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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 30, 2013 8:45am
when kids ask this question, they are not really expecting a satisfactory answer...you're the teacher after all. If you start with a long-winded philisophical oration, laced with the importance of learninig quality music, you'll lose them after the first 15 seconds. My suggestion is admiittedly brief and will likely stop the question in the future is either: 1. "because Im the teacher" or 2. "for the same reason your English teacher won't allow you to read comic books. 
Applauded by an audience of 13
on August 30, 2013 10:45am
David,
I solve this by having one concert in which we sing only pop music....the final concert of the year.  Everything else is "legit."  This usually stops any discussion.
 
I tell them that this is music class/choir--not "singing along with the radio class."  I like doing some warmups, particularly with my very small men's group, that focus on some of the doo wop styles of the 50s/60s.  These guys aren't great at holding their part so if I can hook them with some basic triads....I - vi - IV - V, these warmups help.  There are some "meaty" arrangements out there but if you don't have the talent to do them, it is very hard to settle for the easy-cheesy stuff.  I just try to make sure that the lyrics aren't offensive!  I'm so out of it...I found out that the song that was popular a few years ago, "You turn me right 'round" was about pole dancing!  Who knew?
 
Best of luck.  I know many other teachers who incorporate pop music into every concert with great success.  I just find that it's easier to put it into one concert and leave it at that.  And I do feel that I pick quality arrangements--even though many of the pieces are from the 60s!
 
Shelley Kline
Applauded by an audience of 2
on August 31, 2013 4:16am
I get similar questions not from my choirs but from students in my Intro to Music (Music Appreciation) class. I respond with a question: "How can you learn if you're exposed only to what you already know?"
 
It sends a clear message that my goals are educational, and that music is not just "fun and games" (i.e., passive and mindless entertainment).
Applauded by an audience of 5
on August 31, 2013 7:19am
Above, Robert writes:  "or 2. "for the same reason your English teacher won't allow you to read comic books. "  Except that some English teachers are indeed assigning graphic novels and classic comics as readings in their classes?  I'd be inclined to ask students for a playlist of the pieces that really move them in some way and start looking for or creating arrangements.  
Applauded by an audience of 1
on August 31, 2013 8:59am
The reason popular arrangements are not successful, in my view, is that they are watered down to be accessible to the masses. Kids want the music to sound like it does on the recording, and it never does. So they are disappointed and the teacher gets bored teaching it.  Also consider the performance practice of popular music. In a choral setting, with watered down arrangements, unless you are willing to put in the time to make the tune sound more authentic, it will always be unsatisfying.
 
This is not to say that you shouldn't do pop music.  Consider groups like Scala, the Belgian girl's choir that gained attention for its cover of Radiohead's "Creep" that was used during the creidts of the movie Social Network:
 
 
Or the arrangements of the Kings Singers, like Billy Joel's  "And So It Goes":
 
 
These, to me, demonstrate the kind of musical and beautiful singing that we strive for with our choirs. So it comes down to what you want to teach your choir.  If you have a clear musical objective in the pieces you select, objectives that teach for musical understanding and musicality, and can approximate the performance practice of the piece, that is what is more important, because you are teaching them to be life long musicians. These two examples demonstrate beautiful and sensitive singing, something we certainly want our singers to be able to do.
 
I want to be clear that I am not advocating that we should abandon the classical cannon for pop music.  Only that pop music should be held to the same high standards as any other music you select.  If it can't, then with the limited amount of rehearsal time you have with your choir, you just don't have time to do it. Every piece you select needs to be purposeful in the musical learning your singers acquire from it. There is so much repertoire that is out there that is of high quality that is appealing and interesting for MS/HS - think of multicultural music, Stephen Hatfield's music, Bob Chilcott, to name a few - why waste your time and your singers' time on anything that can't hold up to that standard?  
 
You can also explain to them that it's like eating food. Pop music they hear on the radio is like fast food - easily accesible, but not very satisfying to the palate.  But a quality meal is something to savor and enjoy.  So if you want to do pop, ok, but give them brie instead of cheez wiz. 
 
Applauded by an audience of 4
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 2, 2013 12:37am
I tell my students that we need a balanced diet in chorus, just like our bodies need a balanced diet.  You may love mashed potatoes, but would you want it for every meal, or would it be good for you?  I had a middle school student ask why we don't sing things from Glee and the other kids just looked at him in shock.  If you feed them well they will respond.
 
Lois
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 3, 2013 11:48am
I have always had the experience when doing pop tunes that there is no desire from the students to sing anything but the melody. Even when I've introduced published arrangements the reaction to anything but the melody is "That's not the song!" or something similar. That alone is my reason for not wanting to do pop music.
 
Craig
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 September 23, 2013 6:05am
Hi David,
 
I've read through the comment threads, and you have lots of good advice there. I personally do not have a problem with programming pop music, if it is well crafted, and if the students will learn something from it. While I agree with you that it is difficult to find good pop arrangements that work for emerging choirs, they are out there. When you find something good, hold on to it - you may find that you have just the right piece to fill out a set. I have found good things for SAB, believe it or not. But apply rigorous standards to the pieces you might consider - will the students learn something from it? does each part have something interesting to sing? Does the arrangement keep enough of the original style that you can work on stylistic elements typical of that type of piece or, conversely, does the arrangement take the piece into another style entirely (and if so, is it good?).
 
When I program pop tunes, I do try to put the piece in its historical context (if it has been out there long enough), like I would any other piece. As you know, YouTube is a fabulous resource for this.
 
For me, good music is good music, and it is fun to sing in a variety of styles.
 
Liz
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 23, 2013 7:54am
I usually program something from all eras, including the modern era... Most students have no problem with the "balanced diet" approach (as mentioned above...)...
 
