Motivating young students is an ongoing challenge for choir directors. One of the influencing factors is finding music that reflects the lives of the kids beyond the school walls. There’s lots of fine music in the choral catalogues that helps develop strong voices and a sense of structure and harmony that will serve the students well. However, once they go home they’re usually listening to music that claims a much bigger part of their daily lives. I’ve always been a big advocate of finding ways to blur that separation between school and the streets to help the kids experience more ownership of the music they sing.
An interesting way to do that is to involve local pro musicians as volunteers to supply an ad hoc rhythm section to some of the choir’s performance pieces. I’ve seen that be a strong source of interest and motivation to everyone involved. And for the adventurous educator there’s an opportunity here to reach into the community in ways that can grow important relationships between the students and local music professionals.
The first step in doing this is to find the right music. A little web browsing can turn up some fun and useful pieces for your choir that come from modern commercial styles and have been adapted for SATB voices, etc. I look for songs that have repeated bass lines and guitar figures on the original recordings. The rhythm sections and various instrumental parts of the originals are usually paraphrased in the piano accompaniment, which sometimes will include chord symbols, sometimes not. I add them where needed in anticipation of establishing a rhythm section chart. And yes, I’ll let the kids know what I’m doing. At least some of them are going to hold on to this info.
It can be difficult and time-consuming to vet your way through the herd of local musicians looking for those with the knowledge, interest and integrity needed to be effective volunteer helpers in the school. Rather than beach comb through the community at large, I find that it can be more efficient looking among talent who already help at churches. I try to find music professionals who have knowledge of popular styles, and would like to come to the school occasionally to add depth and variety to the choir’s performances, and also offer some Q&A time to interested students.
There are a few considerations to this adventure that will keep the focus on the kids and their voices – since the keyboard is already covered; I look for rhythm instruments like bass and guitar to add to the mix. I pick musicians who know how add their part without going too far and overpowering the kids. I usually don’t seek out drummers who are used to a full kit, for both logistic and dynamic concerns. A decent percussionist can add wonderful energy to a choral performance with just a shaker and/or conga. And wind players can spice up a piece nicely by improvising a few well-placed licks. Taste is the salient here, and good music pros can provide that and have fun doing it. And when I interview the prospective players I invite each to think about the mentoring aspect of their presence among the students, and invite them to consider sharing some of their history and knowledge of the music business with interested kids. The result – relationships, motivation, relevance and fun – ensues.
Once I know who’s on board I’ll make sure there’s an accurate rhythm chart for them to use. Sometimes the musicians will volunteer to make their own charts. I don’t ask the players to come to every rehearsal, and will usually schedule them to join me and the pianist to rehearse the instruments a few minutes before the singers come in. If the pieces are carefully chosen, it doesn’t take much time to build a good groove. And I love to watch the students’ faces light up the first time they sing with the players supporting them.
I remember being in high school, playing bass with the choir on a song, and meeting the local pro guitar player brought in to help. He told me what a “gig” was, and eventually added me to the band he played in. It was a huge tipping point in my life. Fifty years later I’m still in the music business, volunteering in schools and the community to help young singers find their voice. Have fun!
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 appeared as composer, producer, and performer with a variety of artists. His website is fredbogert.com, and his choral scores are available on sheetmusicplus.com. Fred lives in Louisville, KY.