The echo song
An echo song is a song in which the leader calls out a phrase and the group repeats it. You can find this form of song in a variety of styles all around the world. It is the easiest song-teaching technique and it is always exciting—assuming you are excited about the song and convey that excitement when you teach it. Students will not only echo what you sing, they will also echo your energy.
The most common form of echo song is one in which a leader sings something and the group echoes it exactly. My "UU Children's Blessing" in May This Light Shine: A Songbook for Children and Youth is an example of this kind of song. To teach it, speak or sing the words with an improvised bluesy melody. Have the children echo. Exaggeration is the game; have fun—don't take the teaching of it too seriously. Add simple hand signs to it by counting your fingers, as you would in the children's game this song parodies, starting with the pinky finger. I often preface the blessing by saying, "The Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart said, 'If you say one prayer in your life, let it be 'Thank You.'"
Well, well, well, well (echo)
This little piggy (echo)
Believes in God. (sim.)
And this little piggy
Believes in the Goddess.
And this little piggy
Believes in multiple deities.
And this little piggy
Believes in none.
But all of us little piggies
All of us little piggies
Gotta say "Thank you, thank you, thank you,"
"Thank you, thank you, thank you,"
"Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you"
All the way home.
Have a nice day.
(Note: I did this song at a Unitarian Universalist fellowship once and was hissed for singing the line, "believes in God." For the second service I began with "believes in the Goddess," then did, "believes in God." But I find it sad that in a religion that professes to welcome diversity, there would be intolerance for a diversity of thought. This is called fundamentalism.)
To lead an echo song, you simply find the right vocal range (not too high and not too low; B up to B), smile, and ask the students for an echo. Then sing each phrase and have the group echo. At first you may want to join the children when they echo, but eventually you should have them echo on their own. If they make mistakes the first time through, it is okay to simply repeat the phrase or a part of the phrase until they sing it correctly. Do this without losing the beat. In other words, don't stop the song to fix the mistakes; simply make the corrections part of the song. To repeat once again, don't dumb down. Just because a song is simple doesn't mean you should expect less from your students.
Maintain a steady beat. If there is an interruption—say, a visitor enters the room or a child asks a question—keep the pulse going. You may want to tap the pulse on your knee or have the children tap their knees to the beat (or alternate knee-clap-knee-clap). This principle holds for all echo songs.
You may sometimes want to adapt a regular song into an echo song. The song "Thula Klizeo" (see Teaching songs by rote, below) works well as an echo song, especially with younger children who may have difficulty learning the whole song in Zulu. You begin, "Thula klizeo." They echo, "Thula klizeo." You continue, "Na-la-pa-sey-ki-ya." They echo, "Na-la-pa-sey-ki-ya." Keep a steady beat as you continue. Repeat the song as long as you wish, and add the dance.
Have I mentioned that, week after week, you should sing every song you teach and make some of the songs a standard part of ritual? ("Go Now in Peace" may be such a song.) Songs from Singing the Journey that you can adapt into echo songs include "There's a River Flowing in my Heart" (#1007), "23rd Psalm" (#1038), " Eli Eli" (#1044; in both Hebrew and English), and the old gospel song, "Shall We Gather at the River" (#1046).
Gospel song evolved after the Civil War, in both black and white churches. It borrows the popular song format of alternating verses with a chorus. Also, the term gospel song does not necessarily mean such a song represents a specific gospel style—of which there are many—although it can. Thomas Dorsey's "Precious Lord" (Singing the Living Tradition, #199) is a gospel song we can sing in a variety of gospel styles. "Shall We Gather at the River" is a gospel song that is normally sung in hymn style, but with great gusto.
Using the echo technique to teach a hymn is actually a very old tradition. It is called lining out. Two hundred years ago, hymnals were rare and only included the lyrics. Leaders called out each line and everyone echoed. A leader teaching "Amazing Grace," for example, would sing, "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound," and the congregation repeated the phrase. Once the melody was familiar, the congregation could sing the line, "that saved a wretch like me," after which the leader would quickly shout out, "I once was lost, but now I'm found," followed by the congregation singing that phrase. Because the leader shouted out the next line, the congregation could sing the hymn without stopping between verses. You can also use the echo technique to teach most rounds.
After a few weeks, once your group has learned an echo song, it is fun to ask the students to take turns leading it. Echo songs are great audience-involvement songs. (See The Book of Echo Songs, The Book of Canons, and The Book of Call & Response, all edited by John M. Feierabend, in Resources. These collections have great songs for children.)
It is easy to make up echo songs. Using two or three simple notes, such as sol,mi, and la in the universal playground chant, "na-na, na-na, na na na na nah-nah", lead a simple, silly call-and-response such as this: "Today is Sunday" (children echo), "It is a happy day" (echo), "A tip-toe-on-your-toes day" (echo), "A chase-the-clouds-away day (echo), "A peanut-and-sing-a-long-sandwich day" (echo).
