Friday, February 15, 2013

100 Paths to Happiness

Yesterday was Hundreds Day. It’s a relatively new celebration in schools (maybe 20 years ago?) propogated by Math departments celebrated on…you guessed it: the 100th day of school! It’s a delightful way to make an abstract number concrete. Over the years, we’ve done things like lined up 100 kids, shot 100 baskets, brainstormed 100 Spanish words, build structures with 100 toothpicks, listed 100 books a class has collectively read. Great fun.

For the music department, our contribution is to brainstorm with the kids 100 songs that they’ve sung with us. Not the songs from the radio, but the repertoire we choose to share with them. The elementary school gathers every day for 20 minutes to sing and here is the payoff, when we get to collectively look back and the kids realize just how many songs they know. It’s impressive.

To help focus the kids’ thinking, we put different categories on the board— train songs, animal songs, food songs, love songs, songs with motions, nonsense word songs, songs in Spanish, songs from other countries, songs from the Caribbean (a unit we had just completed), holiday songs, jazz songs, songs that tell stories, rounds. The room is electric with the kids' enthusiasm as they call out the songs they know. “Know” runs the gamut from recognizing the melody to singing the chorus to reading all the verses from our ancient song sheets to knowing all the words.

All this brainstorming takes place before Hundreds Day. Then on the day itself, we sing the first line of each song to see if we can squeeze them all in within the 20 minutes time slot. It’s quite a spectacle to witness. The kids get so excited we have to pause and remind them that songs are to be sung, not screamed!

This daily singing has been a constant at the school for the near- forty years I’ve been there. Even schools with strong music programs don’t often include this extra bonus and of course, many schools without music programs graduate kids who know very few songs in common— perhaps Happy Birthday, The Star Spangled Banner and Bingo. For me, it’s unthinkable that a kid would leave our education system so poorly served. It’s as if their schools had put up roadblocks to 100 paths to knowledge, 100 paths to fellowship, 100 paths to happiness.

A song is one of the most ancient and most reliable technologies that we know. It is a sustainable and renewable resource that condenses a vast amount of information in a small container. It carries vital linguistic information, stories, poems, proverbs, rhymes, grammar, syntax, vocabulary, patterned math, history, culture, not to mention all the musical elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, form and more, often in a mere three minutes. The physical singing of songs charges the brain, boosts the immune system, opens the heart and touches the spirit through the vehicle of breath, tones the body and connects people engaged in singing together like few other things do. A simple definition of community is a group of people who know the same songs. When they sing them together, they reaffirm their collective identity and sense of belonging. Songs not only change bodies, minds and hearts, but they can change history as well, facts well documented in the Estonian movie The Singing Revolution, the South African Amandla and our own Civil Rights movement in the U.S..

Songs are durable. They stay with you your whole life and long past the time when language fails, memory blurs and dementia or Alzheimer’s sets in, songs survive. Check out the youtube clips of elders whose every facial feature is blank until the music starts and you see them come to life in front of your eyes. The song you teach to a three-year old will still be by their side when they’re 103 and bring the same pleasure and comfort.

Shall I go on? If you pitched to a school board that you discovered a cheap and efficient technology that never needs purchased upgrades, touches on just about every subject in the school curriculum, knits together a connected community and touches the heart of every child, don’t you think they’d be interested? It costs a mere music teacher’s salary (cheap!!!) and a commitment to 20 minutes a day, every day. It has been tested with similar results at many schools (but not enough) around the world and brought countless children 100 plus paths to happiness.

Anyone want to make the movie about The Singing Curriculum? I know just the school.

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