So, my choir kids had a concert today. It’s a big deal. First of all, because we are still a baby program (when I took over two years ago, the program had a membership of twelve kids), so anytime we manage to pull anything off, people are still kind of surprised. But, more importantly, because I teach middle school so literally EVERYTHING is a big deal. My fellow M.S. educators know where I’m coming from. Just watch the greeting ritual of two seventh grade girls who haven’t seen each other in ten minutes–let’s just say there is a lot of squealing and hugging. You’d think one of them had literally just come back from the dead.
It felt like an accomplishment to me, too. I have high standards, and (unlike my colleagues) I understand where a middle school choral program should be. I look at where we are and can only think of how far we have to go. There is so much they don’t know. In so many ways, I am sending kids unprepared for high school choral programs out of my program. We have such a long road ahead! It is easy to be overwhelmed by what is undone, how many times I feel like I’m failing them as their teacher and not doing the job as well as I would like to because of the simple fact that I am a One doing the job of Two.
I feel the constant pressure from my students to sing music they already know. (Not sometimes. Literally ALL THE TIME.) Middle schoolers, unlike their high school counterparts, have very little interest in trying new things. They want to do what they know. If they don’t know it, well, then just forget it. It’s probably garbage, as far as they’re concerned. So doing the music that I know is best for them is the musical equivalent of trying to convince your average six year old to eat spinach. It is a losing battle.
But there are victories, small ones, when I force feed them enough real choral music that they actually hear the potential that is there–how what sounds best in a choir is not what sounds best on the radio. My 8th grade girls choir is in the middle of an Epiphany Month. Every few days, it’s like a new light bulb comes on, and they become a little bit more like the choral singers I hope they will be.
After our concert today, they showed up for class ready to watch a movie. “Nice try,” said I, their mean, cruel and generally nasty director, “We only have two months until our last concert. We have work to do.” They groused. I preened their egos about their great job a bit, and then I let them choose between two different (non-pop) pieces. The one they picked (which I really hoped they would) is lush and full and truly choral. We listened to a recording, and at the moment in the music where I first fell in love with the piece, one of my girls breathes, “Oh, this is awesome.” Little tittering whispers around the choir, as they write on scraps of paper which song they want to do. The vote is so far in favor of The Lass from the Low Countree I don’t even have to bother to properly count.
My school has a strong minority representation–which is really cool, because there is a richness in having so many different backgrounds in my classroom. I have had many (administrators, mostly) who don’t know music well, who insist that choral music doesn’t have a place in culturally responsive education. I point out that Mozart is just as foreign to my Caucasian students as Spirituals are to my African-American students–both are important, and both help make them better performers. (I site candy–eat too much candy, your teeth will fall out and you will get sick. Too much pop music makes it hard to breed a good and healthy young singer. But this is a soap box for another day…)
Anyway, so we are doing a choral arrangement of a piece from Mozart’s opera, “The Magic Flute,” titled Papageno-Papagena. You don’t need to know about it, really (but it’s an awesome piece, in my unbiased opinion…), but you just have to know it’s Mozart. It was written by some Austrian guy over 200 years ago. It is light years away from my 8th grade choir and their American ideas and smart phones and instant gratification culture.
But we worked on it today, because I’m “mean” and expect them to sing in choir, like, all the time. (The nerve, I mean, really…) But we started going, and guess what? Lo, and behold, it sounded pretty good. “Why?” you ask. “Because Mozart wrote music for real, human voices without any digital help,” say I. Well, that and because my girls are finally starting to listen to one another and are singing as an ensemble, rather than a bunch of soloists all singing at the same time. They are finally beginning to make music.
We finish the section–at the same time, in the right key.
One of my girls, “Aria,” does a quick improve dance off of the dab. “Awww, yeah,” she says, “This be lit!”
You heard it here first, folks. Just remember, the next time you hear a piece by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart…he may be a lot of things, but for some Midwestern, middle school singers, he be lit!