In 1976, Hans Fenger, a first-year educator in Langley, British Columbia, Canada, was tasked with teaching music to some 60 or so elementary school students between the ages of eight and 12. While Fenger loved music, he hadn’t taught it before, so he chose to focus on the repertoire he was most familiar with, pop hits of the day from artists like David Bowie, Paul McCartney, and the Beach Boys. The students responded enthusiastically, leaping at the opportunity to sing in harmony and play drums, Orff xylophones, and other instruments. Fenger made some recordings of the group on a two-track tape deck, and later pressed a few copies onto vinyl for the students and their parents. These albums lay dormant for more than 20 years, until 2000, when a record collector found a copy of one of them and sent it to a local DJ, Irwin Chusid. Enthralled by what he heard, Chusid shopped the recordings to a number of record labels before Bar/None Records finally accepted the project and turned it into The Langley Schools Music Project – Innocence Despair. According to Wikipedia, the newly released record “immediately created an international buzz, making many end-of-the-year best album lists in 2001.”
While Fenger wasn’t the first person to use “pop” hits as a medium for teaching music to youngsters, the acclaim that his recordings received was astonishing, climbing the Billboard Charts and inspiring the 2003 movie, School of Rock. Perhaps even more important is that, as unconventional as it may have been, the original project was clearly successful in transmitting a love and appreciation for music from teacher to students. Chusid, the DJ who did the legwork to bring the album to a major label, has a Web site dedicated to the project, www.keyofz.com/Langley. There, you can find letters from Fenger’s former students that demonstrate just how meaningful and memorable those experiences were for all involved.
One modern-day parallel to the Langley Schools Music Project is a choral program set in Staten Island’s Public School 22, the PS22 Chorus, directed by Gregg Breinberg. In this issue’s cover story, Breinberg calls Hans Fenger a “kindred spirit,” as both use non-standard repertoire to engage and challenge their students. Be sure to check out Breinberg’s blog, www.ps22chorus.blogspot.com, to see for yourself what it is about this group of talented-but-unassuming fifth graders that has drawn over 12 million viewers and counting to the performances they’ve posted on Youtube.
What are your thoughts on performing “pop” or non-standard repertoire with younger singers? Share them with me at email@example.com.