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Students refusing to sing

Has anyone else had trouble with students and the song "Great God Almighty?"  My students were fine with it at the beginning of the year when it was for competition.  Now that I have been rehearsing it for the Spring Concert, several of them have said they will refuse to sing it because it talks about slavery.  Not only that, but they say some of their parents/grandparents will walk out if they do sing it.  This is a song that refers to the history of slavery and how one would cry out for mercy when being chased.  Nothing in it is racial.  I think the students are being very close-minded and really just feeding off of each other.  In all other areas of the choir (rehearsals, performances, repetoire) these are good students and we have a good relationship.  My goal in performing this song was to begin the program with something that would showcase their ability and be interesting.  A discussion about the song in rehearsal yesterday did not end very well.  Any advice?
on April 27, 2014 5:51am
Becky: There are quite a few questions that remain unanswered. Have you spoken to your principal and/or counselor about this issue? Do you have a person of color on the faculty/staff that you could talk to about this? If so, that's your first step - they know the kids too and will likely offer some worthwhile suggestions. You could also communicate directly with the parents explaining the purpose of the song and its message. I doubt that there is any song that "praises" slavery and like it or not, it is a part of our Nation's history. Spirituals were very important to slaves and that could also become a 'teachable moment' for you.  Perhaps there is a AME church in your area, or some other congregation headed by an African-American minister whom you could invite to rehearsal to talke with these students. My parting suggestion is do not remove this from your program - that would set a very dangerous precedent.
on April 27, 2014 10:10am
Hi Becky - You don't tell us where you are located and whether this might have anything to do with the students feelings about the slavery issue.  However without that info I think the suggestions that Robert Ritschel has suggested are very good.  What I might do is to ask those students to write a paper explaining their objection(s) to the piece and perhaps ask why that did not seem problematic at that time when you were preparing it for your competition. You also so don't tell us how many students are now refusing to sing this piece. If it is only a few I might allow them to step off the stage when this piece is being sung.  In the past I've had a number of student whose beliefs obligated them to not sing about God, so I respected that and allowed them to leave the stage. This could also have a deeper cause dealing with your relationship to one or more of these students and perhaps this is their way of expressing their discontent, which in this case has little to do with the song.  In any case like Robert I would not drop this from my program and though the choir may not sound as good without these singers I would remind myself that music is not about being 'perfect' the importance is much deeper and significant.  Wishing you the best.  And I for one would love to know how it is finally handled.  Blessings. (Is this Stacy Gibb’s God - Almighty?)
on April 27, 2014 11:34am
I had a similar incident 10 years ago in NY State with my 5th and 6th grade choir, which included a significant number of African-American students.  We sang a song made famous by the Freedom Riders ("We took a ride on a Greyhound bus; freedom's coming and it won't be long....").  The grandmother of one of my best African-American singers jumped to her feet and applauded, but the mother went directly to the principal and complained about the inappropriateness of the song.  The principal defended me; she and I are both white.  A black teacher at the school saw nothing wrong with the song.  The mother told me that many in her generation wanted to put the civil rights struggles behind them and just lead their lives as equal members of society. 
A few months later, I had the opportunity to talk about this with Kim and Reggie Harris, noted African-American performers of a wide range of music, including songs from Black history.  They said they have experienced the same criticism, but personally believe it's important--for all races--to continue singing these songs.
On a related topic, during my first year teaching, I intended to have the choir sing a few sacred Christmas songs and Spirituals as part of our December concert (and I have no religious agenda).  Many of my colleagues then and since have advised against singing such songs ("separation of church and state" and "you'll get sued" and "it's not worth the hassle"), but I knew this was allowed under state educational regulations "as part of a diverse and educational program" or some such wording.  I asked this same principal, in the interests of communication and understanding.  She repeated the state regulations, asked me what else was on the program, and said "Of course you can sing religious songs, this is part of the culture of many of our students."      
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 28, 2014 8:21am
I don't know if this would work, but based on  the complaints, I might write a letter to the families of your singers, telling them why you have selected the song, and why you think it is an important part of your students' education.  From a musical perspective, the genre of spirituals, chain gang songs, freedom songs and other cultural songs from our American heritage are worth preserving along with the other types and great variety of music we have to offer.  From a historical perspective, we obviously never should stop learning from what history has taught us.  As the parent of a black child and the grandparent of black grandchildren, I have learned that while civil rights might exist on paper, that battle is not yet fully won.
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