By Fred Bogert
Elementary-aged kids so often have strong curiosity and adventurous spirits. When it’s time to sing together they can put lots of energy into awakening the energy in a piece of music and expressing an earnest joy that is both captivating and contagious to everyone around. That being said, there are times when we who lead them are challenged to find and/or develop materials that honor the sincerity of kids’ commitment without boring them with music that seems too dated or scholarly to engage their attention.
In this internet age our daily lives surround us with a volume and variety of music that was unheard of only a few decades ago. As Chris Anderson pointed out so insightfully in his landmark book “The Long Tail”, the pipeline of music retailing exploded when the internet came along, producing an unlimited supply of music of all calibers and quality for us to be exposed to. Here’s how this important cultural shift applies to our “adventurous choir”. Our kids and their parents are, on average, knowledgeable of an incredible depth of music repertoire, something that challenges us as directors to keep bringing fresh, fascinating pieces to our choirs and our performances so that our programs reflect all the wonderful music we’re surrounded with in our community.
In days past, we relied on our own limited but efficient choral music pipeline to supply us with music to teach our kids. And while those focused resources still exist, it’s healthy for us and the kids to look for ways that we can bring some music into our classes that blurs the separation between school and community. In a lot of cases we can’t just look to print publishers to supply us with catalogue that pinpoints this individual need. We know our kids, we know our community, so it would be good for us to us our own creativity to help the kids find some cool new stuff to sing.
A wonderful example of this is the elementary choir program of Gavin Tabone and the Barton Hills Choir, as featured in the last issue of Choral Director. There’s also tons of good reading available online about how they delight the folks of the Austin, Texas area with their performances of songs by the Grateful Dead, David Bowie, Foo Fighters, etc. Tabone has succeeded in building an adventurous choir that we can all admire and learn from. Let’s go over some of the observable aspects of the Barton Hills choir and see how we might use them in developing our own kids’ choir songs.
First, of course, we need to pick songs that lend themselves to kids’ choir. Obviously, we have to find songs that have family-friendly lyrics, which is easier than it may seem. Metal bands, stoner bands, etc., most have songs in their list that tell stories our kids can enjoy. Weed out the R-rated stuff, and we’ll look next for songs that have accessible melodies. Lots of pop singers love to show off their three-octave range, which makes those songs harder to prepare for young voices. In the list you come up with of songs with good melodies, look for songs with steady rhythms and fairly simple structure. “Born in the USA”, for example, takes two chords and a rock beat to the simplistic extreme. What we’re looking for is a harmonic and rhythmic texture somewhere between that and the “Bohemian Rhapsody.” You have literally millions to choose from.
It’s good to find a familiar song that fits the above criteria and also has a fun instrumental “hook”. Not so much a rhythm hook like the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week”, or ‘Retha’s “Respect”, but more like the horn line that starts “Low Rider”, or the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple”. It’s fun to have your kids sing the hook with la’s , doo’s, etc., between the lyric sections, and makes it easier to have them focus on coordinated motions during those parts. Fun stuff! And, of course, it helps to find songs that fit the accompaniment skills of those you’re engaging to play along with your choir. A decent acoustic guitarist can paraphrase an energetic rhythm section as long as the chord chart isn’t too busy. And, of course, a pianist can carry the melody and harmony notes to help the kids, something that’s harder to do on a guitar. Ideally, it helps to have bass, drums, keys and guitar available for performance, but that’s not necessary for most of the modern catalogue you can search through. This is where it’s so important that you know your current choir and how to fit them with the songs you choose.
Whenever I go through this process with elementary kids, I consider writing out the parts myself when I need to, and this is what I usually do: I write in two parts, each with a fairly narrow range (less than an octave), with plenty of unison as needed to fit the group’s ability to harmonize. Once I have laid out the song’s melody in the appropriate key, I’ll look for single lines and/or solos on the verses, with light harmonies on occasion, and solid harmonies on the choruses. If talent allows I can add a descant or counter melody in places. The Beatles catalogue is full of songs that have this sort of treatment. I try to avoid introducing elements that aren’t in the source song, because doing that adds a lot of work for the kids that usually isn’t worth the effort. I feel it’s better to just do more songs that are easier to learn by referring to the recording while learning the scored parts. I’ll rehearse with the piano, playing out the parts until they’re solid, and then playing more chordal stuff to reinforce rhythms as needed.
As the rehearsal progress, it’s fun to bring in musicians from the community to help with the rhythm sections. Musicians get excited about the opportunity to jam with the kids on songs they know! Kids love it, too.
By the way, for those of you who are note players, websites like sheetmusicplus.com can get you started with transcribed lead sheets and piano scores of a bunch of pop songs that you can order in different keys to fit your gang. Once you get those you can adapt them and paraphrase as needed using Finale or Sibelius. Once you’ve gone through the process a few times you’ll get a feel for what kind of song criteria to meet and how to efficiently develop new tunes with your program. Give it a year or two and word will get out that there’s something special going on!
Fred Bogert has spent the last 45 years in the music business. He has produced, written for and performed on three Grammy-nominated CDs, as well as appearing as composer, producer and performer with a variety of artists, from John McEuen and David Amram to the Austin Symphony and the Nashville Chamber Orchestra. Bogert’s Nashville studios included RCA Studio B and Studio C, where he recorded over three thousand songs for a who’s who of independent artists. His website is fredbogert.com, and his choral scores are available on sheetmusicplus.com. Bogert lives in Louisville, KY.