Any good choir concert should include a little Beyoncé, right?
Two summers ago, I discovered Beyoncé. Don’t get me wrong—I knew who she was—but honestly, I had never really listened to any of her music. Well, enough friends talked her up that I reached the tipping point one day and threw her album Lemonade on repeat in the background while I was writing curriculum for school. Over the next few days I repeated this process with her other albums as well, and I was hooked.
As I went down rabbit holes, learned pop culture references, and found new artists, I realized how small my musical world was. When I would share my newfound passion for this music, my friends rolled their eyes and congratulated me on catching up to 21st century popular music.
As a choir teacher, my early programming was heavy with the type of music I sang in college, as was my iPod. I loved classical music and the choral tradition I was trained in, and I also saw my role as one in which it was important to expose kids to music they were unfamiliar with: classical music. I’d include a pop song here and there to appease my choirs, but my focus was on our “major” repertoire.
My philosophy has changed. I’ve come to recognize the importance of including not just diverse music from around the world, but also diverse genres including popular music. Popular music is what the majority of my students listen to today. They connect with this music—the rhythm, the melodies, and the lyrics. If I ignore or downplay this genre, I minimize the potential relevance of choir to students’ lives, students’ culture, and potential learning experiences for both my students and myself. Yes, the classical music that I love has led us in part to where we are today and is important to the history and culture of many of my students, but popular music is their music.
I think it’s important that we as a choral profession are more inclusive in our programming, particularly when it comes to the world of popular music, jazz, show choir, etc. Recently, we have had a reckoning regarding the music of various cultures from around the world, and we are beginning to understand why it is important to program this music, put it in context, and how to do these things respectfully and without minimizing or tokenizing them.
Yet, popular music remains a denigrated genre in many circles. It is used as the “carrot” or “dessert” music for choirs. When I’ve gone to conferences, there have been few sessions on doing popular music with choirs, and the sessions that do exist have been at less coveted times. In reading packets, the popular music is relegated to the back or to a separate reading packet entirely. If time runs low during a reading session, these are often the songs that are skipped. Even when performed within schools, I’ve seen popular music kept aside for the extracurricular choirs, but not given to the primary curricular choirs. Just imagine the response if some of this music was performed at large group contest: I think the reaction would be revealing in terms of what music we consider to be acceptable to include in a program as a choral community.
If we are to be truly inclusive in our choirs, we need to think about including all musics. We don’t have to stop teaching and programming the music that we love, but we do need to include other music too. And I think this inclusive mindset can be helpful with other programming dilemmas as well. Take, for example, the dreaded winter concert conundrum for some communities that expect Christmas music: include some of this expected music, but also include a bunch of other music too! Finally, in programming the music of our choir members, we are acknowledging that their culture and interests—and therefore they themselves—are important and have value.
I don’t know much about teaching and performing popular music or jazz yet, but I’m working on it. This music wasn’t included in my education, so I have to learn it along with my students. And while I haven’t programmed anything by Beyoncé for my choir yet, it’s only a matter of time before they are standing on the stage in their maroon and gold robes singing “Love On Top” or “Countdown” at the top of their lungs!