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Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Pop Songs for Elementary Choir: Finding the Right Song

For the last 6 years, I have been incorporating at least one "pop" song into my 5th and 6th grade choir's performances at every concert. I have found it to be a great practice for so many reasons, and over the years I have learned how to make it work most successfully for my students. Last week I shared the benefits I see for incorporating pop music in choir literature, as well as how I take a pop song and make it work in a choral setting- you can catch up on that post here. Today I want to share how I find and choose songs that will be successful and effective with my elementary choirs, and give you some examples of songs I have used over the years.

1. The best pop songs for choir

One of the biggest challenges to incorporating pop music in elementary choir, of course, is finding the right song. My criteria in selecting a pop song to use with my choir are:
  • Age-appropriate material: Obviously one of the first things I consider is the lyrical content. But besides vulgar language and "adult themes", I also tend to steer away from most "love song" material (no matter how tame or wholesome it may be). One of the goals I have for my students in learning pop songs is to work on expressive performance. I am not comfortable (nor are my students!) asking them to sing expressively about romantic love at this age! Unfortunately this makes up a giant portion of pop music, so having this criteria definitely makes my life more difficult (but I think it's worth it). Ideally, I look for songs with a truly powerful and meaningful message that my students can connect with.
  • Melodic and harmonic content: Of course the song needs to be in an age-appropriate range and be singable in an choral setting! Often if a song meets every other criteria on my list I can get around this one with the way I arrange the song (see my previous post for some examples of how I do this), but some songs just cannot be arranged for elementary voices without making the song unrecognizable.
  • Diverse sources: If you've been reading my blog this school year you know that I am very focused on inclusive, anti-oppressive teaching. A big part of this is representation, which includes the artists whose work I use in my teaching. As much as possible, I have tried to incorporate artists of color when choosing my songs (including the performers and the composers), as well as drawing from different styles/ genres within current popular music. 
  • Current: Most of the time I choose songs that were released within the last year. I find that songs from 2-5 years ago generally get a lukewarm response from students- they tend to think that I'm trying too hard to be cool but am actually out of touch with current trends ;) The occasional exception to this rule is when I've done a "standard" from decades ago. When I do that, I usually explain to students that we're doing it more for their parents' benefit, which they seem willing to accept!

2. Sources for finding songs

Another challenge with incorporating pop music is you can't pick out a few songs that work well and then keep using them or they will be outdated! Over my years of using pop songs with elementary choir I have found some go-to ways of searching out new songs that will work well:
  • Students: The best way to find out what students are interested in and stay current on what they are listening to is to ask the students themselves! I will admit I don't often end up using the exact songs they suggest because they don't understand the criteria I need to consider for choral settings, but I often discover artists or sources (like radio stations or specific styles) that I can draw from.
  • TV and movies: I've found a lot of great songs that have the content I'm looking for by looking at music made for the TV shows and movies my students are watching. While there are still romantic themes in some of them, there is usually a lot more diversity in the topics they cover and a lot more age-appropriate.
  • Radio: I've written an entire post about this, but to stay on top of what is current there's really no substitute for listening to the radio! And I've found it's important to find out what stations the students are listening to. In my case the majority of my students are not listening to "top 40" radio- I have 3 different stations saved in my car radio now that different students listen to most often that I try to tune into whenever I can.
  • PS22: If I'm really struggling to come up with song ideas, I'll go to the PS22 chorus YouTube channel and see what they've been up to lately! They do pop songs almost exclusively and I'll often find inspiration from their song selections. They are also a great source for getting ideas for how to arrange the songs!

3. Song examples

Of course I don't recommend necessarily using these specific songs because this list will quickly become outdated, but hopefully this will help give you some ideas of the types of songs and artists that I have found work well with my elementary choir! This list starts with my most recent song selections and goes back to when I first started using pop songs years ago- you'll see that there are a few older songs thrown in there, but most of them were released within the year we performed them.

If you haven't already, be sure to go back and read last week's post on why I use pop songs with my elementary choir, and how I arrange the songs to make them work in a choral setting. What are your thoughts on using pop music in elementary choir? What are some songs you have used that have worked well with your chorus groups? Share your questions, ideas, and suggestions in the comments below!

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Pop Songs for Elementary Choir: Why and How?

