Mentors Muse on Multicultural Meanings, Part II

“Do you consider a Latin Mass to be multicultural?” From a simple question, MENC received insightful feedback from the choral mentors on multicultural choral music.

We asked: If you teach high school chorus (or have had experience at the high school level) – any thoughts on repertoire that would be considered “multicultural”? Do you consider singing a Latin Mass (for example) “multicultural”? Do high school kids respond as enthusiastically to songs from other countries as perhaps younger singers do?

Choral mentor Maria Schwab shared her motto: always be authentic. Schwab advises singing in the original language, not an English translation. Schwab advocates inviting a native speaker from the local community into your class to share about their culture, give insights into the meaning of the words, and help with pronunciation issues.

If you have children in your class who speak the language, they can often help with pronunciation, meaning, or with people they may know. Schwab mentions a Korean student who heard “Do, Re, Mi” (from The Sound of Music) and commented to Schwab, “That’s a Korean folk song!” – it was a song her mother had sung to her (in Korean). The student invited her mom to teach “Do, Re, Mi” in Korean to the American students.

If there’s no one in your local community or your classroom, Schwab suggests the Internet, as audio files of music and spoken languages are readily available and can give insight into pronunciation and interpretation.

Schwab urges, “Respond to the occasion, rise to it, you can do it. Make the effort to find the music and the people to help you and your students learn the language.”

Choral mentor Mary Jennings added some thoughts on working with kids whose first language is not English.

“Kids who speak languages other than English as their first language thrive in the music classroom.”  For ESL students, the music class is less intimidating than other classes, as they have the opportunity to be assessed in areas other than their command of English. Jennings said music classes build confidence and teach social cues. There is very rarely a problem with understanding the student, or vice versa. If there is any difficulty, Jennings usually finds someone in the system to help.

For sacred music, Schwab has worked it out with students from various cultures who are not permitted to sing certain songs. In the case of a Jehovah’s Witness student, Schwab allows the student to leave the stage when the chorus is performing a piece the student is not allowed to sing. The student comes back for the remaining songs. Schwab says “I teach music, not religion. You need to sing religious/sacred music because so much music was created with religion as the catalyst. Would we stop using money because it says in “God We Trust”? No. Should we stop singing great choral pieces/masses because they sing about God?”

Schwab added that she also teaches the great American song book, which she believes is multicultural. “It’s OUR culture. If we don’t teach it, kids won’t learn it, these songs will be lost.”

–Sue Rarus, March 17, 2010, © National Association for Music Education