Appendix B: Cumulative Skills

Thinking back to my own childhood musical experiences, I remember my once a week music class in elementary school, band rehearsals in middle school, and choir in high school. Most of my music education came from taking private piano lessons throughout my childhood. Though I can remember being taught certain concepts and vocabulary, I would have been lost had I one day wandered into a rehearsal at HBV. For example, back to that same Friday afternoon in February, I’m struck during the Concert Choir’s warm up, by a discussion about tone that takes place when the children are singing a simple 5-note passage on “meeee-ha-ha-ha” (to correspond with Do-Re-Me-Fa-So-Me-Do). Looking for a certain tone, the conductor pushes them to focus on diaphragmatic breathing by resting a hand on their bellies. When that doesn’t produce the tone she’s looking for, she asks them to sing happily. When that still does not achieve the tone she wants, she begins speaking about singing in color. The exchange goes like this:

C: Ok, everybody look at [name]’s shirt, she’s wearing an orange shirt today, I want that orange color ‘ha-ha-ha’, (singing) Meeee-ha-ha-ha, and go

S (singing): Meeee-ha-ha-ha

C: Is that the orange color?

S (singing): Meeee-ha-ha-ha

C: Are you sure it’s not blue?

S (singing): Meeee-ha-ha-ha

C: What?

S (singing): Meeee-ha-ha-ha, Meeee-ha-ha-ha

C: Good, now change the color to purple, purple, ready and go

S (singing): Meeee-ha-ha-ha

C: What do we do in order to change the color?

Individual Student: the tone?

C: The tone! Which one would make it, purple, from orange to purple? How do you change the tone?

IS: It can be bolder?

C: Bolder? He says – [name] says that you have to sing with a bolder sound, let’s sing that—ready, and go

S (singing): Meeee-ha-ha-ha

C: Is that purple?

S (singing): Meeee-ha-ha-ha, Meeee-ha-ha-ha

C: Good, I want it bright yellow, bright yellow, ready and go

S (singing): Meeee-ha-ha-ha, Meeee-ha-ha-ha, Meeee-ha-ha-ha

C: Good! Nice, thanks for changing those tones.

After asking the students to deepen their breathing and then sing with emotion, it’s not until the conductor asks the students to sing the passage in an orange color that the tone changes. They sing the passage as orange, with clear and glittery vowels, and after a few passes, she asks them to sing the same passage as purple. The tone becomes full and deep, as though the thought of purple caused an instant jaw drop. When she pauses to ask them what they’re doing differently, one student suggests that they’re singing with a “more bold tone.” This kind of involvement and active participation, both the physical and the dialogic, can be placed within the context of a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. This framework focuses on student representation, action and expression, and engagement, all of which are foundational elements found during rehearsals at HBV (Currie-Rubin and Karger, 2013).

To conclude the color singing exercise, the conductor asks the kids to sing the same phrase as bright yellow. In between passes, she asks the kids if they’re singing a bright yellow tone, a reminder to stay focused on the tone their voices are producing. The collective tone returns to a shining, bright space, similar to the tone for orange. Visibly pleased and possibly a little surprised with themselves, the kids hear their tone shift throughout the exercise.  After a brief explanation of vowel position and connecting the breath and voice to the body, the conductor swiftly moves into the rehearsal. As I mentioned earlier, they work on “Sing to Me” for about 20 minutes, and then find out they’re starting a new song. The conductor plays a few recordings, two interpretations of the same piece, and asks the kids to point out differences between them. At first the students mention the arrangements, voice parts, and harmonies. When someone mentions tone, the conversation opens up into kids excitedly explaining that one version has a purple color, while another has a brighter tone. They talk through what they’re hearing, and which tone they prefer in this context. They end up describing the brighter recording as being too bright and having a “yell-y” tone, which they dislike. Their new skill has now come full circle. First, the kids were presented with the idea of singing in color. Second, they were asked to discuss and classify the different recordings they listened to. And finally, they used their new understanding to decide and describe how they wanted their version of the song to sound. During the rehearsals I observed with the older choirs, conversations about tone were common, and confidently held.

On a separate occasion, while observing the Chamber Choir, the kids were learning count singing. Mary had them singing the song “Under Pressure,” by Queen and David Bowie, which contains complicated dotted rhythms. By having the basses sing their opening line on “1 and, 2 and a, 3 and,” she got them to correctly sing a rhythm of two eighth notes, an eighth note and two sixteenths, two eighth notes, and a quarter rest. Once it was mastered, Mary explained the reason behind count singing. She explained that this skill would help them hone their rhythm, and they’d be be expected to count sing when in the advanced choir, Singers. 

I witnessed the building of these cumulative skills during rehearsals and classes, as topics were introduced and then later revisited. Building cumulative skills is just one of the ways HBV takes its role as an academic and music program seriously. In fact, at the concert I attended, Mary spoke specifically about this role:

“Highbridge Voices is not just a choir program, although our students do rehearse 3 times a week for 90 minutes each rehearsal…they come to us every day after school for three hours and they do a combination of academic and music programing. For most of our, well I’ll say for many of our students, they don’t have a traditional in school music program that might resemble something you or your own kids had. They don’t have an in-school full-time music teacher, there may not be a band, choral, or orchestra program, and so we really see ourselves as the primary source of music ed. for our students from ages 9 to 18…”

Next: Appendix C: A Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Tone