Friday, January 7, 2011

This elementary choral arrangement's for you, Irene!

One of our Kodály summer course students, Irene, requested my arrangement of the folk song, "I Don't Care If the Rain Comes Down," that I mentioned in class last summer. My school's elementary choir performed this song recently, and the students had a lot of input into creating the final performance of the piece. So I thought to myself, "Self, why don't you just post in on your blog for anyone who's interested." So here it is, for everyone's use...but Irene, I dedicate this particular blog post to you, my friend. :-)

I can't claim to be the original creator of this idea, either. My friend and colleague, Audrey, presented this song and it's ostinatos to the choir in our Kodály summer course a few years ago and I liked it, so I borrowed her idea and me and my choir students added onto it to make it our own. So my thanks to Audrey, one of my favorite people in the world.

With elementary choirs I have found, true to the Kodály philosophy, that it is always best for students to internalize the folk song before they attempt reading activities or harmonization in a choral piece. My school choir included 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders and the choir was very transient, as was my school. I wanted to give them reading and part-singing opportunities, but had to be careful in how I presented it in order for them to be successful. We learned this song first by doing the associated folk dance.

Instructions: Students stand in 2 concentric circles facing a partner (one partner on the inside, one partner on the outside).
    1. "I don't care if the rain comes down," Walk on beat clockwise (partners will walk opposite directions)
    2."I'm gonna dance all day." Still walking on beat, snap 3 times low middle high to reflect melodic contour
    3."I don't care if the rain comes down," Walk on beat counterclockwise (partners still opposite direction)
    4. "I'm gonna dance all day." Still walking on beat, snap 3 times high middle low to reflect melodic contour
    5. "Hey, hey, carry me away, I'm gonna dance all day." Should be back to partner...high five high low
     on "hey, hey" One arm swing partner and trade places.       
    6. "Hey, hey, carry me away, I'm gonna dance all day." Repeat last motions and switch back to their  
      original places.
    7. On each repetition of the song, students do the same motion, however they will end up with a new
     partner each time. The 2nd time the song is sung students will pass their original partner and move to the
     next person in the circle beside their partner who will become their partner for the "hey, hey" high 5s and
     arm swings. The 3rd time the song is sung, they will pass the previous partner again and move to the next
    person in the circle and so on. Play the game until partners work their way around the circle and back to
    their original partners.

My choir students thought this game was a hoot. Switching partners proved hard for them because they kept forgetting who their last partner was, so it took some practice. They didn't mind practicing, though, because many laughs and giggles were had by all. We played the game during multiple choir rehearsals to make sure the students had internalized the song.

After the song was learned solidly, we moved on to reading the rhythm and melody of the song with solfa, then we read the rhythm and melody of ostinato 1 and practiced singing it against the song, then we read the melody and rhythm of the ostinato 2 and practiced singing it against the song, and lastly we practiced singing all three parts together, song, ostinato 1, and ostinato 2. Once they were comfortable with all of these things, and only then, did I teach them the orchestration to accompany the song with glockenspiel, alto xylophone, and bass xylophone. Go to my website to download a PDF version of the Orff arrangement I created for this song. Notice that ostinato 1 is the same as the bass xylo part and ostinato 2 is similar to the alto xylo part. I found that this helped the choir's intonation, especially as new parts were added.

Finally, as we neared concert time, the choir helped me to decide the final form for our piece. We decided we wanted a "storm" to be the introduction and coda for the piece which we created with body and unpitched percussion. The storm began quietly with sprinkles, built to heavy rain, and then thunder, and then faded away again as the Orff accompaniment began before the choir entrance. At the end of the song, the Orff accompaniment slowly faded out as the storm began, and then the storm built and faded to end the piece.
    1. Begin with wind sounds created with mouths and rubbing hands together.
    2. Move to  finger snaps and mouth pops added as it starts to sprinkle.
    3. Then to lap patting and feet stomping, and then rainsticks and shakers (each student had one)
    4.  Last add a large drum or rubber trashcan for the occasional thunder before slowly working backward  
    through the previous sounds to end the storm and begin the song.

Once we had the storm down we had to decide the actual form of the song. There are many options for this...unison singing, singing in canon, singing with one ostinato or the other or both, how to transition from one part to another, etc. My choir kids decided on this form: Storm, bass xylo part and ostinato 1 two times as an opening, add melody in to bass xylo and ostinato 1 parts, bass xylo part ostinato 1 and add ostinato 2 teo times through as a transition, sing song with both ostinato parts and full accompanient, storm. This isn't the only option, of course, so adjust to fit your students abilities.

I have found that students love creating their own arrangements of folk songs and appreciate having some say in what they will be singing rather than always performing from composed octavos. I would not do this to the exclusion of singing high quality choral octavos, but especially with a young and inexperienced choir, writing your own arrangements of folk songs is a wonderful way to control the difficulty of a piece so you can adjust to your own students' abilities. Don't be scared to try it. There are many folk songs that are age appropriate and that are easily within the ability of an elementary choir to read melodically and rhythmically. Don't want to use Orff accompaniment in a concert? Then write a piano accompaniment if you must, or even better, sing your arrangement accapella. Over the years I have chosen this route many times and have never been disappointed in the results.

The same can be done with older choirs as well, but of course, you must be careful to choose age appropriate folk songs from which to create your ostinatos and arrangements. Choose a folk song that is perhaps longer or has verses, and one which has a theme that appeals to older students, such as sea chanties, cowboy songs, or a folk song in a foreigh language. Junior high students are capable of pulling ostinatos directly out of a song to create their own arrangements for performance, and in my opinion, may learn more from that experience than from singing from an octavo all of the time. How cool would it be for your students to realize that they are musicians who are capable of not only singing someone else's arrangement or composition, but of creating their own arrangements of songs! I think too often in our classrooms students see music, school music especially, as something they can't do without the help of a teacher. We need to create opportunities in our classes to prove them wrong.

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