The theatre students take music classes as part of their curriculum. I’ve been attending them, because as an “apostate musician” (BA in music, 17-odd years piano lessons, former piano teacher and choral accompanist), they fascinate me.
The music teacher is currently working on rhythm. Only about half of the students have any kind of sense of rhythm; some students have trouble marching to a steady beat.
In my past history as a piano teacher, I might have done something like the whole… um, hard to explain without the visuals, but there’s this technique where you clap your hands for each quarter note, and then clap your hands and clasp them together and do this circle thing for a half note (so it takes twice as long), etc.
But the Hyderabadi music teacher had a different approach. He asked the students to sing a folk song.
Immediately one student launched into this fast-paced Telugu song, with all kinds of syncopated rhythms, and the entire class joined in. They had no trouble with the rhythms when they were singing, and the song clipped by at a very steady pace.
So the teacher stopped them, and started them clapping again in quarter notes (crotchets, if we want to be particular). Then he asked them to start the song again and keep clapping. It fell apart.
The teacher continued this exercise, asking the students in turn to march to the song, to dance to the song, etc. and by the end of the two-hour session they were beginning to see how the steady beat fit with what they were singing.
The teacher said that every day they would continue this practice, using different folk songs. Everyone, including me, was requested to bring a folk song to class.
Of course I was swarmed by the students afterwards and asked to sing “a U.S. folk song.” And, despite all my music training, my mind went blank. Finally I remembered that old Dan Tucker had once been too late to get his supper, and I dug up the chorus to sing to them, although I couldn’t for the life of me remember any of the verses.
But I am still puzzled by what constitutes a U.S. folk song. The problem, I think, is that the United States is both too stratified and too amnesiac. That is, the U.S. has so many cultural influences and diverse groups that there is no one category of “folk” songs that an entire population might know; and, of course, that the U.S. rarely bothers hanging on to memories of old songs, as we are always trying to sell new ones.
Yes, there is a category of European-American “folk music” which includes songs like Old Dan Tucker and Polly Wolly Doodle, but nobody ever sings those songs. If I were sitting in a classroom full of American college students and asked to sing something that everyone would know and could join in on, I would have to go with something like “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”
And that’s just sad.
So… what will I sing for these students, when it is my turn? I thought about a spiritual, since that is an authentically American musical form, but I don’t want to bring religion into the mix. It has to be something simple, with very few lyrics, that is easy to pick up and easy to clap to.
And then I had an inspiration, from what is perhaps another sub-genre of American “folk music:” camp songs.
I’m going to teach them “The Song That Doesn’t End.”
Yes, I’m evil. ^__^