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Teaching songs by rote (Tapestry of Faith)

In "," a Tapestry of Faith program

Learning songs by ear, as opposed to learning songs by reading music, is the basic strategy for teaching most but not all songs. The rote process involves no written music and most often no printed lyrics. Songs that are taught by rote are usually simple. Songs that are complicated or that have lots of words, particularly in other languages, require written lyrics either on overhead transparencies or word sheets.

There are six simple steps for teaching songs by rote.

1. Introduce the song, then wait for silence before continuing.

2. Perform the song with energy.

3. Have the singers echo you, phrase by phrase. If the song is in an unfamiliar language, begin by speaking the words only. Then sing them.

4. Have singers sing the verse in phrases first, then sing the entire verse. Don't try to do too much; one verse or chorus is sufficient to start. If you end up singing verses by yourself, that is fine—or you can invite youth or fellow teachers sing along with you.

5. Correct mistakes as they happen.

6. At some point, talk about the tradition from which the song comes and/or talk about the meaning of the song. Make the song come alive.

The order of these steps can vary. Because every song is different, the strategy for teaching each song is a little different.

When I teach the African American hymn "There Is More Love Somewhere" (Singing the Living Tradition, #95) by rote, I first wait until the children are completely silent. Then I sing the song Harry Belafonte sang in folk clubs and nightclubs during his early career, an experience he writes about in his autobiography. He learned that if he didn't wait until the audience was totally silent before he sang, he would never have silence throughout his performance. The same theory applies to teaching children to sing.

When the group is silent I sing the hymn slowly and calmly, yet with plenty of emotion. It's a powerful song. I then ask everyone to listen and repeat after me. The listening part is essential. If the students don't listen, have them sing the phrase again—without dumbing down.

I sing, "There is more love somewhere," and everyone repeats the phrase. I do the same with the second phrase. The third phrase is tricky, so I break it into two parts. I sing, "I'm gonna keep on... " and have everyone repeat it, followed by "... 'til I find it," which everyone repeats. Then I sing the entire phrase, "I'm gonna keep on 'til I find it," and have everyone repeat it. Take the time at the beginning to get a phrase right, because it's almost impossible to fix if the group learns it incorrectly.

Next I'm ready to start again, either having the children repeat each phrase or having them sing two phrases at a time. What I do depends on the support they need. One group may need to hear each phrase again, while another might be ready to put it all together. You don't need a piano or any other accompaniment—you simply need the beauty of the song to shine through.

"There Is More Love Somewhere" is in a zipper form, meaning that with each repetition you can "zip" in a new word; for example, "There is more peace" or "There is more spirit." (See The zipper song, in Chapter 6.) Be sure to show respect; don't allow phrases like "There is more cell phone service."

I once taught this song at a YRUU (Young Religious Unitarian Universalists) gathering. One night, the power went out at the camp, so we all gathered by the fire and sang songs. Soon we were singing, "There is more love," and someone suggested, "There is more light." In a mock evangelist voice I shouted, "Only if you believe! Do you believe?" "Yes!" the youth shouted. "Do you BELIEVE?" "YES!" they shouted even louder. We sang, "There is more light somewhere," and immediately the power came back on. Two hundred Unitarian Universalist youth jumped up and down shouting, "WE BELIEVE! WE BELIEVE!" It was a great moment. Having been raised to ask questions, they were soon wondering if this little miracle had been rigged. (It hadn't.)

I also teach "Thula Klizeo," a fantastic contemporary song from South Africa by Joseph Shabalala, the leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. When you teach this song thoroughly, with energy and in a way that makes the story behind the song come alive, the experience can be uplifting. If you teach the song quickly and with no respect to the tradition, it can be a disaster. For this reason, I outline my approach step by step, an approach you can apply to teaching songs from many cultures by rote.

Thula Klizeo by Joseph Shabalala

1. Introduce the song with information like the following: "Thula Klizeo" is a song by Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a South African group that became world-famous when they toured and recorded with Paul Simon in the late 1980s. Joseph Shabalala, the group's leader, wrote "Thula Klizeo" in 1987 while riding in a taxi in New York City. At that moment, he was homesick for South Africa and he missed his children. Because of the unfair apartheid laws at the time, he did not know if he would ever see them again. Joseph Shabalala, however, was calmed by the thought, Thula (be still) klizeo (my heart), Na la pa sey kiya (even here I am at home), and these words became the song. But the song means much more, as you will see in a moment.

2. Perform the song with energy, giving everyone an idea of how it sounds. I know that, at this point, some students will be thinking, "This is too hard for me to learn," so before the potential supernovas can sink into despair, I go on to the next step. Sometimes I can avoid potential intimidation by doing Step 2 after Step 3. It is important to perform the song at some point, however; otherwise the students will have heard only fragments of it. They won't know how the whole song should sound.

