Conversation and information about music and liturgy from a confessional Lutheran perspective.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

All Kids Can Sing

I am a music teacher. I teach at a Catholic high school in the Bronx, NY and have about 120 students this semester consisting of freshmen and seniors. The music program at the school is underdeveloped, which is why they had me come in. They want to cultivate a singing culture at the school. They want the kids to sing in the liturgies and to build a good choral program. My classes have several components. I teach voice pedagogy and basic theory as well as music history. And we sing – a lot.

I started by just singing at the kids. You know, singing the announcements, instructions, etc. Their first assignment was to come to class the next day and sing me a greeting. They thought I was out of my mind. Like anything else, these kids have gotten used to the antics of Mr. J. So, my singing is now to be expected, as is the daily regimen of song in which my students must participate.

The other day, I was listening to small groups sing canons (for a grade). One senior was having a hard time with pitch (well, several do, but this one in particular). It so happened that I could hear a couple of pitches that he was singing in tune. He was singing way too low (trying to sing an octave below where the men sing the canon). That means that his lowest notes were really unsingable, with rare exception. When he got to the upper notes he hit the “D” below middle “C”. When I asked him to do that again, he did and, after a little coaching, began singing the canon in the right octave and, by in large, on the right pitch. I asked him if he understood what had just happened and he kind of shyly grinned. I asked if he had every done that before and he admitted no. It was a breakthrough for him! I learned something and so did he – but so did the class. Their lack of skill in singing is not due to an inherent inability to do so, but because they have not used their voices in such a way since they were little children. When they have time and someone to teach them those voices come back! There are more examples of this but time and space prevent me from sharing them just now.

In the church, parents, Sunday school teachers, DCEs and pastors become the gatekeepers of what children sing. It is often believed that they cannot sing things perceived to be too difficult for them. But when there is time and someone to teach them they can, do and are even enthusiastic about learning difficult hymns. I have proven this over and over in my work with the church. So has my wife, who had worked with children on songs like “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” at Christmas time with complete success. The kids sang it as well or better than anything else on the program that day.

Experts would not be surprised and would likely stand in unanimity about the abilities of children to sing music adults perceive as too difficult. Still, even after more than one such example of the abilities of kids to comprehend musical substance and execute it, parishes still resort to canned music for events like VBS and Sunday school Christmas programs with superficial tunes and lyrics, depriving the children of early exposure to rich spiritual food contained in hymns of the Lutheran heritage and building a comprehensive musical vocabulary. Ironically, the church musician is often the last person who it is believed has credibility on such matters. I guess it is hard for people to believe that the musician would actually know something about the teaching and learning of music.

There is good news for you pastors and church workers who wonder whether your kids can embrace, sing and enjoy the Lutheran hymn heritage. The answer is a resounding YES! Find the time to teach them with a competent teacher and you will find success. It may be a little intimidating for the parents, though, when the kids sing hymns with ease that give their folks trouble. But maybe the kids can then teach their parents!


Dakotapam said...

I agree wholeheartedly. When I hear what the first and second grade choir can sing at our Lutheran Day school, I think that Sunday Schools do a disservice by dumbing down music.

Stephen R. Johnson said...

Amen sister!

Phillip Magness said...

Thanks for the post, Stephen!

And greetings, everyone, from sunny Grenada! (Go to roundunvarnishedtale over at blogspot for pics!)


Elephantschild said...

Oh, I tried, I really did, to convince our VBS director of this very thing last summer.

For my effort, I was un-volunteered to do the music w/ the children for VBS! Argh!

Children don't know something's "supposed to be" hard, or that they're not "supposed to" like something unless the grownups tell them so!


CMS said...

Kenneth Korby once said that we tend to teach the children and bless the parents when we should bless the children and teach the parents. If we get the parents then we also get the children as well.
In my attempts to teach the Sunday School leaders about the abilities of children and what we should be shooting for and why it matters it has taken mutual patience and understanding. One piece of advice, I have found the little book by Carl Schalk, "First Person Singular-Reflections on Worship, Liturgy, and Children," to be helpful. His easy-to-read and folksy short essays have helped my Sunday School teachers reevaluate and accept the new way of thinking about music in the parish. I bought it for them as a present.

Orianna Laun said...

Thank you! It vexes me when people say, "oh, the kids can't sing that," when with a little teaching, yes they can; and those of us who actually try to do so are criticized for trying to teach the children something too hard.

Cindy R. said...

"There is good news for you pastors and church workers who wonder whether your kids can embrace, sing and enjoy the Lutheran hymn heritage. The answer is a resounding YES!"

Indeed! We can and we should. As Aristotle said, "The aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought" (from C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man). Furthermore, this is not merely about developing elevated tastes in our children. It is about nothing less than teaching them how to proclaim the gospel in all its fullness.