For the last 6 years, I have been incorporating at least one "pop" song into my 5th and 6th grade choir's performances at every concert. I have found it to be a great practice for so many reasons, and over the years I have learned how to make it work most successfully for my students. Today I want to share some of the benefits I see, and how I use the songs in a choral setting.

1. Benefits of pop songs for choir

I know there is some disagreement over the merit of including pop music in choral literature, so let's start with the WHY. Here are some of the reasons I decided to incorporate pop music initially, and the benefits I have seen that convince me to continue doing so:
  • Engagement: I readily admit this was the #1 reason I started looking for ways to include pop music initially. I have two pull-out/ optional choirs at my current school: one for 3rd and 4th grade, and one for 5th and 6th grade. I found that there was a significant drop off in interest/ enrollment in the upper grades, because many felt they had already "been there, done that". I save the pop songs for my 5th and 6th grade choir, which gives them something to look forward to and helps the class feel different from what they did in 3rd and 4th grade.
  • Parallel Harmony: This is a natural way to work on students' ability to learn and perform parallel harmony parts by ear. Because many of them are familiar with the song already, many students find it easier to hear the chords/ harmony lines. For students who are just starting to learn to sing parallel harmony, this is an excellent entry point! 
  • Solo Opportunities: One of the other ways I distinguish my upper grades choir from the lower grades choir is by offering opportunities for solos only in the upper grades. Pop songs are usually where these solos are included, and they are a natural place to include them! I find students are generally more eager to audition for these solo parts as well, because they are more confident on the pop songs and because there is an increased "cool factor".
  • Singing Styles: Different genres call for different styles of singing, and including pop songs in our choral literature provides an opportunity to work on a more pop-style of singing. I find including this style in what we learn makes it easier to encourage students to then practice singing in a more traditionally choral/ art music style as well, and in truth, the majority of my students are more likely to find use for pop-style singing in their adult lives anyway!
  • Expression: Pop music (if chosen properly) is one of the best ways to get students this age to work on expressive performance and communicating a message through their song. The right pop song can connect with students' emotions in a way that few art songs/ traditional choral pieces can, so this is a great opportunity to work on communicating those emotions and messages through their performance.

2. Arranging pop songs for choir

Obviously transferring a solo song to a choral setting requires some arranging! Here are some things that I find myself doing most often to make a song most appropriate for an elementary choir:
  • Parallel Harmony: I tend to add a harmony line on the chorus and keep the verses in unison. Sometimes there will be section(s) that already have a harmony singing part in the original recording- sometimes I use the same lines, but often I don't. My main consideration of course is vocal range, so I often end up adding my own harmony line.
  • Simplified Runs: Over the years of doing this I've moved more and more away from simplifying rhythms and melodic lines too much in an effort to make it more "choral"- I find students think it sounds too childish, and often end up more confused anyway- but I do find ways to simplify or remove vocal runs and ornamental notes. Sometimes I do this by making a section with lots of runs into a solo, removing the line altogether, or simplifying the line. 
  • Include Solos: My standard formula tends to be to have everyone sing the first verse in unison, sing the chorus in parts, and then make the subsequent verses (and sometimes other sections like a bridge) into solos or small ensembles. 
  • Partner Singing: Obviously this doesn't work in many songs, but there have been a few times when a song will have 2 sections with the same chord progressions that work together well so I can have them sing the two sections as a partner song. It is a great way to increase the difficulty, add some musical interest if a section is repeated a lot in a song, and incorporate more choral skill-building!
  • Remove Sections: Sometimes there will be just one section of the song that doesn't work for elementary choir for one reason or another. In that case I have sometimes removed the section altogether or replaced it with another one from a different part of the song.
  • Accompaniment: Sometimes there is a great arrangement already written for choir, but I rarely use those- I find these arrangements usually take out too much of the stylistic elements and defeat the purpose of including pop music in the first place! I am often able to get "karaoke" tracks to use, or depending on the song, I have also been lucky enough to have live instrumentalists play with the choir sometimes as well. 