3. Speak the words of the song, word by word.

Leader: Thula! (too' lah)

Group: Thula!

In South Africa, much of the singing is deep and resonant, because the people's speaking voices tend to be deep and resonant. So when I speak the word Thula, I give it a deep sound from the gut. I also give it lots of emotion because I want the students to echo both the word and the emotion. I have them repeat the word again and, as I want more energy from the class, I shout the words with an enthusiastic smile.

Leader: Thula!

Group: Thula!

Everyone should be smiling at this point, and I do not continue until the class echoes sufficient emotion. Then I go on and speak another word.

Leader: klizeo (kleh zee' oh)

Group: klizeo

Leader: Thula klizeo

Group: Thula klizeo

Leader: na la pa (nah lah pah)

Group: na la pa

Leader: na la pa

Group: na la pa

Leader: sey ki-ya! (say kah-ee yah)

Group: sey ki-ya!

Leader: sey ki-ya!

Group: sey ki-ya!

This may seem like a lot of repetition, but don't forget that you must teach the song as if you were teaching it to yourself. If you were in the students' place, would you be able to remember all these words in an unfamiliar language with just one repetition?

4. Continue the repetitions, now with complete phrases.

Leader: Thula klizeo

Group: Thula klizeo

Leader: Thula klizeo

Group: Thula klizeo

Leader: na la pa sey ki-ya

Group: na la pa sey ki-ya

It is important to listen as the students repeat after you. This way it's easy to hear mistakes. If, for example, I hear that some students are having trouble with na la pa, and are saying na la la instead, I break up the phrase again and accent the P.

Leader: na la pa

Group: na la pa

Leader: na la pa sey ki-ya

Group: na la pa sey ki-ya

Leader: hey ki-ya (hay kah-ee yah)

Group: hey ki-ya

Leader: na la pa sey ki-ya

Group: na la pa sey ki-ya

At this point I repeat all the words again. I don't want to teach the melody until each singer feels confident with all the words. I cannot stress this enough: the singers must feel 100 percent confident at this stage of learning the song. You will be wasting time if you go on without their confidence. After a long period of time you may end up having to start again, but by then the singers may lose their energy and their trust in you may be considerably diminished.

5. When every singer is feeling sufficiently confident with the words, teach the melody. Sing the whole song, slowly at first, so that everyone can become familiar with the notes, and make sure you sing the melody in a range that is comfortable for everyone—not too high and not too low. This is critical. If the midrange of a song is between middle C and G (five notes higher) you are in a safe range for everyone.

Sing a few words at a time, asking the class to repeat after you until they are comfortable.

Leader (singing slowly): Thula klizeo

Group: Thula klizeo

Leader: Thula klizeo

Group: Thula klizeo

Leader: na la pa sey ki-ya

Group: na la pa sey ki-ya

If you notice that some students are having trouble singing sey ki-ya or another phrase, I isolate these notes and have everyone repeat them. Making mistakes when learning a song is very natural. No one should ever be made to feel inadequate or stupid for making a mistake. If you don't fix the mistake at this point, however, it may never be fixed. With younger children it may be impossible to correct a mistake once it has been learned. Get into the habit of correcting mistakes immediately, with kindness and clarity. I even go so far as to act like I didn't notice the mistake. I simply have them repeat the phrase with more care.

Ultimately, by teaching a song slowly and carefully (as if you are teaching it to yourself), the students learn it faster. If you teach this song quickly, many mistakes will occur. There will be confusion, and you may end up spending more time trying to re-teach it later. Uninspired singing will be the result.

Continue combining the words and melody, giving a "stop" signal with your hands to indicate that students should wait until you're finished each phrase group before they repeat after you.

Leader: (singing) sey ki-ya

Group: sey ki-ya

Leader: na la pa sey ki-ya

Group: na la pa sey ki-ya

Leader: hey ki-ya

Group: hey ki-ya

Leader: na la pa sey ki-ya

Group: na la pa sey ki-ya

Leader: hey ki-ya

Group: hey ki-ya

Leader: na la pa sey ki-ya

Group: hey ki-ya

6. Next, sing complete phrases and ask the students to repeat after you.

Leader: Thula klizeo, na la pa sey ki-ya

Group: Thula klizeo, na la pa sey ki-ya

Leader: Thula klizeo, na la pa sey ki-ya

Group: Thula klizeo, na la pa sey ki-ya

Leader: hey ki-ya, na la pa sey ki-ya

Group: hey ki-ya, na la pa sey ki-ya

Leader: hey ki-ya, na la pa sey ki-ya

Group: hey ki-ya, na la pa sey ki-ya

7. When all the singers sound confident, indicate that it is time to try the whole song. Pick up the tempo so you are singing the song at the intended speed.

