Friday, October 24, 2008

Adventures in Teaching: Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing

I'm always reading about creative pedagogy and drooling over the idealized students to whom these techniques must apply. Yes, of course I'd love to bring in some clay (engaging other senses!) and have the group (group work!) create a life-size replica of their favorite (ownership of ideas!) American composer (visualization of subject matter!). Ok, so I exaggerate--just a little.

But let me tell you that I love my students this semester. I'm not sure they'd be up for "Let's Pretend-to-be-Rodin" but here's what they DID do this past week:

We were discussing the African-American spiritual, and on a whim, I decided I was going to get them to four-part harmony, no less. Keep in mind, that this is a class of non-majors, most of whom have little to no music background. I wasn't about to take no for an answer. I chose "Go Down Moses" (which their text discusses), because it gave me a chance to do something responsorial (where I would sing, and then they could come in on "Let My People Go.")* So I asked the women, "Who sings soprano? Alto?" As you might expect, they were fairly reticent to claim any voice part, so I divided them up myself (which was easy, since the "soprano" part is in the same range as the alto). The men were likewise reluctant, but it turns out that my class is mostly tenors (where is Paul Robeson when you need him??).

So I played each part separately and had each group sing. What surprised me was the gusto applied by the gentlemen!! It wasn't necessarily completely in tune, but it was...intense! The women were pretty timid, but I had a few voices in there who were unafraid. So, when it came time to put it all together, there was a lovely and sincere quality to their singing. I feel really strongly that they get in touch with this more vernacular music in a visceral way and singing was the best way to that. There was nervous laughter, of course, but I think they enjoyed it (the evaluations will tell, of course).

Of course, my little experiment put us slightly behind in the schedule (sorry, Sousa, you are getting short-changed), but I think it was worth it. For a few of them, it may be the first time they've heard themselves in harmony with other voices. I remember the first time I heard my own voice blend with a chorus of others, and it changed my life. Did singing "Go Down Moses" change their lives? No, probably not. But I hope it gave them some sense, even on a subconscious level, that they can sing. Not all of them could/should charge money for it, but they have the right to make their own music.

*While I don't think it should ever be necessary to defend singing a sacred song as a demonstration of a musical tradition, I can think of some places I've taught where I could not have done this without some kind of backlash.


Mostly Musicology, Teaching, and a bit of Miscellanea