Music students in the elementary school have spent the past several weeks exploring and singing protest songs, both in music class and in chorus. February is Black History Month, and compelled us as teachers to share some of the songs that have supported social change.
In addition to stimulating thoughtful conversation, the protest songs we chose to study reinforced specific musical skills. For example, the students in Young Voices (our youngest chorus) incorporated movement and imaginative play as they learned Harry Belafonte’s “We Come from the Mountain,” a song which features changing time signatures. These students also worked on rhythmic syncopation with the African American spiritual and anti-war song “Down by the Riverside.” Students in Bergen Street Singers (our middle-aged chorus) were also challenged to stretch their vocal ranges and practice complex rhythms with “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall Not be Moved,” both anthems of the American Civil Rights movement. Our oldest students in Ensemble 5 worked on singing in harmony with the contemporary composition “Give Us Hope” by Jim Papoulis, a song which implores the audience to listen to and take seriously the voices of young people.
Class discussions on protest music centered around sharing how we feel when we feel moved to solve a problem or make a change, and how singing can be a way to express those feelings and take steps in the right direction. A number of students shared proudly about their own experiences with protests and demonstrations.