There are of course, the "vocal minority"...
To them, I point out that the published piece that we are singing is *authorized* by the composer/performer (or whomever), as noted in the copyright information, and that this arrangement is what the composer is expecting to hear from our ensemble. If we waste too much time on this discussion, I will pull the piece from consideration.
 
Ron Isaacson
on September 24, 2013 6:28am
My response to this question is to explain that out of respect to many contemporary performers and their craft I will not try to make an eighty voice choir with a piano try to sound like a pop group.  Some music, no matter how good, won't translate to a choral setting.  Then I play "Worst Choir ever?" from YouTube.  This is the mobile device link....  http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ItMJtA8vfpw  They get the point...and the humor.
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 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 10, 2013 4:25am
I know we have all faced the bored expression of a student body when we talk to them about a classic song from the Beatles in the 1960's or learning a piece of classical music, or worst of all 1940's jazz! The problem is often they don't see the connection. I find what works best is to find an artist that they like who has the kind of training you are trying to give them and tell them about that artist and their background. They are often surprised that the artist they thought was so cool and trend setting LEARNED IT FROM SOMEWHERE.
 
I then explain to them that learning these styles will help expand the toolkit they work from when they create songs. Many of the students have never thought that far ahead. And then there is this: We often learn from our students just as much as they learn from us. Ask them for song titles and use youtube to listen to some of their favorite songs. You might be surprised that many of them are songs you will like and can arrange for them. 
 
Enjoy the day!
 
Seta
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
 
on January 29, 2014 6:23pm
"Some of the pop singers", I have said, " really have not gotten there, entirely, due to singing well.  Some have, somewhat, but many are there due to various paths of commercialism.  You might be able to sing these songs, eventually, better than they do!  And your career might last longer.  But first, we have to train your bodies and voices to coordinate air, breathing, placement, mouth position, etc.  That takes a long time.   Understanding it with our mind is one thing; then we have to train our bodies to remember.  I'm not talking about singing pop songs with an operatic, or 15-century motet tone, but a pop-workable tone that is well-supported, free,  and healthy.   Otherwise you will lose the good sounds you are already getting.   Any music we sing will have a varied color to it. " [Then I demonstrate this - not in historical order - and be sure that my technique is workable for early, pop, classic, jazz, country, etc.  Bring forth some McFerrin types.  Play young musicians like Ethan Bortinick and Jackie Evancho who sing various styles, and do so well.]
"Yes, "[as others have put aptly] "we need to keep our music diet balanced and interesting - for us, for me,[you, the teacher]  and mostly for our audience.   It makes sense to draw from  many styles and historical periods - including our current one - and weave them into one concert.  When Dowland wrote "Come Again , Sweet Love", he was feeling similar things to how some of you might feel, and the current artists.   [This is why most Lang. Arts books program "Romeo and Juliet" in the 9th grade.   These pop-singing kids, if you listen to the words, are singing what our students feel.  They want to express at least some of that, on stage.  It is not just the "cool" sound and driving beat. ]   "A concert does not have to have all the same styles.  Some might be bored with that."  But use short scenes and set-up readings, or artwork, or dance, or a few seconds of film - to show how music expresses similar things throughout history, and it can all converge on a theme, or message.  You can do a bit in your classroom, and also stage some in your concerts.
A great supervisor advised me to get samples of octavos of recent pop hits.  Play and sing through a bit of it for them,  (Be sure to choose ones you can live with!)   Then give them a sheet where they rate each one (the composition, not your performance of it! ;) as to appropriateness for the group, musical/lyrical value, ease of learning/memorizing, staging possibilities.  Or, if your group is small, you can let 5 students raise their hand and they each get to "defend" " one piece - then you go home and choose.
I prefer the balanced approach rather than the "all-in-one" pop thing in the spring.  It's fine to weight it more toward pop - it is a romantic time of year, and we all like enrollment-boosters!  But to leave out other period pieces, or choral standards, altogether is, as another posted, a little "junk-foodish".  Also, anyone visiting your concert will have little idea how you sing anything else.  Newbies might experience a "bait-&-switch", and become, understandably, perturbed with you in the fall.
Another idea we used is to pull out those old "pop" pieces [bring gloves and disinfectant! ] from 80's and 90's - before they were born - and have them add up how much budget money and shelf space is used up [wasted !?] on them.  Wouldn't we rather save up for a piano lab, or a new sound system, or a vocal specialist, or an acoustical shell, or a fine accompanist/combo... or new outfits?  We could get together and share pop pieces - each H. S.  and each M. S. buys one per year, and switch using them the following year.
Find out who writes songs in your school.  They are probably sitting in your class.  Coach them on how to make it a choral arrangement.  If there are too many, have a contest.  Students will likely be quite invested here!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on January 30, 2014 10:28am
 . . . on the other hand, some current music is QUITE good and very manageable for your students.  Comic books?  Graphic novels are no longer the Richie Rich or Archie comic books we grew up with -- some with very detailed illustrations and plots.  I agree that "the oldies" need to be taught, but I also believe that our students need to be inspired to continue their pursuit.  Learn the "old", live in the "now" and create the "new".  They are the artists who will create our future.  I want to be part of their inspiration.
 
Right now, we are learning the Jordin Sparks song from the Glade commercial at Christmas: "This Is My Wish"
We also sing some musical theater songs, but from "Wicked": "Popular" and "For Good"
 
If what is important to THEM is important to YOU, instead of "My way or the highway", the kids will be as loyal as my dog!  Remember, the Beatles were once "contemporary" . . . now they are in our district curriculum.  
 
on January 30, 2014 10:38am
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