Don't be afraid to be creative and spontaneous. If we had to plan every moment of our teaching day, we would never get any sleep. Make things up on the spur of the moment. Encourage creativity by setting up a creative environment—one in which you, the teacher, are creative. For example, echo songs make great transition songs. A transition song is a short song used to facilitate the end of one activity and the beginning of another. If you want to end a drawing activity and begin a gather-in-a-circle-and-worship activity, for instance, you could have your students echo, "Time to finish up" (echo), "Finish up your drawing" (echo), "Put away your papers" (echo), "Put away your crayons" (echo). Then, slowing down and getting softer, "Stand up quietly" (echo), "Come to the circle" (echo), "Make a nice circle" (echo). Then slower and softer still, "Ver—y Qui—etly" (echo), "Qui—et."
We sing slower and softer during this particular transition activity to create entrainment; when you slow down the pulse, it slows down the students' brain waves. We recognize it in the phrase, "Music calms the savage beast"—but be careful: some music animates the savage beast. For this reason, you can also use entrainment when transitioning from a quiet worship activity to a more playful activity. Simply start an echo song and gradually pick up the tempo: "Worship is over" (echo), "Time to get up now" (echo), "Time to jump up now" (echo), "Time to twist and shout now" (echo).
Scat. Scat is a style of jazz singing in which the singer makes up either nonsense syllables or word phrases like "do be doo wah, zee doo-da zee dwah" or "What's that scat cat doing with the hat, Matt?" Using the letters of the alphabet provides a simple way to teach scat singing to a class. Start by asking for letters. Lisa suggests the letter B, so you sing, "Ba ba ba biby baby bo" and the class echoes. You sing, "Be bop ba-boop bop bah" and the class echoes. As you might with any creative activity, narrow the river by using only two or three pitches (sol, mi, la) and keep the rhythms jazzy, but simple.
Next have everyone pair up. Ask one singer in each pair to sing a scat syllable to his or her partner, perhaps starting the letter B or D, and have the partner repeat it. Have everyone do this at once. It may be a little cacophonous, but the spark will be delightful. Then have the partners switch so the followers become the leaders. Remind the children to listen carefully, and tell the leaders that if the followers don't repeat the syllables correctly, they have to sing them again. By having the children sing in pairs you create confidence; it is emotionally safer to lead one person than it is to lead an entire class.
When the children are comfortable leading each other (perhaps after a week or two), you can assign a letter to everyone in the class. Then go around the room, asking each person to make up a scat phrase using his or her assigned letter while everyone else repeats the phrase. Avoid the letters F and P, as you may end with words like "pee-pee," "poo-poo," or worse.
Going around the circle like this helps build confidence in each singer, plus it's usually a lot of fun. Be careful, however—the wise guy/girl may want to throw in something negative. The best medicine is preventive medicine: Before you begin, tell the students there is no place for negativity in a positive classroom. If someone does something negative, respond immediately. Allowing children to get away with negative behavior sends a message that negative behavior is acceptable.
Speaking of the wise guy/girl, when asked to repeat after you he or she may play the game of repeating everything you say, even phrases like "Ready?" You can prevent this by making up a visual symbol for "repeat after me." Or you can use a method that Kodaly specialists such as Lois Choksy use: Before singing each echo song, you sing, "Be my echo." Everyone echoes, and then you begin the song. This technique is clear and it acts as an instant transition from a previous song or activity. You don't need to say, "Now we're going to sing an echo song." Simply begin the song.
The Moses Echo Song. Below is a marching drill song with new words that tell the story of Moses. You can include the song in a lesson on Moses. Or you can write new words to fit any lesson topic you are teaching: bullies, peace, Unitarianism, Universalism, biblical stories, other faiths, and so on.
Lead the song as an echo. Encourage students to tap their hands and march in place. It's a perfect song for using simple movements. Encourage older children to add harmonies.
Here's the creative part: Divide the children into groups of three or four and have each group write a verse or two. Keep the chorus as it is. Using the river analogy, be specific when telling the groups what to do. Say to one group, "Write a verse or two about Moses as a baby in Egypt" or "Write a story about Miriam saving Moses." Another group can write about Moses parting the Red Sea, while other groups have fun with the plagues and locusts. Have the older children write it all down. When they are done, they must share the song with everyone. The creative act is not complete until it is shared. If you have time, polish the song a bit. Suggest other rhymes. Be very positive. If possible, have your students share the song with all grades.
When we combine stories and creativity and sing with lots of emotion, we create a vibrant classroom that is alive with energy. The children learn their lessons both in the mind and in the heart. They own the process. As I said before, you can use the marching song to teach many lessons.