So, I'm day three into a project to help my students compose and perform their own choral songs for our June concert. I'm currently teaching choir at Jefferson Middle School in Olympia, WA. I have four separate classes - 2 sections of 6th grade choir (Jag Choir) and 2 sections of 7/8 grade choir (Apex Singers). I realized today as I was working that I need to chronicle our process. So, this first post will be a re-cap of the first three days. After this, I will try to update our progress on a regular basis. Starting after Spring Break, we'll be working on this project on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Background - I didn't come up with this idea on my own. I learned about this at the NW-ACDA convention in Spokane, WA in March 2022. Dr. Giselle Wyers (University of Washington) and Dr. Angela Kasper (Western Washington University) presented a session about how they had accomplished this project (over Zoom!) with the choirs at Western Washington. The Advanced Treble Chorale came and performed the song that they had written together...and it. was. amazing!! Now, I don't teach an advanced treble choir at a university. I teach middle school where I've been struggling to get some of my students to even make noise. Nonetheless, I decided that I wanted to give it a go and adapt the ideas to meet my middle school students' needs.
Day 1 - March 14, 2022
I decided to get them used to working in groups and in a position that making noise with their mouths wasn't needed (so they would all participate). We started with body percussion. I realized after my first class that it would be more effective to do this as a whole class first. I started off with a basic beat using stomping and clapping. After the class got in a comfortable loop, I added a new rhythm on top of that one and invited students to join me. They saw what was possible. They separated themselves into groups and I asked them to go through the same process: start with one level, then add a second. All students were required to participate. I moved about the room giving aid where needed if a group was stuck. After several minutes (5-8?), I invited them to move to a group near them and share the rhythms they had created. Through the day, there wasn't one group that had the same rhythm as any other. I had one group at the end of the day that couldn't seem to get anything made, but I think that was a personality issue. Overall, I felt the first day was a success at getting them creating in groups.
Day 2 - March 22, 2022
We talked about themes for our songs. I presented them with a list of core values/themes/ideas that I compiled from the internet. I counted them off randomly into 5 groups and asked them to identify 3 of the items on the list that were important to them. I gave about 5 minutes for this part. We came back together and all the groups shared their three. We ended up with between 12-15 topics (depending on the number of duplicate suggestions). We then took a vote to narrow it down. I let each student vote for their top two (show of hands). We narrowed it down to 4 topics. I then asked each student to select one of the four. We took a second vote, and sometimes a third until we came up with their topics. One class chose Wealth, the next Challenges, the third Loyalty, and the last Loyalty and Love (they were exactly split). I assigned them the task of finding texts for these topics. I told them they could be poems, quotes, or something they wrote themselves. I gave them over a week for this because we had a concert the following Tuesday and had to finish preparation for that.
Day 3 - March 31, 2022
They were to have their selected texts turned in by today. I knew I would need time to compile them before we looked at the submissions, so instead we looked at texts unrelated to their topics. I put together a document of quotes and poems of varying lengths and idea. We looked at two different quotes from Zig Zigler, one from Leo Tolstoy, and one from Henry Ford. We had a discussion about what made a quote "songable" (a term one of my students came up with for if it can be easily made into a song). We talked about the natural rhythm of some texts (ex: "Take time to be quiet" - Zig Zigler; it has a very nice rhythm with emphasis on time and quiet) and how others don't roll off the tongue as nicely, or have awkward words to sing. I asked them to pass that quote from Zigler around the room, each saying it out loud, but trying to say it differently than the person in front of them. We were able to feel the rhythm of the words and see what was important in the text.
Next, we looked at a couple poems from Emily Dickenson. Since her poetry has been set often by composers, we discussed what makes her poetry so songable. We looked at two examples and discussed which would be easier to set then why. Then, I showed them a poem from Shel Silverstein ("Safe?") first without its accompanying picture and then with the picture. It wasn't funny without the picture. The context of a poem goes a long way in determining if it will work for a piece of music. We looked at another Shel Silverstein poem ("The Selfish Child's Prayer") that I set to music years ago for a college music theory assignment. I read the poem and asked them what choices they would make about style as they set this one. We came to the conclusion that since this a prayer, it would probably sound "church-y."
The last poem was called "Where Shall the Baby's Dimple Be?" by Josiah G. Holland. I wanted them to explore and notice the form and how that made this poem songable. The poem is laid out really nicely in a verse/chorus form. They were able to notice that and see how that could help write a song if parts repeat.
The last activity on day 3: we revisited the quotes at the beginning and voted on one to set to music. We talked as a class about the important words. I tried to follow their choices even if they were different than the choices I would make. We underlined the important words. I then had them say a phrase or the whole quote out loud with those words emphasized to notice the natural inflection in their voices. We then made a line sketch above the words to show the natural rise and fall of the voices. We didn't get to the last step which would be to assign actual melodic ideas to the line sketch, but we talked about how it could be done. We'll get to that another day.
If you'd like to keep up on this project, come back often and I'll try to keep posting about our progress. I've never attempted anything like this with any choir let alone middle schoolers. Wish me luck! Here we go!
Composer, Choral Conductor, DMA Student,