First Choir Night
It’s my first night teaching children’s choir at the Episcopal church. I’ve been told I’ll have 7 kids for 30 minutes, ranging from ages 3 to 12. I’m being paid well for this, and the age range is part of the reason. The pay is also good enough to cover my prep time during the week and gas to and from town, which makes the whole thing a win-win situation and I’m happy to do it.
The church lies about a quarter mile behind the grocery story in Burnsville, set high up in the holler at the end of the road. A paved road gives way to gravel, then opens up to a wide parking lot and virtually brand new, beautiful church. I arrive while the kids are still eating dinner: pizza, broccoli, and organic apple juice. The kids bounce and weave between the chairs, laughing and chewing, all legs and squeals. After a while, we head downstairs to the classroom, parents included.
We start with short introductions and then I tell them the story of my guitar. They marvel at its red matte finish, the deep cherry wood interior. The 3-year old won’t join our circle and doesn’t say much, but her mother sits with her patiently so I don’t have to worry about how to handle it. Once I get them to stand in two small rows for an easy warm up, the 5-year old lasts only a few minutes before tackling and tickling her older sister, also in the choir. Chairs topple and laughter abounds. She loses interest quickly and scuttles off to be with her mother toward the back of the classroom.
First day on the job and all the parents are in the room, watching? That’s right. They are there for support and even though I’m by no means a professional music teacher, their presence is welcome all the same. They’re not there to judge me, rather, to help with the younger ones so that the rest of the group can get some real singing in. And so the brave, slightly more patient five remaining children and I forge ahead into choir practice. Ranging from ages 7-12, they meet me with loud voices and good cheer.
But before conjuring images of choral robes and conductor’s batons, let me be clear: I’m wearing yoga pants and singing Christian songs from the folky Rise Up Singing songbook. The kids’ mouths are ringed with bright pink popsicle moustaches and they share one piece of music between the five of them.
In small doses, I mention breathing, relaxing, proper posture, and a few other basics. Having only taken one semester of choir in my life (7th grade, where I stood so close to the lead soprano in order to keep myself on pitch that I was instantly accused of being a lesbian), I don’t have much else to teach. I start off with “When the Saints Go Marching In” because it’s a no-brainer, and they’re right there with me, smiles and voices and all. They sing, no doubt, albeit it sometimes off key. We rework a few lines, learn additional verses, and add percussion to the guitar. Later in the session we will attempt the more challenging “I Am an Acorn,” which a parent tells me afterward nearly brought her to tears. (Wow!)
The first class a success, I can see my work is also cut out for me. For instance, how does one go about “teaching” pitch, a notion that feels completely intuitive to me? Or how do you explain abstract concepts like “sharp” and “flat” to a 7-year-old? I’ve gotten by with music this far almost entirely by sound, as my Suzuki piano background dictates. This should be interesting, but I think I’m up for the challenge.