I am privileged to teach at a school where learning about various countries and cultures is highly valued. Of course, we learn about different cultures with choral music all the time! Because music is a universal language and a gateway to experiencing different points of view, I wanted to share 5 tips on including multicultural music in choral programming.
1. Singing in unfamiliar languages is easier with IPA. (Wouldn't it be lovely if all publishers used the same system?!?) If IPA isn't included, seek out a native speaker when possible. When my choir was learning Érik a Som*, I sought assistance from a colleague from Hungary and transcribed her pronunciation into IPA to share with my students. Once we mastered the pronunciation, we gave an impromptu performance for her math class. She loved it and praised the students for their diction!
2. Drums always add a "cool" factor. So does choreography, when appropriate. Mohland Ke Ktoglelang Hae was a huge hit with my choir and made other kids want to join!
3. Don't be afraid to teach something by rote. Doing so makes pieces from oral/aural traditions more authentic. And this isn't limited to pieces from other countries - the same practice works for our own folk songs. Those who attended Voices United in 2013 heard the Festival Choir with Jeff Johnson sing Down in the River to Pray using this very approach. If you are looking for a good source for African songs, Vela Vela is an excellent resource by Mollie Stone, drawn from her experiences with the Chicago Children's Choir and University of Cape Town in South Africa. The book comes with a DVD that includes individual part instruction as well as full performances. It also includes interviews with South African singers.
4. Get your audience involved by teaching them a song during your concert. A good resource is Nick Page's Sing With Us collection. We often do this as a "seventh inning stretch" during longer programs without an intermission - it's a win-win for the choirs and the audience.
5. Look for musical elements/gestures that are similar to something your kids know. It helps them make connections to other cultures and provides a great opportunity to explore how many people in a different part of the world experience the same musical phenomena. Learning traditional songs opens the door to investigation of ideas and elements that are significant in other cultures.
While I may be stating the obvious here, studying music of other cultures allows students to make other valuable sociological observations. When we did Sten Kallman's arrangement of the Haitian folksong Peze Kafé last year, in addition to mastering the various rhythmic and melodic patterns, it was fascinating to learn about the important of coffee in Haitian culture. And really, who doesn't love a good cup o' joe!
*Find more information about the repertoire mentioned above, here:
Mohlang Ke Ktoglelang Hae - Sesotho Folksong, arr. Rudolph deBeer; SATB - Hal Leonard Music
Peze Kafé - Haitian Folksong, arr. Sten Kallman; SATB - Walton Music
Érik a Som - Hungarian Folksong, arr. Lajos Bardos; SAB - Santa Barbara Music
Vela Vela - striving for authentic performance in black South African choral music, Mollie Spector Stone (self-published booklet with DVD)
Sing With Us Songbook - Nick Page; Hal Leonard
To purchase these titles (or for more information), please contact our friends at The Musical Source. For questions or comments about how multicultural music in the classroom, feel free to contact Margaret Anne Butterfield.