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Test of Time: Traditional Songs in the Classroom
By James Hill

Music teachers sometimes ask me: "why do we teach so many old, decidedly 'non-trendy' songs in the classroom?" When asked to name names, they usually talk disparagingly about "Clementine" or "Tom Dooley." While "Clementine" and "Tom Dooley" may be the "Macarena" and "Achy Breaky Heart" of traditional music I am a strong believer in teaching "old, un-fashionable" songs in the classroom. And here's why.

Firstly and most importantly, there's a big difference between the act of consuming music and the act of making music. Consuming music is what we do when we surf iTunes for the latest popular hit, download it, and experience the music more-or-less passively (yes, that includes listening to your iPod while doing aerobics). In this case, music is "worn" like other fashionable commodity such as jeans or sneakers. This is not to be confused with the act of making music, in which the mind and body are engaged in a fundamentally different way.

The act of successfully playing a simple piece of music—with words or without—is a profoundly enjoyable experience for people of all ages. This includes young people who wouldn't be caught dead downloading "Clementine" from iTunes but who will sing it with gusto in music class. If you approach teaching a song in a positive, matter-of-fact way—without second-guessing your students' desire to be meaningfully engaged in music-making—you can teach "oldies but goodies" with great success.

From a 9-year-old's perspective, a song that's 30 years old might as well be 300 years old...

And by "oldies but goodies" I'm not talking about All Shook Up or Great Balls of Fire (not that these tunes can't supplement your repertoire). I'm talking about traditional songs and art-music from all over the world; music that offers students the opportunity to better understand other cultures and to learn about different periods of history. To see the depth and variety offered by this approach, just look at the Ukulele in the Classroom project.

There are other reasons, too: the red tape involved in using songs protected by copyright, the fact that trends in music move so quickly, the fact that—from a 9-year-old's perspective—a song that's 30 years old might as well be 300 years old, the fact that there's a big difference between "a good song" and "a good song for learning about music," and so on.

That said, it's not all or nothing. If you feel like teaching some "cool" music in the classroom, consider these popular hits. Each is an old song made popular by a contemporary artist or group:

Song Artist / Group
Scarborough Fair Simon & Garfunkel
Sloop John B. The Beach Boys
Maggie Mae The Beatles
House of the Rising Sun The Animals
Old Dan Tucker Bruce Springsteen
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen The Barenaked Ladies


Keep in mind: students have ample opportunity to consume music outside class time. Make your decisions about classroom repertoire based on what you believe your students can learn from a piece of music, not based on your perception of what they think is "cool."

Uke on!

James Hill
Editor, Ukulele Yes!

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