As part of an India & Chinese Story Theater, my sixth grade band combined with the sixth grade choir to perform "Jasmine Flower," a Chinese folk song from the 18th century. While the band students had been working on this song for months and did some composition projects relating to Chinese folk music, the choir had only recently learned this song.
The first time the band and choir rehearsed together last week, I gave a brief history lesson about the song. I talked about the Xing Dynasty, the use of this song in recent pro-democracy protest, the gesture of giving flowers as gifts and I even got personal telling my students how I played this song at my grandfather's funeral. After hearing all of this, they did an okay job rehearsing and I figured that they would bring more energy closer to the performance.
Unfortunately a week later, not much had changed.
One of the reasons I got so frustrated was that I didn't know what to do to fix this issue. I can almost always come up with some kind of crazy idea to get kids inspired but I was coming up with nothing. It wasn't an ego thing. I mean the kids would be fine, but I just wanted to make this song and the experience of performing it more meaningful.
As I was driving home that evening the lyrics of the song echoed in my head.
I bring this branch of sweet, scented flowers,Then it hit me: maybe they didn't understand the point of the song because they've never given flowers to anyone. I immediately called up one of the other music teachers and the drama teacher and they confirmed my idea wasn't crazy, but actually a good one. The idea was to have the student serenade people in the school in small groups and give them flowers.
Sweetly picked from Dewey blow'rs.
Light sweet scent as a summer aim
These I bring for you,
Blossoms blooming fresh with dew,
Fragrant flows for you.
That evening, my wife and I bought three big bouquets of flowers and my Diana did a great job arranging them into eight smaller bouquets. I emailed a bunch of different teachers to see if anyone would be up for a random serenade the next morning.
Standing in front the combined sixth grade band and choir, I told the group of almost seventy students the plan. We were going to split up into four smaller groups and serenade different people in the school and present flowers. To my relief, my students were excited about this idea. Knowing they were going to perform in front of people, we had an incredibly productive ten minutes of rehearsing and then we headed out.
The four groups performed two times each. They performed for the middle school secretary, the elementary school secretary, the main office secretaries, two groups of their sixth grade teachers, a teacher assistant, a preschool class and a kindergarten class. Every one of these serenades were a surprise except for the classroom performances.
The students snuck around in small groups, walked into these locations, started singing and then handing out the flowers. The sixth graders performed with big smiles on their faces as they saw the expressions of delight and surprise in their audiences.
When we brought the grade back together and ran the song the energy they performed with was completely different. They were not as energized as they were when they did the serenades in their smaller groups but it was a lot better. The conversation with the group was no longer, "we need you to bring more energy to this song," rather it was "we know you can sing this song with great expressions and energy, so transfer the joy of the serenades to the bigger group performance."
Music has to be connected with a joyous and meaningful experience in order to have a great performance. Often times this happiness comes from the hard work of learning a song, however other times you need to dig into the deeper meaning of a song to find an unforgettable and meaningful experience.
Part of what made this work was picking people in the school to perform for that I was sure would give them positive feedback. The other piece that made this work was that the drama teacher, the other music teacher and I presented this with genuine excitement. As we took them around the school we not only facilitated these performances but had fun with the kids.
Often when I come up with ideas like this, I tell other teachers that this is either the dumbest thing I've every thought of doing or the smartest. Was sending sixth graders around the schools to serenade people giving them flowers the dumbest thing I've ever thought of?
Well, after seeing the big smiles and bright eyes of my sixth graders as they performed this song for their parents, it's definitely not the dumbest idea I've every had.