Catholic school, it allowed the students to talk about what they already knew about the birth of Jesus, and sing about it in their words.  My two favorite verses that the kids wrote:
    • Jesus wasn’t born in a hospital, Alleluia!
    •  Joseph and Mary didn’t have much money, Alleluia!


Source: Seeger, R. C. (1948/1975).  American folk songs for children.  New York: Doubleday.  p. 136.


I know that this is one of those songs that many people do, but to me, it's brand new!  Although I learned it years ago, it never grabbed me.  This year, I decided to give it a go, and it's one of those songs that kind of gets into your skin.  It’s another short song with a small range – but the rhythmic complexity makes it fun to sing.  Other benefits:
  • There is language that the kids can learn from the song: What does “pity my case" mean?
  • Once again, the students can have some say in what text is sung.  For example:
    • What other chores do your parents do around the house?
    • What chores do you have in your family?
    • What might be the first thing your parents do after they get home after a long day of work?  (To that one, one child answered, “have a drink.”  So they merrily sang, “to pour a drink when I get home...”  Can’t think about that one too much….)
  • If you are so inclined, there are a variety of games one could create to accompany the song: acting it out, chasing, trying to get out of a garden, etc. 
I have felt much better about my kindergarten year than ever before – mostly because of the infusion of new rep.  Bad rep, be banned forever!