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Ideas on Learning

Growing up with a common songbook

My music studio functions partially as a research laboratory. I watch my students’ progress, ask questions of them and their parents and try to better understand who thrives in music education and why. Everyday I get more clues and evidence.

Recently, Anna, 5 yrs old, came to her lesson ready to make a video of The Fox (her latest song which would mark its completion.) She told me that she didn’t have to practice this song much because her mom sang it so much at home.

After she completed the video, she began playing another song – Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore – that she repeatedly hears in her home. I hadn’t taught her that song but she was able to play it immediately by ear. This small interaction in my studio reinforced the theory of musical repetition. And it reminded me how much that has shifted in the past couple generations.

Musical historians agree that church has played a significant role in cultivating composers, singers and musicians in our culture for hundreds of years. A large percentage of pop singers grew up going to a church where they sang from the same song book week after week, year after year.

There are 2 ingredients that are worth noting: repetition and frequency. For young children, hearing the same songs gives a high level of confidence with the music. That confidence leads to participation in the song. Frequent participation in the song will influence the quality of the sound.

Fewer people go to church or other civic groups today. And though we have more music at our fingertips, we have fewer and fewer songs in common. A friend involved in community organizing told me how groups struggle to find any songs that they can all sing together. That was not a problem for the protest groups of the 1960s.

So, what can be done to mitigate the loss of our common song book?

One solution is for schools to fill in this gap. What if a child went through their school years hearing and singing the same songs? A typical church has 75-150 songs that they sing year after year. The average adult fiddler plays a similar number of tunes.

What if schools were to have students singing everyday from the same 100 songs? They don’t have to be the same songs as other schools, but kids and adults that spend 6-12 years together should be able to learn 100 songs.

We have individual classes and groups within my local school district that have their kids sing everyday. But, as far as I can tell, these are more the exception than the rule. I’d love for all my students to have songs they have heard and sung repeatedly, like Anna, when they come to their violin class.


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