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What do I say to a student ...? (pop music)

What do I say to my 5th-12th grade students who frequently ask me to sing "more modern music of their generation."  I don't mind doing some contemporary arrangements if they're good.  But so many are just plain awful!!  How do I explain to a 10 year old that it isn't my job to teach them what is on the radio.  But to expose them to the rich heritage of HUNDREDS of years of music that is out there?  
 
"Mr. W., why are we singing this old stuff?  Why don't we sing something that's from our generation on the radio and stuff."  Is the question that is posed to me on a weekly basis.  What do you say to your students/ensemble members.  
 
Our school is too small to have a show choir or jazz ensemble, much less the talent to sing complicated well arranged pop/rock/show tunes.
 
THANKS!!
David
Replies (22): Threaded | Chronological
on August 29, 2013 4:00pm
I've been asked recently "why don't we sing more pop music."  "Why don't we sing more music from OUR generation??"  I know that students crave that kind of familiarity.  I know that they crave that driving 4/4 beat. I also know that colleges tend to foster the idea that classical music is an upper echelon to pop music.  And I agree with them to a point.
Here's my thought.  It is my job to open up the minds of these students to more than just pop or rock music.  It is NOT my job to teach them how to classically sing Carly Rae Jepson who never wrote that song to be classically sung in the first place.  When I choose pop music I refuse (for vocal health reasons) to have my students belting.  The rich history of music in this world has indeed evolved because of the changes in society.  And composers either changed with those times or faded away.  I listen to pop music EVERY day on my way home from work.  However, because I was exposed to classical music in high school I have developed a strong and long lasting appreciation for it.  
 
Here's another thought, and this ties into whether the arrangments are of quality or not.  Students will do something if they know they can be successful at it and it somehow peaks their interest.  No student wants to walk into something where they know they'll fail.  It has been my experience that students bought into what I was "selling" because they realized that not only was the music interesting and challenging, but that they actually sounded good doing it.  There is an aesthetic to hiting a 4+-part chord in a classically oriented piece that is inexplicably awesome.  So yes, students could come into class and sing "call me mabye" arranged by the best arranger in the world, but due to the nature of the fact that it was written as a pop song, for a soloist, and not a vocal jazz ensemble piece or a choral selection, it has a significantly harder time achieving that affect and has 9 times out of 10 left my students underwhelmed.  We did it, we did it well, but in the end it was less than they hoped for.  
 
One last point I'd like to make - quality breeds quality.  If the pop/jazz/rock song in it's original form is of true quality, it will be complex chordally, melodically, rhythmically, and the lyrics will be poignant and meaningful.  It needs to have more than a few repeating chords, it needs to have more than shallow pointless lyrics, and the melodic/rhthmic structure needs to show that creative thought was put into it's creation.  NOT OFTEN DO YOU FIND THAT!!!  I think that is why it is so hard to find pop music arranged well.  It is hard to make silk from a sows ear.  I think this is a BIG part of the reason universities do not appreciate pop/rock music in their programs because regardless of the arrangement, the original is simply immature and lacks substance in its musical structure.  So why waste the time perpetuating it in choir when there are so many more quality pieces and time periods you could be exposing your students to..?  Again... I don't get paid to teach you how to belt like Miley Cyris, or shake your jaw like Whitney Houston.  It just isn't.  There is a time and a place (i.e show choir, pop choir, a capella choir) for that and curricular choir in my opinion just isn't the place.  I keep kids in choir because they see their success and feel good about that.  Not because I tell them they're amazing and let them sing the same song they'll hear on the radio after school.
 
With that all being said, to each their own.  This is simply my perspective and how I go about my teaching.  
 
YOUR TURN!  GO!!!
Applauded by an audience of 5
on August 31, 2013 10:48pm
To appease them, we will do "YouTube Karaoke" sporadically. I'll let them pick a pop song or two (appropriate, of course) and let them sing along. It's a rare activity- no more than two or three songs a week. Our spring show is a pop music show, oth than that, they know pop music is not in our repertoire. (darn that "Pitch Perfect" movie!!!)
on September 22, 2013 5:43pm
There's no perfect solution...
Just a couple of thoughts:
 
- I think the students who claim "That's not the song!" are exactly right. Maybe one of the responses for "Why don't we do pop music" is "Solo songs don't sound right when sung by a group".
 
- I don't think it's appropriate to try to apply concert-music standards of musicality and beauty to pop songs; the result is almost sure to satisfy no one.
 
- Getting asked for pop music, and in response bringing in something from the 1960s, is (50 years later) a little pitiful and almost comical. (Of course there's good music from the 1960s and it's a great idea to sing some of it, but it's a history lesson, not a pop song.) When I was a high-school student in the 1980s, nobody tried to get me to sing pop songs from the 1930s, and I'm glad they didn't. 21st-century pop music has a life span of months, or a few years in the case of the big hits. As a student, I would rather have sung something by Brahms than slog through things my teacher claimed had been pop songs when my grandfather was a young(ish) man. (Luckily, that never happened.)
 