You can read about my criteria for selecting pop songs, how I find them, as well as some examples of songs I have used successfully in the past few years in this follow-up post. For now I'd love to know: what are your thoughts on using pop songs with elementary choir? Have you ever done pop songs with your own choirs? What questions, ideas, and suggestions do you have? I'd love to hear from you and chat with you in the comments below.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

15 Fun Videos for Music Class

I tend to avoid showing full-length movies in my classes, even when I'm out with a sub. I just find my students watch TV and movies so many other places in their life that they truly aren't interested. But for a quick break, an example of a musical concept I'm teaching, a wind-down activity at the end of class, or just a funny momemt to share, I have found lots of great uses for short video clips from YouTube! Today I want to share some of my favorite music-related (and school-appropriate) videos to share with my students in class.

Over the last few years I've found some favorite videos that are
  • entertaining for my elementary and middle school students, 
  • encourage students to think about music in a new way,
  • reflect a variety of backgrounds of musicians and musical genres,
  • are appropriate for even my youngest students,
  • and are short enough to take very little class time.
Of course the internet is an endless source of material- I could keep going and going for days and days with videos like this, but these are some representative favorites!

These little videos are frivolous is many ways but I've come to realize just how important they can be to my classroom. Often it's one of these videos that will inspire a student to go home and try something themselves (like beatboxing with their recorder), help students to see themselves as musicians regardless of their background, build relationships with students by showing a lighthearted side of music and connecting over a shared sense of humor, help them finally grasp a concept, or introduce them to a new genre or instrument. 

What are some of your favorite videos you've shared with your students? I could probably do 5 more of these posts and still not run out of material.... Here are 15 more videos if you want more ideas! I'd love to see some of your best finds! Leave a link or title in the comments below so we can all find some new videos to love :)

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Mid-Year Review in Elementary Music

We're just coming back from break and it's time to get back into the swing of things! I always start off in January with some time to review the fundamentals I introduced to each grade in the fall. Between the chaos of December and the break from school, everyone gets a little distracted and needs a refresher before we're ready to dive into anything new. At the same time, I want to get everyone singing, playing, and moving as much as possible to remind everyone of how much fun music class is! Here are my favorite ways to review with my elementary music students mid-year.

1. Vocabulary/ expression

My favorite way to review dynamic, tempo, and articulation vocabulary and symbols is to put all the words/ symbols on the board and have students sing a song while matching whichever one I point to. I just focus on one area at a time- so just dynamics, just tempo words, etc- and once they get the hang of it I have students come and point to lead the class. It's a great way to throw in some "just for fun" songs that you may not get to use in class otherwise, and it's a really simple way to review with the whole class. This even works with my youngest students to review musical contrasts, like fast/ slow, and the 4 voices- I just use pictures instead of words (I print them out and either just lay them on the floor or put them up on the board).

2. Form

In my brain learning form = movement. Always. I love reviewing form concepts by having students use contrasting movements for contrasting sections- they can either come up with their own, or you can assign specific movements to specific sections. They can also use different props or body parts for different sections- maybe they use a scarf for the A section, a beanbag for the B section, and just their bodies for C, or they use their arms for A, legs for B, and face for C.

3. Pitch identification

I incorporate pitch and rhythm concepts into lessons all year long, but I like to do some focused review of notation/ identification when we come back from break. One of the easiest ways to see how well students know these quickly in a way that's fun for them is with Music Note Races- I wrote a whole post on this activity, which you can read below, but the basic idea is to split the class up into teams and have them race to write the note or name the note. It's a super-simple concept but it works!

4. Rhythm reading

It's not hard to make rhythm review exciting: just use percussion instruments! :) I usually just throw a few measures that include the new rhythmic elements they're learning on the board, practice speaking/ counting them, then let students choose an instrument to use to play them. Often students walk in the first day from break thinking of that one instrument they can't wait to play- this is their chance! You can read more examples and step-by-step directions for how I do this in point #3 of this post:

I hope this gives you some fresh ideas for re-establishing that solid foundation mid-year to ensure success all the way to the finish line! For lesson ideas to start the new school year, head over to this post:

And for review games I like to use at the end of the school year, check out this post:

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Monday, January 7, 2019

Family New Year's Ideas

New Year's Eve has rarely been a significant holiday for me, either as a child or an adult. Mostly because I am not AT ALL a night person, so the idea of staying up late waiting for midnight is not in the least bit appealing! Up until this year, I didn't do anything that interesting to celebrate with my daughters either, but this year we all had an absolute blast on New Year's and we've all agreed we want this to be an annual tradition, so today I want to share what we did for other families who may be looking for something fun to try next year!

