Friday, March 31, 2017

Year 7: Week 28 – Putting The Band (and choir) Together

For our middle school students’ curricular music class, they either choose band or choir.  The strength of both the band and the choir are interrelated. If the band kids for example have more performances or have parties that the choir doesn’t, then there are equity issues in the educational experiences of the students.

One way to address this is that we have the band and choir perform songs together. This is not common practice at other middle schools, but it’s something that we feel it is important to create an integrated band and choir curriculum and help the students feel a sense of community within their grade.  There have times when this has worked really well and other times there have been issues.

Not all songs lend themselves to having band instruments and balance between middle school band students and choir students is a significant issue. Band students often play with a louder dynamics as beginners and over time learn how to play with a softer tone. However many choir students in middle school while developing their head voice, sing at a softer volume and don’t develop a louder singing voice until later.

In the past, we did a Chinese folk song with band and choir. That one was a stylistic stretch for the band students and to address the balance, we had the band play by themselves, then choir sing by themselves and combine them later in the song. In contrast, last year we did “Glory,” from the film Selma, which worked really well because there were instrumental parts that filled in parts of the phrase where there wasn’t singing.

Today we put together “A Change Is Goin' To Come,” and “We Are Young,” with the 8th grade band and choir. “A Change Is Goin' To Come,” was a choir arrangement that came with instrumental parts. That’s always helpful because even if the parts are too hard (which they were), you can simplify them.  For “We Are Young,” the band has their own arrangement and we figured that the choir could just join in during the bridge.

A room full of seventy-some 8th graders is hard to manage. Basic things like, “when I step on the podium, please be quiet,” don’t work as well in that setting. However, once we got going the collective energy in the room took over and the kids really got into it. Feeling the energy and sound of instrumentalist while you sing, something I didn’t experience until college, is really special and having the band students experience what it’s like to interact with vocalists is a fun and unique experience.

Teaching-wise being in that room of kids and working the choir teacher to put that those songs together was the highlight of my week. These kids are very much 8th graders and don’t often demonstrate outward their enthusiasm, so it was really encouraging that a handful of students were visibly excited after working on these songs.

The rehearsal didn’t run as smooth as I would have liked but the music-making was good.  Yes, putting middle school bands and choirs together is a crazy idea, but we’ve made it work. Understanding that being a musician means that you are part of a community is central to music education and if we can create that for our students across ensembles, they will be inspired to create it for themselves.

Working on combined band and choir pieces is an excuse to collaborate with the choir teacher.  If that part of it wasn't fun, I wouldn't keep working on these projects.  At the end of "A Change Is Goin' To Come," we had agreed to slow down the song and conduct each of the final notes.  What we didn't decided on was who was going to lead.  When we got to that section, we looked at each other, and laughed at each other while we played conducting chicken waiting to see who would take the lead.  I don't know if any of the kids noticed how much fun that moment was, but it's time like that which we laugh about, which keep me coming back for more.

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