Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Wanna Sing Along?

I've written before about my family's chagrin at the notion of my singing in public. And if you've been following along these many months (and who hasn't?) you'll know my epic and inspiring tale of moving from shame to shameless in my willingness to display my poor musical abilities before audiences both willing and otherwise.

Lest you think I'm merely being self-deprecating, Jack's dad Karl (a barbershop singer in his spare time) recently responded to my apology to him for offending his ears by saying, "You're not exactly a bad singer, but you do tend to change keys at the beginning of each line, which makes it kind hard to sing along. Once you've chosen a key, however, you're not so bad."

This is the highest compliment I've ever received as a singer, other than the time a former girlfriend compared my voice to Andrew Gold's (look him up to enjoy another laugh at my expense).

Music is important to all of us and I know few people who don't have a collection of recorded music or a favorite music radio station. If you ask adult people what they like about their music, most shrug and say something like, "It makes me feel good," or "It takes me back," or "It feeds my soul." I have a lot of friends who will tell you it's all about how it fills their body, making them want to dance. Some love making their own music. They have a piano or guitar at home which they say relaxes or inspires them.

For most of us, however, the music we we make or enjoy on a day-to-day basis is something we do alone, like singing along to the radio while driving, or perhaps with family members (less critical ones than mine!) and that's a beautiful thing. But the luckiest ones, to my mind, are those of us who get to regularly raise our voices with those of others, be it in praise of god, as a member of a barbershop quartet, or in the company of preschoolers.

I'm sure there are all kinds of academic-y explanations for what singing together does for people, but for me it's about creating a moment of unity or oneness with my fellow humans. When our voices rise together in song, be it a Top 40 ditty or a funeral dirge, we do so as a single entity, every voice an equal part of a the greater whole. Every great community needs its songs of unity, be they anthems, fight songs, or the hymns of praise. There was a time when corporations had company songs. Employees are probably too cynical these days, but I still think it's a pity those have gone away.

All preschool teachers sing with their children, and if they don't they should. Nothing draws a class together better than singing.

With the 2-year-olds it's all about singing the same songs over and over. I've never done the math, but I doubt we have more than two dozen songs in our repertoire, cycling through the same tunes again and again with little variation. Two-year-olds are all about the greatest hits, often complaining if I skip their favorite. Yesterday, as we sang If You're Happy And You Know It yet again, I was taken by how loudly and boldly these little guys were singing, especially Elliott whose voice rose above the rest, off-key, of course, in classic Teacher Tom style. Yes, I was holding up photographs of children with "happy," "sad," "angry" and other expressions working on helping these children, who currently straddle the divide between parallel and interactive play, identify some of the more obvious emotional cues that they'll need for successfully navigating their expanding social world. And yes, each time we sing, "clap your hands," or "stomp your feet," we're giving them practice in the fine art of following instructions. But the real significance of the song is that we're making that song together.

With the 3-5 class we also cycle through our larger core collection songs, but as is appropriate for these older children, the songs become more elastic, stretching and bending to suit their growing comfort level and need for variety. Many of the songs we learned as 2-year-olds now have pauses during which the children raise their hands to suggest their own verses or variations; we've moved from merely singing together, to actually composing new songs based upon the old, right on the spot, like a preschool jam session. Sometimes we even make up brand new songs of our own, like during yesterday's hike back from the bus stop when Marcus suggested that we "Stomp, stomp, stomp," "skip, skip, skip," and "hop, hop, hop." It helps that we all by now know a collection of simple tunes to which we can insert new words.

I'm the most unlikely song leader in the world, and I love it. Wanna sing along? I'll teach you to do it off-key.

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Unknown said...

"...for me it's about creating a moment of unity or oneness with my fellow humans."

Friedrich Nietzsche's first major work was "The Birth of Tragedy" where he outlines two very different inspirational sources of art. The Apollonian is about control and enduring beauty (think sculpture). The Dionysian is about passion and losing oneself in the art (think unchoreographed dance, or improvised rap, maybe).

Not only should all people have an artistic outlet -- they should have (and be taught in school) art that incorporates each of these inspirations.

(For the record, I don't sing barbershop, but once sang acapella jazz -- but that's not essential to the story.) ;->

Unknown said...

To make my point more explicit:
The "losing oneslef in the art" -- when done in a group context -- is the source of "a moment of unity or oneness." Maybe we all need Dionysian art BOTH alone AND with others....

Floor Pie said...

Yes! I love this. Art is process, and even the worst singing can be inspirational.

I wrote about this a while back:

If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out

Anonymous said...

My son would probably argue, once he can form coherent sentences anyway, that I'm in contention for being the world's worst singer. So, I usually just reserve my singing for the shower.

Eternal Lizdom said...

Music is a big part of my life- and one that I've just been reconnecting with the past year as I joined the Praise Team at church. It's not a "choir" and the commitment is just week to week. But there is something very intimate and special about singing with a small group like that. I've bonded into this group and it's become a very important part of who I am and what I do. And when I think back to my music roots- it's a big old "duh" that I didn't get involved sooner. Music goes waaaaay back for me.

I've also been trying a tip I was once given- to sing to my kids when I'm angry. If I sing my requests, I avoid yelling and I get their attention better. And we often end up completing whatever we need to do and then break down into silliness.

Deborah Stewart said...

"All preschool teachers sing with their children, and if they don't they should. Nothing draws a class together better than singing"

Yes - even the one's who sing off-key:) I loved your post today. Well I love them everyday but singing in the classroom is something particularly close to my heart!

Kat said...

I'd love to sing along! I have to admit that one of the reasons I love teaching 4's is that I get to sing (not so well), dance, hug, sit on the floor, paint, blow bubbles, and squish playdough between my fingers every single day. Ah, the perks of being a teacher to a room full of littles.

Vanessa Kerr said...

Oh my gosh.. I was laughing so hard through all of this! You are a sensational writer capturing those moments that we have all experienced but don't have the talent to write about it! I'm so glad I stumbled across your blog.

I'm excited to hear more...



I agree, singing is a wonderful activity to share with people. I think that's wonderful you share that with your students. Thanks for your comment, I always find them very funny :)

Unknown said...

OK, well, this made me think of something I have been needing to talk about for ages (or since last week) and although it is not really on topic at all, but-
You know what? I just typed it out and it is too long and complicated for this forum. Do you watch the show Glee? If so, perhaps we can have an email discussion about something on there...
: )

Teacher Tom said...

@Becky . . . I rarely watch TV, but my daughter is a huge Glee fan. I hear good things about it, but whenever I set down to watch anything, I fall asleep!

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