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Columns | Fall 2015
(photo by Joanie Calem)

Music With Older Kids

Passing On the Love of Music

For as long as I live, I will never forget the sense of community that I experienced as a child whenever I found myself singing with crowds of people. These childhood memories of community singing at peace rallies in the sixties, at summer camps, at school events, in music class, in the family car, and at family events are what kept calling me back to music when I was trying to figure out what I should do with myself as a young adult. After a few years as a community worker for Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, I finally figured out a way to get back to working in music. That was in 1983, and I have been both a music teacher and a performer ever since. On most days, I frequently think to myself, “Wow, I am so lucky. I have the best job in the world!”

I love to sing, share the magic that music creates for people, and hopefully pass on a deep love of music. It’s relatively easy to build a sense of community through classes and performances by inviting everyone present to sing along with me, but, until recently, I’d never experienced one of the most common musical ways to create community—directing an actual choir or chorus. In the fall of 2014, an opportunity presented itself, and I took the plunge.

For the past ten years I have been teaching general music at a private elementary school. Every class is taught basic singing skills, and every class performs numerous times during the school year at various events. Each class obviously includes children who are more or less comfortable on stage. I have longed to see what would happen musically with a group of kids who wanted to sing and perform, so this past fall, I finally started a non-audition choir for any interested students in grades four to six.

Finding a time to rehearse was the first challenge. I personally think recess is one of the most important times of the school day, so I didn’t want anyone to have to miss it. I settled on rehearsing during lunchtime, since there was no other time in the schedule that I could pull kids from three different grades. Note to self: Don’t do that again! By the time the children had eaten, we were only rehearsing fifteen minutes a week, so I felt very little skill building was happening. But somehow, even in that short amount of time, the work the children did immediately made a huge difference in their vocal quality. By their first performance, they sounded better than any of the other classes ever had. There was also a trickle-out effect caused by the choir members: Every class benefitted from the choir members in their midst, and the ability to flip one’s voice (from head voice to mask voice to chest voice) seemed to spread beyond the choir rehearsals into all the classes.

Though it was very hard to rehearse during lunch, there was a surprise benefit to doing this. Choir directors around the country report that attracting boys to participate in school choruses is often a challenge (Broeker et al 2006). My choir turned out to be the opposite. In the first semester, the choir consisted of twelve boys and nine girls. In the second semester there were fourteen boys and five girls. I am convinced that this happened because the boys were not being asked to miss recess or give up sports activities after school.

As an extension of my ever-present desire to use music to build community, I was curious to see what effect choir participation would have on the students’ sense of belonging, friendship, and identity at school. As luck would have it, I was at the tail end of finishing my degree and needed to design a research project. I decided to give the children weekly surveys to hear what their choir experience was like in their own words.

My college studies allowed me to immerse myself in current research. Over the past fifty years, most studies about the effects of music and music education on children have focused on ascertaining whether learning music aids intellectual and academic development, and if so, how. Music education advocates continually arm themselves with these statistics in order to ensure that music education is not cut from school budgets and curriculum. A growing body of research indicates that while active music participation is definitely good for developing efficient brains, it is also good for an individual’s general well-being. Active music participation seems to improve intellectual, emotional, and physical well-being, providing a form of therapy for the whole person (Wills 2011; MacDonald 2013; Judd and Pooley 2013). In addition to the benefits that children receive when music education is part of their school curriculum, there is now also significant evidence that music participation is helpful for people at every stage of their lives, from infants in neonatal units, to patients recovering from medical interventions, to individuals grappling with emotional disturbances, to the elderly managing diminishing physical and cognitive abilities (Porter et al 2012; Clements-Cortes 2013; Sharma and Jagdev 2012; Standley 2012; MacDonald 2013; Judd and Pooley 2013; Kluge 2014; Darrow 2014).

Studies also show physiological benefits when people actively participate in music making: Music creates a sense of pleasure and relaxation. Singing, especially community singing, increases levels of secretory immunoglobulin A, an antibody that helps strengthen the immune system (Judd and Pooley 2013) and decreases levels of cortisol, a hormone released when an individual is experiencing stress. When people are relaxed, their brains are able to function more effectively. When people’s immune systems are strong, they feel better and are better able to handle day-to-day life. Anyone who works with children knows that when a child is calm and feels strong, they are able to learn more efficiently. Since music provides a sense of fun and relaxation that helps lower stress levels, and lower stress levels help brains work more effectively, we know that music can be helpful even if it’s only for the fun and relaxation that it provides. The fact that science is constantly discovering more and more brain structure advantages is just the proverbial icing on the cake.

