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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!

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