Despite an incredibly robust music scene outside of schools, popular music hasn’t been embraced by the educational establishment. Even contemporary a cappella with its popularity in movies and on television hasn’t caught on as a curricular ensemble in many schools, instead being relegated to after school programs and extracurricular status. To me, that is backwards.
When music started to be added to the school curriculum in 1830s, it was largely to support the music-making going on outside the school day. Boston church choir director Lowell Mason was interested in getting music education to the masses instead of just the rich to improve the caliber of musicians available to his choirs. The resulting crusade added music to the school day in Boston where it eventually spread across the nation.
Why, then, have schools been reluctant to add popular music based on its perceived value? The Boston school system rejected Mason initially, saying it didn’t have time for musical pursuits. They tried using the same rationale against music as a whole that many use against popular music today.
Enter a cappella singing. It’s difficult to argue that the musical knowledge and skill required to perform a well-rehearsed a cappella song are below that of the works of the classic composers. In order to perform the 1500s a cappella madrigal “Sing We and Chant It” or the latest pop song arrangement for your vocal group, you need an understanding of the harmonic structure and how your part fits in. You need to be able to listen at a level that goes beyond the melody. Your latest Taylor Swift arrangement might not stand the test of time like some madrigals, but the musical skill it takes to perform can certainly be compared.
A cappella singing gives kids an opportunity to move beyond the passive experience many school-age students have with popular music and offers them a chance to actively analyze and listen in addition to perform. Even if they choose to stop performing, they will forever hear popular music in a different way for having been a member of their a cappella group. It’s a valuable bell that can’t be unrung.
As we continue to encourage lifelong musicianship from our music students, shouldn’t popular music and contemporary a cappella singing have a place in the classroom? As long as we’re focusing on getting students “college and career ready” – a rallying cry of the common core movement – shouldn’t we be preparing them for the outside world’s music, too, instead of only looking into the distant past? Teaching our students how to consume the music they will be experiencing in their lives is the best thing we can do and a cappella singing gives you an engaging avenue to do it.