"It's the music, stupid!"

Hi folks, Christopher here.  When I took Kodály Level I, all those years ago, what initially drew me in was the approach to pedagogy.  After a student teaching experience in which I felt like I was lurching from activity to activity, each one fairly well designed (OK, so maybe not always so well designed – I was a novice teacher after all…), here was a way to know that my students were actually gaining skills and knowledge in a way that worked.  Music literacy!  In-tune singing skills!  Part work!  Inner hearing!  With a sequential approach that efficiently progressed through skill development in a logical way, I knew that my students would learn.  And this measurable growth would allow non-music teachers and parents to realize that music class wasn’t just a frill, that it was an important content area that was not solely singing-along-with-a-recording.

My first year of teaching was very pedagogy-focused, with lesson plans that addressed the various standards that the students should meet.  But in my second year of teaching, I had my second a-ha moment, and that came courtesy of Jill Trinka.  She came out to Seattle to give a workshop, an experience that made me realize: 

It’s the music, stupid!   

The workshop reminded me that the whole pedagogy comes from the music, and that the best curriculum in an elementary music program is comprised primarily of folk songs and children’s singing games that have stood the test of time.  Like Kodály, I believe that in folk music, the rough edges get worn off, leaving music that remains as its pure, essential core.  After hearing Jill’s mesmerizing singing and playing, I realized that providing students with emotionally rich singing experiences was essential to what I must impart to children. 

Which is all a round-about way of getting to some repertoire that I have done this year that my children love.  Sometimes, I do repertoire simply because the music is beautiful and age-appropriate, and I think that the students will develop a hard-to-describe sense of the simple joy that can come from performing a piece beautifully.  It can be a particularly effective way to end a class – after they’ve done all the literacy work and played the singing games and engaged in the other objectives of the curriculum, to finish up a class with a beautiful song allows them to go out of my classroom humming a piece of music that I want to enter the core of their beings.

I teach elementary school music half-time, this year with grades 1, 3, and 5.  Here is a song from each grade that my students have loved during the last month.


Source: Seeger, R. C. (1948).  American folk songs for children in home, school and nursery school; A book for children, parents and teachers.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Also found in: Trinka, J. (1996).  Little black bull.  Dripping Springs, TX: Folk Music Works. 

I usually have the children standing in a circle for this game, with one child holding a large gold star.  When the counting begins in measure four, the students pass the star around the circle, with each number representing a child.  On “number one,” the first student passes the to the child on the right; on “number two,” that child passes the star to the next player; and so forth.  The student who receives the star on “number three” holds onto the star, moving it up and down to show the contour of measures 6-7-8.  After the last word is sung, the child holding the star chooses a new number between one and ten, and play resumes, with measures 4-6 repeated often enough to reach the number chosen by the child.

This slow, gorgeous song is a wonderful calming activity for younger students, particularly after an active game.  The range is an octave, which is fairly large for first graders.  Most of the songs that I ask the first graders to sing fall in the range of a fifth or a sixth, but having opportunities to reach their voices higher and lower is important for extending that range.  The contour is fairly easy to follow for the students, with the octave leap down followed by the step-wise ascending pattern. 

A beautiful recording comes from Jill Trinka's Little Black Bull, one of my all-time favorite resources.


Source:   Locke, E. (1981).  Sail Away: 155 American Folk Songs to Sing, Read, and Play.  New York: Boosey & Hawkes.  p. 30. 
Per Locke, found in: Murray, T. (1952).  Folk Songs of Jamaica.  London: Oxford University Press.

 2.  Oh the moon shines bright down, Hill and Gully
Ain’t no place to hide ‘m down, Hill and Gully
An’ a zombie come a-ridin’ down, Hill and Gully.

 3. Oh, my knees, they shake down, Hill and Gully
An’ my heart strings start a-quakin’ down, Hill and Gully
Ain’ nobody gonna get me down, Hill and Gully.

4. That’s the last, I sit down, Hill and Gully
Pray the Lord don’ let me down, Hill and Gully
Ain’ nobody gonna get me down, Hill and Gully

I love the text in this song, in part because you don’t know exactly what happens.  Does the zombie get the rider at the end?  It’s hard to tell.  Asking the students to infer from the text gets them thinking critically.  Some kids will say that the words “that’s the last, I sit down” means that it’s the last thing that happens to the rider before the zombie eats him/her up (or whatever zombies do), while others think that the last line of the song “ain’ nobody gonna get me down” means that the rider lives, that he or she will stand up and show that zombie who’s boss.

This is a song that ultimately serves double duty (or triple duty!) in the classroom.  The verse-chorus/call-response form lends itself to solo singing very easily, and since the children like the song, almost every child wants to sing a verse alone.  The fact that some of the lines are a little tricky (see the second line of verse three) can be a good challenge for higher-performing kids. After singing the song in third grade, I bring it back in fourth grade for music literacy purposes: the tone set of s,l, drm sl makes it a good song for low so, which I get to in fourth grade, and the rhythmic content means I use it to teach syn-co-pa. 

