Music Teaching in Times of Crisis

Hi all - Christopher here.

As we know, last week there was a terrible tragedy in Paris, in which people from ISIS set off a series of coordinated attacks on civilians, resulting in the deaths of over 100 people.  This is horrible.  This is something that is hard to fathom. This is something that should never happen again.

But tragedy strikes, and when it does, it affects all of us.  I believe that for music educators, such experiences provide opportunities for us to offer support towards the healing process, by consciously engaging in musical experiences in our classes that can directly or indirectly allow children to process the issues that may have emerged for them.

In people’s lives, music serves a variety of important functions.  One of them is that it allows us to express emotions that may be difficult to express.  In music education (particularly at the elementary level), we are wary of opening too many cans of worms when it comes to emotional topics.  But I believe that we can do our children and our school communities a great service by providing them with ways to address difficult life situations.  Different teaching contexts will call for different responses, and knowing your population is important.  However, that should not be taken as an excuse to avoid difficult situations – we can all grow from them.

As a music teacher, I can respond to this – and as a Kodály-inspired teacher, I feel that I have some unique knowledge, particularly when it comes to repertoire.  Kodály emphasized the use of quality folk music, and so much folk music has evolved to reflect important topics of the day.  Many of the songs are old, but many of the issues that are raised in them carry over to modern-day events.

In this post, I’ll describe three different experiences with the specific musical choices that I have made after a tragedy:  (1) The 2010 mining disaster in Chile; (2) Hurricane Katrina; and (3) the current attacks in France.  

Copiapó Mine Accident of 2010

Mining disasters have been common over the years, and numerous songs have sprung up to help people express the emotions that occur when it happens.  My favorite one is “Ballad of Springhill,” written by Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger after a mine collapsed in Nova Scotia, in the 1950s. 

2.     In the town of Springhill, Nova Scotia,
Late in the year of fifty-eight;
Day still comes and the sun still shines,
But it’s dark as the grave in the Cumberland mine,
Dark as the grave in the Cumberland mine.

3.     Down at the coal face, miners working
Battle of the belt and the cutter’s blade,
Rumble of the rock and the walls close round,
The living and the dead men two miles down,
Living and the dead men two miles down.

4.     Listen for the shouts of the bareface miners,
Listen through the rubble for a rescue team,
Six hundred feet of coal and slag,
Hope imprisoned in a three-foot seam
Hope imprisoned in a three-foot seam.

5.     Eight days passed and some were rescued,
Leaving the dead to lie alone,
Through all their lives they’d dug a grave,
Two miles of earth for a marking stone,
Two miles of earth for a marking stone.

6.     Twelve men lay two miles from the pit-shaft,
Twelve men lay in the dark and sang;
Long hot days in a miner’s tomb,
It was three feet high and a hundred long,
It was three feet high and a hundred long.

7.     Three days passed and the lamps gave out,
Caleb Rushton, he up and said:
“There’s no more water, nor light, nor bread,
So we’ll live on songs and hope instead,
So we’ll live on songs and hope instead.”

8.     In the town of Springhill, you don’t sleep easy,
Often the earth will tremble and toll,
When the earth is restless, miners die,
Bone and blood is the price of coal,
Bone and blood is the price of coal.

What I love about it: 
 -  Most importantly, the melody is gorgeous and haunting; it gets in your head and won’t leave – in the best way.
 - Great song text.  There are a number of reasons the text works well:
o   Factually, there are some things for students to learn: What’s a three-foot seam?  A cutter’s blade?
o   The facts are suggested, but not totally clear, so the students can discuss various meanings of the text.  In particular: What do you think happened to the miners in this story?  The students usually decide that most of the people lived, even if some died. 
o   The text celebrates music.  When it gets tough underground, one of the miners sings, “There’s no more light nor water nor bread; so we’ll live on songs and hope instead.” 
I want my students to understand the power of music, even if they’re only in fifth grade.  Both the text and the melody really do this.

Typically, I’ll teach the song towards the end of fifth grade – but that can vary, based on life experience.  For example, in 2010, a mine disaster in Chile got a great deal of attention.  Over the summer, a shaft collapsed, trapping 33 miners underground, but by late August, all the miners had been rescued.  In that year, I taught the song as soon as the students started school in September.  (Note, by the way, that there’s a new movie coming out about this mine collapse, called “33.”)

Potential breakdown point: In the Chilean story, all the miners lived.  There have been other years when mining disasters have occurred, and if there has been a great loss of life, I have decided that it would be too much visceral experience for fifth graders to handle.  While most kids would be fine with it, the logical discussion – “What happened to the miners? – could lead to a discussion that might leave some students feeling distressed.  I want them to understand how people the world over use music to express emotional experiences, but I don’t want them to get overly upset.  This choice has varied year-by-year, and has depended on my student population.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005

My in-class musical reaction to Katrina was not planned.  One of the play parties that I introduce in third grade is “Great Big House in New Orleans.”  In 2005, Katrina had just occurred, and without thinking about it too much, I began teaching the song in the middle of September.  As I was singing it to the students the first time, I began to think about the text of the first verse:

            Great big house in New Orleans
            Forty stories high
            Every room that I’ve been in
            Filled with pumpkin pie.

The idea that every room in a house could be filled with pumpkin pie is pretty funny to third graders.  But I had never thought that the first part of the verse had fantastical connections – in Seattle, we have buildings that are 100 stories high, so 40 floors is no big deal.

