29. March 2012 · 4 comments · Categories: Ramble

(Excuse the poorly thought out ramble. I’m in a hurry to get out on my walk, but I figured I really need to post something here as this poor blog has been neglected.)

Adults in America don’t sing communally. Children routinely sing together in their schools and activities, and even infants have sing-alongs galore to attend. But past the age of majority, at grown-up commemorations, celebrations, and gatherings, this most essential human yawp of feeling—of marking, with a grace note, that we are together in this place at this time—usually goes missing.

The reasons why are legion. We are insecure about our voices. We don’t know the words. We resent being forced into an activity together. We feel uncool. And since we’re out of practice as a society, the person who dares to begin a song risks having no one join her.

RTWT

Hmm. Do students sing in school any more? I have a few students who tell me they never sing. I have some who can’t sing a pitch I’m playing … they don’t come close to matching it. So I wonder if singing takes place in schools these days.

Growing up in a “church family” I sang all the time. Hymns at church. With music printed in the hymnals. (Whether people knew it or not they at least started to recognize how music notation worked.) And yes, my generation sang in school as well, although only in elementary school unless one joined the school choir. We had books with not only the words but the music in them. I sang in the car with my family. We sang four part harmony at birthdays. I sang with my friends (and I still remember the “Yosemite Village Store”, “Barney Google” and “The Cutest Boy I Ever Saw” with fondness, as they immediately bring me back to my early teen years, singing with my best friend at the time.) I sang to my babies. I sang to myself. I still do.

Today, the problem is not just that we don’t know the songs—we don’t know which ones we want to know. The National Association for Music Education addressed this reality with its Get America Singing…Again! campaign in the 1990s, which put forward 88 songs as a shared repertoire for Americans. Although the formal campaign has ended—followed not long after by another project urging people to learn the Star Spangled Banner and realize they actually can sing the national anthem—the songbooks are still for sale, and the list is still good.

I use the typical older books to teach my students. Rubank. Gekeler. Edlefson. (The choice depends upon the student and which I think fits her or him best.) All three have old songs in them. Some my students recognize, but a large number they don’t. In some ways it’s best when they don’t know tunes — they can’t play by ear! Still, I’m sorry they don’t know all these old tunes. It’s been interesting, because I fill them in on the song, and I sometimes give them the words, but I sometimes also have to explain that we might not sing those words any longer. Some are labeled with an old title we might not want to use any longer. I have difficulty calling the “Crusaders Hymn” by that name. “Fairest Lord Jesus” or “Beautiful Savior” connected to killing? No thanks. (I’ve looked up the history to that connection and it appears unclear as to why it’s called that, but if the crusaders really sang that as they murdered and raped I’m clueless as to how they could sing the words to that song.) Some Stephen Foster songs — well — do we want the original words? I’m guessing maybe not. But I use those as examples of how things have changed. I wouldn’t use Stephen Foster’s words, but I think it’s important to remember them — history is important. We learn from our mistakes. We learn from those racist or painful words.

I wonder what songs, fifty years from now, teachers will have to explain to students.

4 Comments

  1. This post reminds me of one of my favorite “This I Believe” essays that I heard on public radio — Brian Eno on the joys of singing together: www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97320958

    Although I haven’t joined a choir since I’ve moved, I do sing once a month with the Rochester Ukulele Support Group. I hadn’t realized when I signed up, that in addition to playing a bunch of songs all on one theme (holidays, Beatles, romance, warm weather, etc.) for a couple hours, everyone sings along too. It’s great fun, and I’m always happier because of it.

    your WV friend now in upstate NY,
    -Mona

  2. I remember that Brian Eno segment … I believe I posted some of it on my blog at some point.

    How’s upstate NY?

  3. Upstate NY is pretty neat. I was disappointed by the lack of snow! We have a really wonderful classical radio station, and I am constantly busy with fun stuff — concerts, films, and tasty food:)

    I hear it is just about to get even more fun with spring and summer festivals! I may have to give up the Internet just keep up with it all;)

  4. Give up the internet?! Horrors! ;-)