1. NYE around the world

The main thing we did all day on New Year's Eve day was watch countries in each timezone celebrate their midnight every hour. I found a few live videos on YouTube that were showing live coverage throughout the day of celebrations around the world, so we were able to easily tune in each hour and see who was up next. We have a giant world map rug in our basement playroom, so we looked at the map and talked about how the time zones work and looked at what order different familiar countries would be celebrating. We only watched for 3-5 minutes each hour most of the time, but it was fun to pause every hour and see everyone celebrating, and the girls loved comparing their favorite firework displays and hearing different languages.

This one was only fun because my daughters were old enough to understand what was happening- they are seven years old and they were the perfect age for this. I wouldn't recommend this one for any children younger than that.

2. Looking at the calendar

Over dinner we got out the outgoing year's calendar and looked through each month, remembering events and birthdays and vacations we had had over the past year. My daughters draw a picture each month to put on the calendar too, so it was fun to look back on those- here's a blog post showing how we make our own family calendar each year by hand. It's almost like having a scrapbook minus the photographs!

3. Fondue

I had never made fondue before this night- somehow it seemed intimidating- but it was a fun and easy meal to put together with minimal cooking, and we all loved it! We had cheese fondue (I used this recipe) for dinner with mini hot dogs, carrots, sugar snap peas, broccoli, apples, ham, and bread. For dessert we had chocolate fondue, of course, with bread, leftover Christmas sugar cookies, apples, strawberries, and bananas. We also picked out some cranberry apple sparkling cider, which made the whole affair feel extra fancy.

4. Keep it lazy

The best part of our day? Staying at home in our pajamas all day relaxing, then going to bed at our normal time feeling like we weren't missing a thing since we already saw midnight come many times over! Especially with the girls still being young, and with school starting back on January 2nd for us, it's still not worth staying up late just to say we did it.

What are your favorite family New Year's traditions? Do you do much to celebrate? I'd love to hear your favorite ideas- I know it's too late for this year but it's fun to think ahead to next year and share while I still remember :) Happy New Year!

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Tuesday, January 1, 2019

December Favorites 2018

The last "favorites" post for 2018- crazy! Of course December is always a fun-filled month so it's hard to choose, but here are some highlights from the past month, told through some of my Instagram photos. Come follow along for some inspiration, and share your own favorites in the comments!

1. Concerts, assemblies, and field trips, oh my!

December is always a crazy busy month for me and this year was no exception! I don't have any pictures from the concerts and programs themselves to share but this corner of my planner with the 4 additional to-do lists (on top of the regular to-do list I have on the opposite page!) sums up the craziness that was December. Sure, it was overwhelming at times, but for the most part I honestly enjoyed seeing my students' success so much this year- what a great way to celebrate all of our hard work! And seeing them genuinely enjoying themselves while performing was amazing. And yes, it's also a highlight to be able to check all of those off of my list and pat myself on the back! ;)

2. Holiday music conversation

Related to all of those aforementioned events and performances: the thought-provoking conversation I had with some very wise educators on Instagram about the place of holiday celebrations in schools and in particular, the way Christmas is centered over other holidays in most US American classrooms. I am most certainly not done with this conversation and hope to continue to think and listen and share. If you didn't see it yet, I saved some of my posts on the topic to my Instagram story highlights (you can see them on my profile page). I'd love to hear your thoughts on this as well!

3. Advent activities

This is always my top highlight for December: doing little Christmas-related activities each day leading up to the 25th with my daughters. And each year is more fun as the girls get older! If you don't know what I'm talking about here's the blog post where I shared my list of activities I planned for this year along with a description of how I made the super simple advent calendar I use each year.

4. Music education blog posts

I love finding great ideas from other bloggers to share each Friday over on my Facebook page! Here are all the amazing posts I shared this past month- if you haven't yet, be sure to read them all:

What were some of your highlights from December? What are you looking forward to in January? I'd love to hear about them in the comments. I hope you found some fresh inspiration amongst my "favorites", and I wish you all the best in the new year!