Rethinking the Singalong
By Kim Malai
Article originally posted on OUPBlog
When two young veterans came to our elementary school to give a talk and show slides about their experience in Afghanistan, the children were captivated with their presentation. The slides brought to life much of what the soldiers saw and experienced. As the music teacher, I planned to have the children say thank you in a musical way. I didn’t choose a patriotic song, but a song that exemplified the love and appreciation we all had for these soldiers. I chose one song that the entire student body of the school could sing together.
In preparation for this event, we practiced a song called “Still in My Heart” by Teresa Jennings of Music K8 Magazine. With help from another teacher, I figured out the sign language and taught it to all my classes.
After the soldier’s presentation, I announced we would like to thank them for coming as well as thank them for their service. The entire student body stood up from their seats and sang the ballad with the sign language and accompaniment. The lyrics included words like, “Still in my heart you are, still in my mind, still in my dreams, forever.” For the grownups, it was difficult to keep a dry eye, and the veterans appeared moved. My hope is that everyone in that room remembered the love radiating through the air.
Although it was not technically a singalong, the act of a whole student body singing together and sharing feelings and togetherness hopefully gave a wonderful memory. This assembly benefited from a sincere and directed use of ‘song’ to connect. “Connecting” is also one of the new core arts music standards.
What I am proposing is that you purposefully put the singalong into a different category in your mind. Instead of the category music activity put it into the category ‘community.’ The traditional singalong in the 1950s which emphasized the folk song is only one type. As you rethink the singalong, imagine a scenario in which every person in the room or auditorium is thinking “I am here with you.” Activities such as moving all the same way, saying the same words, listening together, and singing the same song are all examples of taking part in something bigger than you.
Music is interwoven into the school’s calendar. It is not just a fill-in activity or even a once-a-year event. The music teacher can be a leader in carving a stronger niche for music within the social structure of the school. For example, you could include an activity within the singalong in which each class or grade shares something different. During this show and tell, each grade takes their turn to sing a song or demonstrate a music activity they learned to the remaining group.
Singalongs can too easily go on automatic, especially if they are well-known songs. They need a teacher trained in proper singing to guide it. Singing “Jingle Bells” as a group works much better if the children are not screaming the refrain!
You may love standard singalong songs (as I do) like “This Land is Your Land,” by Woodie Guthrie, but also be open to different types of music. Bring in songs from different countries, in different languages. If the language is too ‘difficult’, then let the group sing just the refrain and you sing the verses— but it needs to be purposeful. Ask yourself, what are we communicating to each other?
With surgical precision, the music teacher needs to create both a relaxed and fun atmosphere, but also challenge everyone to not be shy and open their mouths and sing. Look around the room. Are the teachers singing too? Are the students singing and not yelling?
Here is one example. Not every music teacher would be comfortable with this, but during an assembly, I was known to briefly stop the singing and interject some brief instructions to improve the performance. I believed in occasionally using the assembly as a giant classroom. I often would talk to the kids in the audience like we were having a private talk. I would stop to explain how we could communicate the words better and ask them to try again. Sometimes I would conduct a vocal warmup with the whole group in front of their teachers. This was my way of keeping it informal while keeping the quality of the singing high.
The singalong can be the expression that pulls the group together. On the practical end, it was essential I got administrative permission for the song I was going to do and to lock in the stage setup. For the following example, I got permission to use a specific song for an upcoming assembly. In the classroom, we spent time discussing the song’s history and why its use of slang was so important.
I used what I like to call the power of the voice. It’s basically voice projection. It’s something you often hear during a sermon or a speech from an important speaker. While we were honoring the local civil rights matriarch present at our assembly, I introduced a song in which the student body sang the refrain. But I introduced it not by making a speech or just starting to sing. For the song introduction, I held the microphone and respectfully exclaimed, “Ain’t gonna’ let NOBODY turn me round!” By using this unexpected introduction, I had everyone’s attention. I then explained that this song was a powerful protest song when people marched for civil rights in the early 1960s. I cued the students to be ready to sing “Turn me round, turn me round, turn me round…keep on a-walking, keep on a-talking, marchin’ up to Freedom Land.” When I started singing and the student body chimed in for the refrain, it became a “we are all together” moment.
The power of the voice became the power of the song, and as a result, accomplished the connection of the people, all through singalong.
About the author:
Kim Milai has worked as an elementary music teacher in public and private schools for the past twenty-five years. As well as being a NYC rock drummer in bands that opened for groups like the B52’s, Cindy Lauper and Living Colour, she produced and performed in her own children’s music CD, Dinobone, Dinobone, Have You Heard?. She has Kodály training along with certification in Suzuki flute 1A and 1B. Kim earned a Masters in Music Education at the Eastman School of Music and currently lives with her husband and two children at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
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