Given all of these studies, I wanted to research what effect, if any, the added music experience of this new choir had in our school. There is plenty of music in their lives already: My students have weekly music classes, and because it is a private Jewish school, they also sing prayers and traditional Jewish songs at least once a day. I hoped to find that our new school choir was, first and foremost, going to create a sense of community for the choir members. I was particularly curious to hear from the children themselves what their experiences and concerns were, and whether they felt that there was something unique about this community choir. These were of course children who all knew each other, but who didn’t have classes together as they were from different grades. So, following each rehearsal, I gave the kids short questionnaires to fill out, with open-ended questions about their experience in both rehearsals and our subsequent performances.

The make-up of the children who chose to join the choir was fascinating, and I was surprised by many of those who signed up. The participants from both the fourth and fifth grade classes included most of the “popular” kids, or the social leaders, but also included many children who were social outsiders and/or had learning challenges that impacted participation in their academic classes. Sixth grade was different: None of the social leaders from the sixth grade joined the choir, and each of the sixth graders who joined the choir had some sort of special need, such as anger management issues, learning challenges, speech impediments, and/or high-functioning autism. The majority loved to sing but had anxiety about performing, and often didn’t sing in class because of shyness.

Over the course of the first semester, the questionnaires did two things: gave the students a line of communication with me and provided me with tremendous insight into their experiences. The choir performed five times during the first semester—four times at school, singing one song each time, for a variety of audiences, and once at a public venue singing thirty minutes of Hanukkah songs for a large crowd. Each performance was video recorded, so the children had a chance to observe and analyze themselves individually and the choir as a whole. The visual and audio recordings allowed the children to see and hear how they actually looked and sounded, which was fascinating for many of them. When asked beforehand how they felt about upcoming performances, many of the children indicated that they were nervous. In contrast, more of the confident kids answered that they felt fine, they were used to being on stage, they were “pros,” they knew what to do, etc. The recordings, of course, revealed different things, including that many of those who thought that they were pros and claimed that they felt very comfortable looked quite terrified and nervous onstage! This was great feedback for the kids, and very helpful in providing reality checks for the over-confidant. The recordings also boosted confidence for the under-confident by simply and honestly charting how they sounded and looked.

Based on the responses from the questionnaires, it was not easy to determine whether or not the children felt that they were building a unique community in choir, separate from the various other school communities. In the second semester, however, four of the “popular” girls from fifth grade decided to drop out of the choir. The response to this exodus showed that the remaining students did indeed feel that they had created a special community: some of the children were downright outraged that someone would leave the choir. The brother of one of the girls who left reported that she and her friends didn’t feel that the choir was “cool.” This pronouncement was greeted with a loud explosion in the choir’s defense. The choir went on to gain two more boys in the second semester, and the children regrouped into a solid body of singers. We had three performances in the second semester, with each one better than the previous one!

Through the performances it was possible to chart how some of the more nervous children were gradually gaining stage presence and confidence. After each performance, General Studies teachers would find me to exclaim how amazing it was to see different children’s growth. One of the children who changed most dramatically was a fourth-grade boy who had had a very rough childhood and was recently adopted by his paternal grandparents. He had a long list of academic challenges and learning differences, but he also loved to sing and could memorize songs in various languages from recordings that I made for him. At the end of the first few rehearsals, he came to me saying that he couldn’t read the surveys that I was handing out. My solution was for me to read him the questions and have him dictate his responses. He struggled to come up with answers, and it was clear that this was really painful for him, but by the fifth rehearsal, he no longer came to me and began filling the surveys out on his own, full of spelling mistakes but with very clear answers. At the end of the school year, by chance, I heard from one of his teachers that he had made a huge improvement in all of his academic work. Connected? I’d like to think so.

All in all, despite the challenge of trying to rehearse and eat in the same half-hour time period, the choir turned out to be a very positive experience for all of the participants, and at the end of the year, most of the children indicated that they’d had a great time. Those staying at school indicated they would rejoin the choir in the coming year. I certainly learned a lot about my own strengths and weaknesses in this newly acquired role of choir director and the many ways that this differs from being a song leader, my more usual role.

Each rehearsal provided the sense of community that is so dear to my heart and a link to my experience as a child singing along in a group. In many of our rehearsals, I would sit down to accompany the children at the piano in the music room and the kids would gather all around me, singing their hearts out. What a joy to be able to provide the children with that same invitation to magic and community that I was given as a child. These are the moments that I think, “Wow, I am so lucky. I have the best job in the world: singing, sharing, and passing on the love of music.”