Improving standardized test scores, of course. Yesterday the kids had a school concert, the kind where the bright-faced pupils stand in rows and delight parents with their cuteness and euphony. The music teacher scoured the earth to find the dullest, worst songs. One, honest to God, was a barely-melodic, unrhymed list of apple types (Honeycrisp, Northern Spy, Gala, Red Delicious . . .) and then an injunction to eat more healthily. The older kids sang this gem, in which various children piped up (according to script) about the value of music. “It helps us get better grades!” “It improves our ability to take standardized tests!”
The song – which is not worth listening to, even out of morbid curiosity – seems to have been written out of desperation, the kind of demented desperation you exhibit when you’re trying to convince someone not to break up with you. Its message, not even thinly veiled, is: “I know everything now revolves around standardized tests about math and reading; but you really shouldn’t completely cut music out of the curriculum, because it has been traditionally a part of education, and in fact even improves those math scores in a roundabout way! So, see, you really shouldn’t break up with me!”
With songs like that, I think I’d rather have my kids working on their multiplication tables. I’m completely flabbergasted. Why pick these songs? Clearly, the ONLY reason to pick these songs is that they have a “good” message (eat your broccoli, work on math, be nice, use your imagination!, etc.).
What better principles are out there for which songs to pick for music class? Here are a few.
1. Simply pick a song, any song, that you yourself love. It wouldn’t have to be a masterpiece, or educational, or traditional, or anything else. Just a song you love to sing. It could even be kind of stupid. How about “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves?
Who doesn’t like singing that song?
2. Pick a song that your students love. Billy made a perfect suggestion: Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.”
Billy’s vision is that half the students could be singing “oo – oo – oo – oo – oo,” while the other half are singing the lyrics. There’s also a nice part in the middle where everybody could be clapping. Beautiful! Plus, isn’t this a good-message song, not in the moronic way, but in a true-to-life way? “Please swallow your pride/ If you have things you need to borrow/ For no one can fill those of your needs/ That you won’t let show.”
3. The most obvious, traditional principle: pick songs of the American folk tradition. “Froggie Went a Courtin’,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Yankee Doodle,” “The Streets of Laredo,” etc., etc. – there are hundreds of such beautiful songs. What about “Old Dan Tucker” – “Old Dan Tucker was a fine old man,/ Washed his face with a frying pan,/ Combed his hair with a wagon wheel,/ Died with a toothache in his heel.”
These are the kind of songs that have been recommended by educationalists since the beginning of time. Confucius says that you need to know “the tones given off by the heart,” and such tones are found nowhere better than in folk songs.
4. Pick songs that are educationally adventurous. Do something that takes a little harmony. Or learn a great song in a foreign language. I understand that folks like Schubert wrote a few decent songs. But you could even go with something a little closer to home. What about “La Bamba”?
Just don’t pick songs that nobody in the history of the world, including now, has ever loved! Don’t pick songs that were written for specific grades! And, by the way, accompany the kids with an instrument other than a tape player . . .