High School Choirs R&R

Stefanie Weigand, HS Choir R&S Chair
August, 2014

Greetings from the VT-ACDA. For my first High School Repertoire Blog post, I would like to focus on an idea that is equally important to me as a performer and music educator: losing yourself in a piece of music.

As performers, we know there is nothing better. In fact, this experience is part of ‘the bug’ that everyone talks about, it is exactly what keeps you coming back for more. When your students feel this thrill, they will be your program’s strongest advocates and fans of music for their entire lives. By asking a few important questions as you prepare every piece of music, you give your singers the opportunity to first, practice empathy (possibly one of the most important skills we could give our students) and second, to find their own personal connection with the music:

* What is the historical or other context of this piece (if applicable)?

* What does this song mean to you? Since this is personal, I do not force my students to answer out loud to the whole group. As the school year advances and the students become more comfortable with each other, I barely need to prompt them.

To whom are you singing this song?

I ask each student to be very specific when addressing this question to themselves. See the person, know what they look like, what they are wearing, etc. This is rarely answered aloud.

Where are you singing this song?

The more specific they are with this answer, the better. If they can see their surroundings, smell the air and feel the ground under their feet, they are better able to lose themselves in the piece. If the piece is really foreign to them, either culturally or experientially, these discussions will need to be more in-depth. Allow them to speak to each other in small groups and brainstorm with the whole group as well as having some quiet time to think on their own. Answering these questions gives your students permission to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and experience life through someone else’s eyes, even if just for a few moments.

I was lucky enough to have had this experience recently when my high school choir was performing “Adinu” arranged by Andre de Quadros and Shireen Abu-Khader at our spring concert. I first came across this piece when perusing the interest session handouts from the 2013 National ACDA Conference and was intrigued by the Andre de Quadros session: Music of the Muslim World – Building Bridges, Creating Understanding. “Adinu” consists of only a few short sections and is housed on two sparse pieces of paper. Not a lot when you first look at it, however- the arrangement provides great opportunities for improvisation: when your choir gets a handle on each section you can begin playing with form and structure to create something unique to your ensemble. After weeks of learning notes, studying other traditional Sufi music, and playing with this piece, we were finally performance-ready. It was the first piece in our program. The students filed out into the house to create a large circle around the entire space, surrounding our audience with sound. As they sang, I was able to observe the audience carefully (aside from a few hand signals between sections, I did not conduct them on this piece) and saw them transform from a fidgeting group of individuals to a completely still and united form. After the concert, a few parents said that they were moved to tears, and another told me she felt as if she was ‘“transported from an auditorium to a temple.”

“Adinu” is accessible by a choir of any size or make-up (treble, mixed, chamber, large, beginner or advanced) and allows your students to experience music from another culture that shares a beautiful message of love, peace, and unity. Available through Earthsongs, “the text of this [unaccompanied] traditional Sufi melody is attributed to the Andalusian Moorish Sufi mystic, philosopher, and poet, Abu Abdillah Muhammad (1165-1240). He believed that love was the dominant universal force. He is, even today, a powerful symbol of inter-religious harmony.” http://earthsongschoralmusic.com/index.php?main_page=produc_sheet_music_info&products_id=2787 Our work on this piece extended beyond the notes on the page as well, listening to a few different versions of this piece I found online, plus a few other examples of traditional Sufi singing and improvisational styles. Speaking of the latter, improvisation is highly recommended for the three solos in the piece, which was also an extensive part of this study unit. Andre de Quadros is a music educator and human rights activist (among other things) and my students enjoyed this video, which touches on accessibility of music in our schools and in different cultures: http://youtu.be/E6TCkTidctc  All in all, studying this seemingly simple piece of music became one of the most powerful lessons I taught all year.

If you are excited about this prospect of teaching a piece like this, but are looking for a more traditional, yet equally moving  piece to fill our your program, I recommend Carl Strommen’s arrangement of “Danny Boy.” This arrangement takes the well-known lines of this popular piece and moves them into beautiful harmony, dissonance to consonance, but only when necessary. When searching for arrangements of traditional pieces, I sometimes find that people tend to over-do it. With “Danny Boy,” less is more, and I have found that my singers are greatly moved by this piece and benefit greatly from the above discussion about context and meaning. It is published by Boosey & Hawkes, and you can purchase it on many sites, including JWPepper http://www.jwpepper.com/Danny-Boy/1573476.item , Hal Leonard http://www.halleonard.com/product/viewproduct.do?itemid=48003985 ,  Sheet Music Plus http://www.sheetmusicplus.com/title/danny-boy-sheet-music/4171781 and Music Mart http://www.musicmart.com/p-87377-danny-boy-satb.aspx.

Never forget why you teach music and why your students walk through that door every day. It is easy to get bogged down by plunking notes out on the keyboard, but you must remind yourself that there is so much more!