Thursday, 21 August 2014

All Together Now...My School Singing Memoirs

Since time immemorial, schools have gathered together once a week to sing, or at least mumble through a selection of terrible, terrible songs.

"We don't even have to try, it's always a good time"

On many occasions I have stood guilty of the crime of inflicting massed vocal misery on those in front of me.
And for that I am truly sorry.
But I've also had a lot of joy leading school singing in those moments when the song, the school and the moment connected.
I'll share a couple of those in the second half.
But first, the misery.

School Singing Crime #1
It's early 1984 and for reasons that history has now erased, the number one song on the New Zealand charts is Maggie by Foster and Allen.
Yes, Foster and fekin' Allan were officially cooler than Simon Le Bon for a brief moment in time and our accordion playing music teacher just loved it. 
As a school, our collective coolness took a beating over those few weeks. The accordion wheezed and we squinted at the handwritten OHP, slowly moving our mouths in time with the music for fear of being strapped for not enjoying the most popular song in the whole country.

School Singing Crime #2
Like most high schools, Feilding Agricultural High School had a school song. Pity they never bothered to teach it to us so that to this day I have no idea how it went.
It would be trundled out for formal occasions like prizegivings and assemblies with visiting dignitaries, when you'd think it would be a good idea if the whole school at least knew how the damn thing went.
But no.
The words and melody were a secret only known to the school boarders, who were probably forced to sing it several times a week in the hostels but were all of farming stock and couldn't hold a tune in a bucket.

School Singing Crime #3
Elmo's Song. For the uninitiated, this is a stupid little Sesame Street ditty that basically goes La La La La Elmo's Song over and over again. Im not even going to dignify it with a link.
I threw it into the school singing mix for a cheap laugh a few years ago and have been pestered by kids to play it at every singing session since, while simultaneously being begged by teachers to just drop it. As long as I don't cave in and play it at school singing in the next few months it will be permanently purged from the school's repertoire as none of the kids attending our school in 2015 will have experienced the damn thing.

School Singing Crime #4
Let it Go. The clue is in the title.

Now lets look at a couple of successes.

School Singing Victory #1
The Fields of Athenry. When I came back home to teaching in 2007 I wanted to bring a bit of Ireland back with me and this anthem was just perfect. It would be unthinkable to teach this song to children in many parts of the UK where sectarianism is still an ugly scar, but on the other side of the world it's just a song about love, injustice and a longing for a happier time. My school raise the roof when we hit the chorus, every time.

School Singing Victory #2
Here's a short list of old school songs and the key that never fail at school singing with Y7-8:

Lean on Me                                                                         E
I Can See Clearly Now                                                         E             
Hey Baby.                                                                            D
I'm A Believer.                                                                      D
Swing Low/When the Saints/This Train medley or round.     E
 Have You ever seen the rain.                                              C

School Singing Victory #3
I realised this year that I don't have to do this whole school singing alone. For all my teaching life, school singing accompaniment was a choice of  live; a guitar, piano, or (God help us) an accordion, or recorded.
But the options for recorded accompaniment were to use backing tracks put out by the well meaning but usually awful Kiwi Kidsongs series or the equally patchy Australian publication Sing/ Sing Along.

Both these publications would contain a mix of new compositions, usually on the theme of looking after the environment, being nice to each other, and in the case of Sing/Sing Along, being proud to be an Aussie.
The rest of the songs would be re-workings of "classic" pop songs with well meaning lyrics, and the occasional contemporary tune thrown in there in a desperate attempt to look relevant.

While the Sing/Singalong series cost about $120 for the music book and backing tracks, Kiwi Kidsongs, while it lasted, was a free resource. 
Neither represented very good value for money.

The website is a game changer when it comes to backing tracks for your school. For around $2 a song, you can buy a track and choose not only the level of vocal backing but also the key the song is played in. The tracks are professionally recorded to a standard well above some of your local karaoke bars. Another bonus is that if you download a song in particular key and it doesn't work with your school's voices, you can change the key and download again at no further cost. How cool is that?
And of course, the big difference is that karaokeversion is publishing new tracks from new, top 40 artists almost every day.
Suddenly, I'm not restricted in my school singing repertoire by songs that translate to acoustic guitar. I can lead with a backing track. We've had some brilliant singing moments this year with both Happy and Rude.
A word of caution though. This brave new world led to School Singing Crime #4.

Sometimes you really should just let it go.

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