You can find many field recordings of this folk song from Jamaica.  Most of them are uptempo, with instruments, and I prefer to introduce the song in a more spooky, slower fashion.  Eventually, though, making the connection to a field recording is an important way for the kids to feel that this is actually a song from Jamaica, not just a song with some weird English words.  Here are a couple of recordings I like:  Lord Composer and Valerie Walker.

Grade 5

Source: Sharp, C. (1909).  Novello’s School Songs.  London: Novello & Co., Ltd.
Also found in: Trinka, J. (1989).  John, the Rabbit.  Dripping Springs, TX: Folk Music Works.

2. The first doe he shot at he missed
     The second one he trimmed, he kissed
     The third one went where nobody whist
     Among the leaves so green-o.


3.  The fourth doe she did cross the plain.
     The keeper fetched her back again.
     Where she is now she may remain
     Among the leaves so green-o.


4. The fifth doe she did cross the brook
     The keeper fetched her back with his crook;
     Where she is now you must go and look
     Among the leaves so green-o.


5.  The sixth doe she ran over the plain
     But he with his hounds did turn her again,
     And it’s there he did hunt in a merry, merry vein
     Among the leaves so green-o.

Like Hill and Gully Rider, this song also has a text that grabs kids.  What’s a Keeper?  What happens to each of the deer?  Who is “Jackie?”  There’s ample opportunity for students to have different perspectives on how they interpret the fate of each deer.  I find that this process can take a long time – the kids really want to give their opinion – so limiting the topic of each day to one verse and cutting off discussion after a certain point ensures that the majority of the lesson segment is spent on making music.   There’s a lot of historical context that can come out here, as well, such as of hunting and class, and the role of a Keeper on an English estate.  In addition, some fifth graders have read Roald Dahl’s book, Danny, Champion of the World, a book that has a keeper as one of its main characters.

When I first started using this song, I sung it a cappella, and the students enjoyed the song.  Once I learned to play the mountain dulcimer, I was able to accompany the students, using an arrangement based on Jill Trinka’s recording on John, the Rabbit.  Her singing style on the recording is winsome, a sound that I find works well for this song, more than the rollicking approach that can be heard on other recordings, such as the one on Pete Seeger’s Birds, Beasts, Bugs, and Fishes, Little and Big: Animal Folk Songs

I basically never use this song for literacy purposes; while I could use it for fa or any number of rhythmic elements, I find this is one that is best to just be a pure song.  Sometimes, I might extract short elements as part of a transition between lesson segments (the ticka-ti pattern in the beginning of the chorus, for example), but for the most part, I just want it to be an opportunity for the students to sing beautifully.  It’s a great song for solo singing, as well -- because it’s hard!  The ascending line of the verses and the quick back-and-forth between the two characters during the chorus can be challenging for some children, allowing for some good assessment.  The most important thing, though, is that they love the song.

A couple of recordings I like: from Jill Trinka's John the Rabbit (you really can't go wrong with Jill, ever!), and the inimitable Pete Seeger.

I encourage you: Sing quality music!  Find what resonates with you, what music you think has stood the test of time (or will stand the test of time), what music makes you cry, and make sure that you have some of music in every lesson.  If you think a song is stupid, it probably is.  Cut it loose.  I looove teaching music literacy, but I believe that it is these beautiful singing experiences are what will stick with the children after everything else is gone.

Sing on!


  1. Beautiful post, Christopher! Such a good reminder to put pedagogy aside sometimes and just SING!

  2. Great post! :) A message we all need to hear sometimes!

  3. Thank you! This was just what I needed at the end of a busy week. Very uplifting reminder!

  4. The great thing about writing these posts is that I get to remind myself, too! We all forget.

  5. Jill Trinka is my hero! I loved this post. Some years ago I started ending all of my lower elementary classes with a folk song, often accompanied by my guitar or dulcimer (totally modeled off of Jill Trinka). It's the only time we would use any kind of accompaniment while singing (other than themselves on rhythm instruments). One thing I like about it is I think that, while we do want to keep very active while singing (games, dances, instrumental parts, etc.) it's also important that the kids know that not every song has to have an activity with it. Shady Grove was always a favorite--when I would sing that for them the first time in kindergarten, I would unfailingly hear "That song is beautiful!" They couldn't wait to then learn it themselves. And you're right, all teachers need those reminders. I am guilty sometimes of getting "too busy" in the Spring especially, but the kids will keep you honest. The evening of our May concert last year my 3-5 grade choir had assembled in the music room, and we finished warming up with several minutes to spare. I asked them what they wanted to sing while we waited, and what they asked for were those very songs that we would just sit together and sing. They truly will hold those songs and memories forever.

  6. This article is so good for music educations in Australia.Childrens Music Program is so good.


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