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Chapter 4 - How to Choose a Song

There are some songs that work with all ages and others that work best for specific ages. Echo songs and call-and-response songs work with everyone (except preschool children), as do many chants and one-verse songs. Preschool children need play songs that include circle activities, bounce-on-the-knee movement, march-around-the-room movement, and rolling-ball movement. Simple singing games are a great success, as are songs that tell stories, particularly repetitive stories.

Children in kindergarten through second grade are ready for simple echo songs, unison songs with lots of repetition, and simple call-and-response songs. They also love songs that have movement or involve a story. You can begin with simple rounds and partner songs (two or more songs sung at the same time). Pitch the songs between middle C and the A above and stay within this six-note range. Avoid going lower than middle C, simply because younger children can't hear the low notes as well.

Third- through fifth-graders can sing the same songs as K—2 as well as more rounds, partner songs, part songs (songs with harmony or counterpoint), and songs that have many verses that require a lot of reading. This group's singing range is from middle C to the C above that. Children's choirs at this age routinely sing to the F above that.

Youth can also sing the songs that younger children sing, but they are ready for songs that provide more challenge, both in terms of text and music. If junior-high-age youth sing unenthusiastically, use the marshmallow technique I described earlier to get them to sing more percussively. When their voices change, boys have a hard time singing both the high treble pitches and the low bass pitches. Their comfortable range (the cambiata range) is between the G below middle C and the D above middle C, a five-note range that limits what they can comfortably do. A book like Freedom Is Coming, edited by Anders Nyberg, has tenor parts that are ideal for this vocal range.

Chants are another source of songs for children. Chants are repetitive songs often used during rituals in many traditions. The diversity of chants on which you can draw is quite inspiring and includes Native American, Islamic, Jewish, Pagan, Christian, Earth-Centered, New Age, and the Sufi Dances of Universal Peace. Since Unitarian Universalists seek truth from diverse world faiths, these chants are a powerful resource for us.

Embracing the circle is often the emphasis of these songs. There is great beauty in the community a circle creates. Everyone experiences everyone else. It is an actual circle, but it is also the paradigm of the circle. Navahos speak of "walking in beauty," meaning we can be in a circle as equals with all life and all spirits. One can sit in the circle, dance in the circle, or drum in the circle.

Many of the well-known chants, like "The Earth Is Our Mother," have grown out of the folk tradition. We don't know who wrote them. They often are attributed to Native American, Pagan, or other traditions, but the scholarly work that is needed to find out if they actually come from these traditions has not been done. If it is not an actual Native American song, "The Earth Is Our Mother" was definitely inspired by Native American chant, but many Native Americans will remind you that they don't ever sing phrases like "Hey yanna, ho yanna." I asked an Apache friend about this once, and she remembered singing a song similar to "The Earth Is Our Mother" as a child. Wanting not to insult anyone's tradition, I preface such a chant by saying that the chant we are about to sing is probably a contemporary chant that draws its inspiration from Native American traditions. I also do everything I can to make it come alive with energy, spirit, and emotion.

In your choice of songs, try to honor the many religious traditions embraced by Unitarian Universalists, including Humanist, Christian, Jewish, Earth-Centered, Pagan, Buddhist, and Hindu. Try to honor the great diversity of cultural traditions including songs from the bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender community. Every culture creates its own music as well the songs shared by all of us. Folksinger, activist, and actor Theodore Bikel doesn't use the term melting pot to describe the great diversity of human expression. He prefers to call it a kaleidoscope, constantly changing colors and constantly surprising us with its beauty.

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Last updated on Saturday, December 10, 2011.

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