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Preliminary Steps: Collecting Songs From School Families and Other Informants

I have been promising a piece on song collecting for a long time. I’ve thought and chatted with others quite a bit. Over the months I’ve had time to reflect. I have realized I’d left out important preliminary steps.


Some folks, such as your school parents or acquaintances, can open their mouths and sing easily share a lullaby or singing game from their childhood. But, many, probably most, cannot. Still, they carry melodies deep within them.


Newcomers are honored when we show interest in their home cultures. When we learn their songs and share these songs with our students, their cultures become visible. They know that their presence is valued.


Many, probably most, folks who come to the United States from other countries have not had music education as part of their school experience. Most did not study music at all.


The message they receive in the culture here is that music is about talent. They are very unlikely to be confident in their own singing voices.

They bring many songs in their memories. They carry deep memories of the lullabies their mothers sang and of favorite popular music from their teen years.


Most classroom teachers are searching for simple, authentic folk songs. But this may not be the best place to start -- especially if your informant doesn’t immediately have such a song in mind, or neither of you can produce a book or recording with at least the lyrics of a familiar songs. What I’m going to suggest is something I wish I had done earlier in my collecting career. It will take time. It will also build trust, assuring your informant that you are really listening to the songs that are important to them. Yes. Their favorite is likely to be a popular song rather than an "authentic" folk song.


So, encourage school parents  to send you clips of favorite songs from their homelands -- whatever they are. This is a start. You will be receiving their songs as examples for your listening library. You don't have to teach these adult popular songs in the classroom.

Nuts and bolts

Ask this informant/parent to write down the lyrics for any short, memorable (singable) section in the song -- probably a refrain.

If they use different characters than the Roman alphabet, they should write the refrain in their own characters.


Writing out short phrases of lyrics in native characters, gives a grounding in the process you will use later when you are collecting the songs that you expect to actually use in your classroom.


Without question, people are most confident when they can see lyrics not only written out, but written out in their own characters. For years and years, I showed Arabic speakers transliterations of Arabic songs (for example) that were written in English for English speakers. Often, the informants could not recognize their own language in Roman characters.

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Have a short first meeting with your informant. Listen together to the song they have selected. Have the informant speak the words of the refrain, slowly. Repeat the lyrics after them. Do it again: Listen and repeat. Be sure to write the lyrics as you hear them, i.e. in spelling that works for you. Have your informant help you to improve the pronunciation. Write the lyrics as you hear them. At some point, perhaps you can sing the refrain together -- perhaps even with the recording playing in the background. Insecure singers are most confident when there is a soundtrack in the background. Also, many folks will be most comfortable if you hold off on recording right away. The goal is comfort and authentic sharing. This takes time.


This preliminary stage sets the stage, down the road, for singing different types of songs: that is, songs that are good for classroom use.


Additional strategies: Audio sources and books

Sometimes you can find children’s songs, for example, on YouTube, that sound like they may be what you are looking for. Select two or three songs that you believe would work, and ask your informant if any of these are familiar. They probably will be. You are on your way.

There are many books of traditional children’s songs that are not that difficult to get! There are published books of Turkish, Israeli, Japanese, Argentinian, Kurdish, and Chinese songs, to name a few. Look in the book for four or five songs that would work in your classroom. Ask your informant if they are familiar with them. If so, return to the writing and singing process described above.

Please share your experiences (or questions) with me.  Our conversations will help other music teachers do this important work to welcome and affirm the cultures of our students !


P.S Always, always, always get the full name and contact information for  your informant.

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