Choosing Song Material

Hi, everyone!  This is Jamie Parker. As the school year drags on, I find that I need to remind myself about the reasons I choose song material for my students. I sometimes find myself looking at certain songs in my folk song collection and thinking, “If I have to teach this one more time...”  Then the next thought is, “But it’s so good for teaching sixteenth notes!”

As soon as those two thoughts cross my mind, I know I need a reset. We should not be teaching songs for the concepts alone!

The best reminder I need comes from Zoltán Kodály himself:

But....what does the best look like?

I. Joy
The best songs bring joy to our students. They have some sort of “hook” to engage children including:

  • Fun Game: After you teach a new song, have you ever had your students say, “Is there a game that goes with this?” Probably too many times to count, right? Children certainly find joy in playing games. If the game includes multiple levels or variations, even better!

  • Connection to Culture: Finding material from your students’ own backgrounds will help them connect to the music they are performing. Try sending out a survey asking your students and families about musical preferences within their homes.

  • Connection to Children’s Literature: Using children’s literature when teaching new songs to your students will give them a connection to the music. After presenting a song with a storybook, you can continue to refer back to the book as you use the song in your lessons.

  •  Interesting Historical Information: My students love to know the history behind the songs that they perform. Discovering the historical/social connection to music makes a piece more intriguing and engaging.

  • Interesting Melody/Tone Set: Naturally, many of the folk songs I use with my students have a pentatonic tone set. However, it’s also important to expand our students’ musical palette. My students love when I bring in a song set in a minor key or mode. Often times, they are so interested in the melody of these songs that they are able to perform quite tricky passages.

  •  Creativity Possibilities: The opportunities for our folk songs are only limited by our own imaginations. Try to brainstorm ways for your students to improvise, create, and compose while using folk material. In my experience, students “own” and find joy in material they have a hand in creating.

II. Authenticity
Finding authenticity in folk songs is tricky! There are so many variants and differences of opinion in this area. Here is what I think about when I’m looking at my folk song collection:

  • Is the song from a reputable source?: This source could be a primary or secondary folk song collection, a trusted colleague, or even something I learned from my mother as a child.

  • Does the song fit the climate and culture of my students?: Every school is different and every teacher is different. That is why we each have different living and breathing folk song collections! I teach in the Chicago area, so my students come from quite a mixed background. When I’m searching for material to use with them, I try to consider their family and culture musical preferences. In addition, I also seek to expand their musical taste.

  • Is the material age-appropriate for my students?: My students are kindergarten through fourth graders, so, of course, I must choose the content of my folk song material carefully.

III. Literacy
Lastly, we must consider the rhythmic and melodic literacy components that each folk song offers when teaching. If a song offers us more than one literacy component, great!

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Inner Hearing
  • Listening
  • Solos
  • Form
  • Improvisation
  • Part-Work
  • Instruments

Choosing song material can sometimes be an overwhelming process. If you’re looking for some resources, check out some of my favorites in the links below:

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