- Much of pop music's popularity, and often the reason it gets requested, is its "transgressiveness" (if that's even a word) - if we take the "bad" out of pop music, then often we're taking away its reason for existence. One of the most musical, energetic, funny, and fun-to-sing pop songs of the past few years (one by Cee Lo Green from 2010, which out of politeness I won't name) won't be showing up in the repertoires of respectable choirs any time soon. :)
 
- In the same vein, responding to requests for pop music with an answer that amounts to "OK, but nothing controversial" is, to put it bluntly, kind of missing the point.
 
- I think it depends a great deal on the particular group of students, and on the community you're in, and other parts of the context. What works fine for one group in one place would turn out very differently elsewhere.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 9, 2013 12:57pm
I would have to disagree, I feel that applying concert-music standards of musicality and beauty to pop songs is right on target. Point out the fault of contemporary music, and then use the same work ethic and have the same expectations for the pop tune as you would if you were working on Symphony of Psalms.  Just because the original isn't beautiful doesn't mean it can't be.
 
 
 
 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 8, 2013 8:37pm
I was asked the very thing last week, and we ARE singing one contemporary piece that I can abide by!  I gently explained that "it's MY JOB to expose you (chorus) to a wide diet of styles and genres, and arrangements that are educationally sound."  I said, "I would be a really poor teacher if I only introduced you to things you are already familiar with, although that might feel the most "comfortable" to you."  "Your ELA teachers have you read new stuff each year--you are not STILL reading "Jack and Jill", are you?"  I also told them to "be open minded about making 'new friends' with pieces of music.  As they say on National Public Radio, 'All music was once new', and it's good to make NEW friends.  Don't be prejudiced against a new piece of music just because it's new. It just might turn out to eventually be your best friend!"  I told them how that was true with my select choir: last year they had a new (and challenging!) piece of music.  At first, no one liked it much, but once they got to KNOW it and UNDERSTAND it, many told me it was their favorite.  I find my chorus is now approaching the "old stuff" with a slightly more open mind.  They dislike being questioned if they are being "prejudiced". 
on October 9, 2013 6:55am
I often grapple with others on this issue.   I teach Middle School General music and Chorus in a school of about 450 a .  In my lessons we have a hearty mix of "the rich heritage of HUNDREDS of years of music that is out there" and more contemporary pieces. 
 
For example, one of my classes was out of control, would not listen, they were lost in every definition of the word. One particularly contrary student crossed her arms, pulled her hair across half of her face, and slumped back in her chair and asked "pfft. Can we do some Motley Crue?"
 
I jumped on that question and the next day we were singing "Home, Sweet Home" and eventually had the class singing in three parts. (none of them are in my chorus)
 
I guess my point is this.  Don't be afraid to delve into newer "less academic" music.  There are learning opportunities in every piece of music, from Mozart to Justin Bieber, there is something  that can be learned.  Whether it is the intricacies of the rhythms in rap, to "hey lets learn to hear a I-vi-IV-V progression and how to build chords so we can start figuring songs out on our own" to the form and structure of the Classical Mass, there is something to be learned everywhere. 
 
Especially in this day and age where budget cuts are rampant and we are often on the chopping block finding ourselves justifying our program.    Don't be afraid of what is new and different, because if you get your students involved, if you get them engaged in music, eventually they as a tax payer and voter will be there to support you.
 
Dangle a popular music concert in front of them as a carrot.  If you can learn these difficult pieces, and put in the work ethic, we will do "what makes you beautiful" we can learn "total eclipse of the heart" we can learn "I can't fight this feeling anymore". Use popular music as a reward. Treat it as if it is so cool, so awesome, that it is just too much to do every day. You wouldn't use a Bentley as your daily driver if you live in Northern Maine, but you may take it out every now and then during the summer.
 
In short, don't be afraid to create lifelong learners. Don't be afraid to step out of YOUR comfort zone. If you fail to venture into new and different realms you are cutting students short. 
 
on January 28, 2014 10:35pm
Hello Everyone.
 
I'm a choral education major at Kent State University.  While I do have alot of sympathy for the students who long for more "pop" repertoire in their choral diet as I myself did not really get into choral singing until high school and did not get into classical choral singing until college and I have a personal love for R&B, Gospel, Soul, and Hip-Hop(to some extent), I understand the need for education in all sorts of musical styles in all sorts of different time periods and the need for student to be challenged with the music that they perform.  
 
That being said, I do like the idea of having a concert solely dedicated to popular music that the students could enjoy. Set it up at the end of every semester and have the rest of the time be dedicated to the more classical and educational styles.  Of course, this is just my opinion and it could very well change when I finally get out into the classroom with my own ensemble to direct.
 
Thank You. 
on January 29, 2014 7:28am
Hello David,
 
I'm currently a Senior studying Choral/General Music Education at Kent State university in Kent, Ohio. That's hard to say, but I think that it would be prudent to at least put one song in their reptoire that is from their generation maybe as a reward. Make sure though that they understand that it is only as a reward, and that they must put forth the necessary effort and work on the remainder of the repetoire.
 
-Kirk Walker
 
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