This reflection was originally published on vtacda.org in the fall of 2013.
This fall, I’ll start by exploring two contrasting selections:
The Arrow and the Song
text by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
music by Christopher Matthews
published by Colla Voce Music, Inc. (2011)
3-part South African ceremonial song
arranged by Joseph Maselwa & Pete Seeger
published by World Music Press
Young singers must have access to high quality music. As master educator, composer, and philosopher Zoltán Kodály proclaimed, “Only art of intrinsic value is suitable for children!” There are a great many songs out there in the world. Why choose repertoire that is not of the very highest quality for our students? However, as educators, we need to be very mindful of the fact that “quality” refers to multiple elements – cultural meaning and authenticity, musical sophistication, and developmental appropriateness, to name just a few – and not solely to our own personal musical preferences and comfort. Yes, we must be inspired by the music we select for our choirs, or our interaction with the music cannot, in turn, inspire our students. And yes, we must be confident in our mastery of the music we share with our students, or we will not be prepared to guide them through the wonderful challenges it holds. But we must also recognize the value in music outside of our innermost comfort zone. (After all, how can we teach our students the value of learning new music if we don’t model that very practice for them?)
Acknowledging that “high quality” music is the thing we all seek, and that true learning takes place only outside our comfort zone, I’d like to touch further on the concept of cultural meaning and authenticity. When we plan our concert programs, we often find ourselves thinking about the product, rather than the process. For example, how many times have we said, “This is my Western Classical piece, this is my Musical Theatre piece, this is my folk song, and this is my multicultural piece,” when planning a program? The infrequent (and nearly always insufficient) face time we have with our singers almost cultivates this checklist mentality. However, the label of “multicultural piece” is a bit problematic in this context. Instead of checking off “multicultural” on our list of repertoire categories, we might consider reframing our thinking and focusing on the musical and cultural opportunities we provide for our students throughout the rehearsal process. Renowned music educator and author Dr. David Elliott reminds us that “teaching music with a multicultural mindset allows us to deepen students’ knowledge and ‘feel’ for the ways in which music is deeply social, cultural, ideological, political, and personal.” If we carefully craft musical experiences that enrich students’ experience with music in this powerful capacity, with a multicultural mindset rather than a multicultural piece, their performances will be nothing short of spectacular – and, more importantly, they will grow as musicians and as human beings along the way.
The Arrow and the Song
I recently discovered Christopher Matthews and his choral compositions on the Colla Voce imprint (http://www.collavoce.com/) through a mentor and friend whose recommendations I value quite highly. Being new to my current school, I spent most of last year revisiting pieces I had done with my choirs at my previous school. This year, I have decided to freshen up our repertoire with some phenomenal pieces that are not only new to me, but new to the world. One such piece is The Arrow and the Song, which sets a Longfellow poem to beautiful music for SA with piano.
The piano accompaniment is an inextricable part of the character of this piece, so make sure your students get to hear it right away. The melody itself is quite simple, and other than an F for the sopranos in the final section of the piece, the range is surprisingly small. The rhythmic structure offers some great opportunities for subdividing and focusing on off-beat entrances (1-and-2-and-breathe– “I shot an…”), and yet is also repetitive enough that students still building their literacy skills can catch on quickly.
Although the piece is written for two treble voice parts, I have my budding baritone section of five singers singing the soprano line down the octave. Truth be told, I have not five baritones, but one baritone, one bari-tenor, and three sort-of-tenors with a teeny tiny range. (Don’t we all?) One marvelous thing about this piece is that the soprano line centers around the A-C minor third, so my baritone section can sing it with healthy vocal habits. (My two boys with yet-unchanged voices sing comfortably – and happily! – in the alto section.)
My favorite aspect of this piece changes week by week, which is a testament to the countless pedagogical gems the composer tucks into it. This week, I find myself increasingly thankful for his dynamic markings over long, sustained notes, which make our work in phrasing and watching the conductor just a little bit more meaningful.
If you have never experienced Somagwaza, please find an opportunity to do so. It is a piece of music whose character cannot be described in text on a page. I will do my best here, but my description simply cannot do it justice.
This piece is a celebration song from South Africa, traditionally sung to celebrate the ritual coming-of-age of young boys in Zulu culture. South Africa is one of very few places in the world in which vocal harmony (true polyphony) is traditional rather than arranged or added to existing songs, and this piece is a prime example of such richness. There are three separate melodic parts that enter at different points, and the timing of the entrances is somewhat complex. Once all three vocal parts are happening, with their contrasting melodies and rhythms, they line up only on the one word “Somagwaza” before continuing in separate directions.
As the singers repeat their one musical phrase over and over, the music becomes less like a song and more like a cyclical, spiritual experience. Singers must interact with one another visually in order to make the piece come alive. Stationary singing is not an option. For choral groups that may be unfamiliar with this musical culture, I would highly recommend incorporating a simple movement along with each vocal line. The movement might involve a repetitive stomp-clap pattern, or simply a step and sway to encourage physical and vocal flexibility and freedom. This piece is not about blending and making a typical Western choral sound. I encourage (healthy!) use of chest voice to make it a true celebration of life and song.
For those of us whose choirs have a low percentage of male representation (which, I presume, is nearly all of us), a song like Somagwaza is a particularly special gift. Songs that are rhythmically complex tend to call to middle school-aged boys – especially those pieces that evoke strength. I love South African music for many reasons, one of which is its uncanny ability to place itself at the top of my male singers’ “favorites” lists.
The Arrow and the Song
Click here for a recording of the Shelburne Community School Chamber Choir (7th and 8th grade singers with 1+ year of experience in a choral group with me), singing what they know so far (about a month and a half before our concert):
Click here for a recording of the VYOA Concert Chorale (auditioned group of 3rd through 8th grade singers in a community-based choir):