But when Katrina hit, it made me think that it was likely that when this text first entered into the song, a 40-story building was a crazy idea!  In a low-lying area like Louisiana, one that has been battered by hurricanes over the years, it was probably an idea that sounded as wonderful as a whole house filled with pie. 

So for that year, and for each year afterwards, this is a point of brief conversation.  We discuss hurricanes broadly, Katrina specifically, and then talk about the ways that house building has changed over the years.  My third graders today don’t know about Katrina because they’re too young, but this song allows me to introduce an important piece of our recent history to them.

Source: Locke, E. (1981).  Sail Away: 155 American Folk Songs to Sing, Read, and Play.  New York: Boosey & Hawkes.  p. 17

Verse 2: Went down to the old millstream, to fetch a pail of water

                  Put one arm around my wife, the other round my daughter.

Verse 3: Fare thee well my darlin’ girl, fare thee well my daughter;

                  Fare thee well my darlin’ girl, with the golden slippers on her.

Play party:

Verse 1: Standing circle.  Circle left.
Verse 2: Make a basket as follows:

Phrase 1: Girls take four steps to the center of the circle and join hands to make a circle.

Phrase 2: Boys take four steps toward the girls, reach over the girls' joined hands and down toward the floor, as if picking up a pail of water.  Boys join hands.

Phrase 3: Boys raise their joined hands over the girls' heads and down to make a circle behind the girls.

Phrase 4: Girls raise their joined hands over the boys' heads to form a circle behind the boys.  (Relax shoulders and elbows).

Verse 3:

Phrase 1 and 2: drop hands, move back to larger circle.

Phrase 3/4: Boys swing partner (the girl on his right) one and a half times around, switching places.

Game begins again, with new partners.

France and Syrian Refugee Crisis

Across our country, the current crisis has elicited many strong emotions, and the political reactions from politicians have varied widely.  This particular issue currently appears so polarizing, and engaging with it in any way is a tricky issue for music educators to consider.  I considered a variety of options.

Ultimately, I found a song by connecting with Joan Litman, a wonderful music educator from New York City who has spent a great deal of time in the Middle East over the years.  She was able to share a singing game, one that was originally from French, but had been altered by some girls in Syria.  The game that accompanies the song is a beat-passing game (like “Aquaqua” or “Down by the Banks” or “Vamos a Jugar”), games that they know well and play on the playground themselves.  (See below for the game directions and musical notation.)

Perfect!  This is exactly the kind of message that I want my students to get – that people from different cultures can meet, connect, and share elements of their culture with each other.  And that kids in France and Syria play games that are like the ones that they play here in the United States.

Source: Taught to Joan Litman by children of The Choir of Joy; Danascus, Syria, 2011.

Dans ma maison sous terre:            In my underground house
Omawe, omawe:                             Unknown (vocables?)
Tao, tao, ouistiti (wee-stee-tee):      Unknown
Un, deux, tricolate:                          One, two, threeeeeee (in French)
Wahid, ‘tnane,* tilate:                      One, two three (in Arabic)

*Note: In the last measure, the children are likely saying counting to three, but the number two (‘tnane) was difficult to hear on the recording.

Game: Beat-passing game.  Standing circle, left palms up, right palms down; lightly touching both neighbors’ hands.  The beat is passed from right hand to the neighbor’s right hand, until the end of the singing.  On the last syllable (“-te!”), the person whose hand is about to be (gently!) patted tries to move it before being touched.  If they move their hand in time, the player trying to tag him/her (“-la”) is out; if not, player “-te” is out.  The game then begins again.  On the penultimate note (“-la”), the player can go out of tempo and hold the note before trying to tap the “-te!”

French versions of the game often end in English.

(Note: If you are a member of the Facebook group "Kodaly Educators," Joan Litman graciously posted a video of Syrian children playing the game, and you can hear their pronunciation.  As of now, there are some issues with access, but check it out - hopefully those will be worked out.)

Here’s how I presented it to my fifth graders this week
-       I put the notation on the board, then sung the song.  I asked them: “Why do you think I’m singing this?”
o   They figured out that it was mostly in French, either because they recognized some words or noticed the language at the top of the page.
o   Enough of the students knew about the events of last week, and were able to briefly fill the other students in.
-       I sung it again, asking: “Why else do you think I’m singing this?”
o   Fewer students knew that “Arabic” was a language from the Middle East, although in each of my three classes, at least one student made the connection.
-       From here, I was wary of wading into deep waters where I expressed my own personal opinion, so I summed up what was going on:
o   I told them hat there had been an attack in France, and that people from the Middle East were responsible  ("ISIS," said at least one student in each class);
o   And like bad people in every country, some people in that country support them, and some people don’t;
o   The students defined refugees, and we had a brief discussion about refugees in our country.
o   I noted that some people feel that these refugees are not checked closely enough, and that our country shouldn’t allow any Syrian refugees into the United States; others feel that they are perfectly well-vetted, and that it is our duty as a country to allow then into the United States;
o   At this point, I told them that we weren’t going to talk about that anymore, but that they should go talk to their parents about it.
To me, this is appropriate.  I didn’t give them my own personal political interpretation of an event, but I did provide them with some information that allowed them to go discuss it with their families.  I believe that fifth graders need to begin to learn about national issues, and this can be a springboard for discussion at home.

From there, we dealt with musical and game aspects of the song.  Some issues that emerged: 
  • How do we pronounce the words?
  • How is the fermata going to work in the context of a 25-person class?
But after two classes, they have picked it up well, and are having fun with it.  And I feel that they are going away from music class as more thoughtful citizens of our country, and of the world. 

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