Our Concert, ‘Tis of Thee, Sweet Music of Liberty

My students have begun preparations for our spring concert in mid-May.  As a performer, I always like to have some sort of theme or cohesive element in a concert, and I approach planning my students’ concerts in the same way.  Last year, I was very excited about our spring concert theme of “Music From Around the World.”  Each grade performed music from a different continent–Africa for kindergarten, Asia for first grade, South and Central America for second grade, and Europe for third grade.  The kids enjoyed singing songs in different languages and I enjoyed using some of my training in ethnomusicology to teach them about the music.

This year, I figured we should do some music from the one continent that was left out last year, so we’re working on “Music From Around the United States.”  I was a little wary of this theme.  It brings to mind images of children singing patriotic songs and waving tiny American flags in a cheesy and nostalgic way that I would prefer to avoid.  However, this theme is becoming far more interesting and educational than I expected.

Once again, I’m using the spring concert as an opportunity to add some ethnomusicology to my teaching.  Rather than focusing on one type of “American” songs, our focus will be on the musical diversity of this country.  Each grade will sing and play a variety of genres, including blues, jazz, ragtime, African American spirituals, country, rock, and Latino and Cajun folk songs.  They’ve been listening to examples of the genres that they will be performing and learning about the history and cultural background of those genres.

American Music Genres

Last week, one third grade student asked, “Why does America have so many kinds of music?  And why do they all sound different?”  Nothing is more gratifying to a teacher than being asked an in-depth and difficult to answer question like that from a truly interested student.  The answer involved a discussion of immigration to the United States, the effect of culture on music, the function of music in culture, and a big diagram with lots of arrows showing how different genres are related.  The younger students seem just as interested in learning about how the genres they know came to be.

Too often, the focus of elementary general music is on teaching kids to sing cute songs for their concerts and to have fun doing it.  There is nothing wrong with either of those goals, but they can’t be the only goals of a music curriculum.  Music can be enjoyable because of the ways in which it is immediately satisfying, but students will not seek out meaningful, lifelong engagement with music if they are taught that the immediate satisfaction is the sole purpose for music.  I hope that this concert will be cute and enjoyable for the audience, but the real goal is for me to pique my students’ curiosity and to give them a deeper understanding of and interest in what they perform.

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