All: Thula klizeo, na la pa sey ki-ya

Leader: (Say "repeat" or "again" at the end of the phrase.)

All: Thula klizeo, na la pa sey ki-ya

Leader: hey ki-ya (This reminds the group what the next phrase is. Speak all such reminders in tempo; in other words, do not slow the song down or stop it.)

All: hey ki-ya, na la pa sey ki-ya

Leader: Repeat

All: hey ki-ya, na la pa sey ki-ya

8. Repeat the whole song again. If the energy is right, there is often a spontaneous burst of applause at this point. There may be some in the group—particularly in a group of older students—who can sing harmonies. Always encourage singing in harmony. You yourself should sing a combination of melody and harmony. I do this in a very simple way: on the last held note of the phrase, I sing the melody note, and then quickly jump to a harmony note. By singing the melody note, you help those who need to hear the melody. By adding the harmony note immediately afterward, you give others an idea of how to harmonize. (There is a harmonized version of "Thula Klizeo" in Singing the Journey [#1056], but those harmonies are merely suggestions. Spontaneous harmonies are sometimes far more beautiful and make the songs come alive.)

Now everyone sings the melody again, and some begin to harmonize. Most don't, and that's okay.

9. There is a dance that goes along with "Thula Klizeo." Say something like "Ah, but there's more. It's time to learn the dance. In most parts of the world, people don't sit still while they sing. They move; they dance. This is particularly true in South Africa, where this song comes from. Our dance goes like this."

It is a simple standing-in-place dance. Bend your body forward slightly. With your feet, do a walking-in-place motion to the beat: quietly "stomp" your right foot out in front. With your hands, echo the beat of your feet during the first two phrases of the song, simultaneously pulsing them downward at stomach level, with your palms facing down. Smile.

When you sing the phrase hey ki-ya, raise both hands in the air and then bring them back to the same motion as before; every time you come to the phrase hey ki-ya, lift your hands to heaven.

I have everyone stand and we do the dance and song together, with harmony if possible. Again, there is great excitement once we sing the song through a few times—but something is still missing. It is now time to provide more information about the tradition behind the song, from which the real power of the song comes.

10. Present more information by saying something like this: "For thousands of years the Zulu people of Southern Africa performed great dances in which they kicked high in the air and stomped proudly on the earth. These were dances of great strength, defiance, and power. Under the system of apartheid, however, the Zulu people were not allowed to do their traditional dances. Nor were they allowed to show their power or defiance; if they showed power or defiance, they were likely to be locked up in jail.

"So they developed something called Es-kah-tah-mee-yah, which means 'tiptoe step,' or 'to stomp quietly.' That is what we do every time we put our right foot down. We show our anger and power. We are saying no to the apartheid system. We are showing our defiance in a way that will not get us locked up in jail."

Providing this kind of information about the song's tradition adds an essential element that lends immense power to the singing. This is the power inherent in all cultural traditions. Tradition connects us with the past. In a way, tradition awakens our memories. By honoring traditions, we somehow remember experiences celebrated by our own ancestors. Our heritage comes alive in us. Many cultures, such as the many South African black cultures, believe that making music connects them with their ancestors.

The more history you provide, the more powerful the song will become. You can talk about the Soweto uprisings of June, 1976, for example, during which the black youth of South Africa took center stage in the anti-apartheid movement. The DVD, Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, tells this history in a powerful way.

Continue sharing information by saying, "Let us now dance and sing the song again, and remember that even though the words mean 'Be still my heart, even here I am at home,' the dance means 'We are powerful, and no one can take that power from us.'" (I sometimes have the group repeat that last phrase after me.)

When you discuss traditions with your students, remember to adapt the language and concepts to the age group you are addressing. The previous description, for example, is geared toward older children and adults and needs to be adapted for a younger group.

Do the song and dance again, this time repeating them over and over for a long time. The song creates a trancelike effect, and—like all chants—its power builds with repetition. You can actually achieve a trance state through this type of singing, a state that should not be denied anyone, especially children. Allow the energy to build. Add percussive instruments if you want. Vary the dance movements by bending lower, stomping higher, or changing the movements into a march. Once people learn it, this song becomes infectious and is extremely popular. It is a tremendous energy booster and it has universal appeal. Whenever you teach and sing a song like this, however, don't let it become trivialized; its meaning and the power of its tradition must always be apparent.

In the next chapter we will examine other strategies for teaching "Thula Klizeo." In The Nick Page Sing with Us Songbook, you will find a story accompanying the song, which tells about the culture in a more engaging way, along with some advanced dance steps.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Saturday, December 10, 2011.

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