Learning songs from each other

I had a plan this term that, as part of a music project based on ‘Identity’, I would invite the children in each class to sing for us a song that they remember from their home country. We would learn to sing each others’ songs. The students would get a kick out of hearing the songs from their countries sung in their language by their peers. We could prepare instrumental arrangements for some, and make recordings and DVDs of the songs which we could then distribute to all the students at the end of the year, as a kind of ‘time capsule’ of their time at Language School – who they were, what they remembered, and who they shared this experience with.

Nice idea. It’s not the first time I’ve had it either. And not the first time I’ve planned to do it. However, I find it really tricky to make happen.

I find that:

  • the students are often reluctant to sing. Sometimes this is a reluctance to sing on their own. Sometimes it’s a reluctance to sing, full-stop. Sometimes it is a reluctance to sing music from their other country (and there could be any number of reasons for this, that in the context I work in are not possible, nor appropriate to probe).
  • if they do sing, it is often difficult to get a clear sense of it, clear enough to be able to teach it to others. Sometimes the melody, or even pitch contour, is unclear, and changes each time they sing it. Sometimes the rhythm is unclear. I suspect too, that I may be too solidly grounded in Western music to hear all the subtle rhythmic nuances in the music of other cultures.
  • it is often slow work. What are the other students doing while I am trying to coax a song from an individual? This kind of task would perhaps be best done outside of lesson time, but like most music specialist teachers, I am fairly fully timetabled.
  • the students don’t often seem that excited by this as a project idea. Of course there are exceptions to this, students who are delighted to teach you their songs. However, they are definitely in the minority. One of my research participants talked about how important it was for students at this school to be learning ‘Australian music’. Perhaps that is what the students want to be doing. They want to learn new stuff, and look to the future.

But what a missed opportunity! Perhaps it is unrealistic to do this in the context of music teaching. Perhaps it is better done as an outside researcher or music-collector, coming in specifically for that purpose, and just gathering one or two songs at a time. However, in that context, they wouldn’t have the trust and familiarity that the students have with me.

Then again, maybe I’m too familiar. And maybe the content of my lessons – instruments, instruments, instruments, and composing – is too familiar, because the students really enjoy doing music in this hands-on way. Maybe an outsider, with a specific song-collecting project, would be able to enjoy a different rapport with the students, and therefore get a different response.

A friend of mine did a project like that, working with parents as well as students in three or four different primary schools. He created a lovely song book at the end of the project. He is more skilled and experienced than I am in transcribing songs from African and Asian cultures. DF, if you are reading this, do you have any comments to add about your experiences, or in response to the above issues?

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