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Having a high school age son who is involved in choir, theatre and many other musical adventures, I am grateful to have ongoing opportunities to be exposed to new musical experiences.
Recently, I had the honor of listening to what I would describe as one of the most moving — and reverent — high school music moments I’ve ever seen. It came during a concert in which one song was dedicated to the community of Parkland, Florida, and another looked suicide in the face.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much more than reading a headline, talking to a front-line educator, or chatting with parents (or kids) to know that mental health challenges are real.
Wanting to make a difference, composer Jake Runestad wrote the song “Please Stay” as an anthem of hope and suicide prevention. When the Minnesota Music Educators Association All-State Choir sang and spoke the words, not only could you could hear a pin drop, but the tears in the performers’ eyes were real. At the same time, the piece inspired hope, with the core message and lyrics of “You are not alone. We can make a difference.”
Runestad reflects upon the inspiration for the song, and also the fact that he incorporated language from tweets written by individuals who told their story with the hashtag #IKeptLiving:
Depression affects about 20 million people in the USA, 350 million worldwide. Suicide took the lives of 41,149 people in the USA alone in 2013. Mental health disorders are serious issues in our culture and it is important that we have open conversation about their existence and that we show support to those who are battling them.
The nonprofit movement To Write Love On Her Arms is dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. Their 2016 campaign for World Suicide Prevention Day was titled 'And So I Kept Living.' Using the hashtag #IKeptLiving, thousands of individuals who battle depression shared their stories on Twitter as to why they chose to life over death.
I read through and collected hundreds of the tweets and used them to inspire the text for this work.
Even as I write, I tear up thinking of the power of seeing a hundred high school kids on stage sharing a message of hope, and of the moment when one stepped forward, and through tears said, “Thank you — you were the one who took time to stop and listen.”
Music Builds Maker Mindsets
In addition to increasing awareness (and hope) about mental health issues as “Please Stay” did, there are countless benefits to the performing arts.
One of the things that stands out to me is the role of the arts in building maker mindsets: Through powerful experiences, students learn that they can take initiative and create something special.
Alexandra Eaton of NAfME writes that music education is what students want and what the workforce needs. Tom Vander Ark, who has personally experienced the rewards of participating in choral groups, asserts that every student ought to have a powerful performing arts experience.
The examples below draw from the choral experiences we’ve been exposed to through MMEA and ACDA (regional and national)-sponsored events. Through well-directed experiences, students (and their teachers) learn they can be:
Makers of music. Through music, students learn that they can both make (perform) beautiful music that others have written AND make (compose) their own. For example, when students have the opportunity to meet a composer of something they perform, they realize that composers are real people, too. Learning the story behind the song can be powerful. For example, composer Daniel Kallman (Kallman Creates) explains to students that the lyrics for one of his songs was the result of a crowdsourced co-creation process. The larger work, Passage of Wind and Water: A Collaborative Choral Poem, was written by students and adults. Meeting composers and writers reminds students that making music goes far beyond carrying a tune. We know that when students can envision, they can create.
Makers of community. The skills required to build community are transferable — take it from Director Jeffrey Redding, who continually told his singers, “You are a community of singers — no one voice should stand out. You are creating a brotherhood.” While the teacher/director sets the tone, the onus to build community was on the kids. Redding reflects on how similar his roles are as choir director and football coach, “People wouldn’t believe how similar! Most importantly, no matter what we are teaching, if we want to create community and learning, we can’t make it about us.”
Makers of meaning. Words and sounds together build meaning. Conductor and composer Bob Chilcott urges students, “Listen. You need to focus on what a lyric is about as you sing it.” When teachers and conductors like Bob reinforce the power of language and melodies to make meaning, students see connections. For example, Bob describes, when you listen to the words “It was difficult” in a song about the Wright brother’s path to flight, kids learn to convey the meaning through their voice and expressions. Music creates a perfect environment for students to learn they can use language to make meaning – and can transfer that to other classes.
Makers of history. Singing helps students learn that they can experience, shape, and make history in new ways. For example, the song “Five Days that Changed the World” (Bob Chilcott) spans 500 years of history AND draws connections to the present day as they learned about the invention of printing, the abolition of slavery, and more. To help them begin to grasp the meaning of something as powerful and complicated as freedom, when Bob talks with students, he relays his experience of being present in Berlin the day the wall came down. All music has a story. As students sing stories, they can be transplanted in time, bringing a greater depth of understanding to social studies.
Makers of change. Music can help change the world. It can help change people. There may be no better example than “Please Stay” changing the course of someone’s life.
Students continue to inspire me with hope for our world. Here’s the #Minnesota #AllStateChoir singing #PleaseStay during their soundcheck. What a gorgeous moment of love and community. ❤️ https://t.co/5EAGv82dQ8 pic.twitter.com/Y9BM1IFnyH
— Jake Runestad (@JakeRunestad) February 24, 2018
Makers of the intangible. Music is powerful in ways that can’t adequately be explained. I’d be hard-pressed to think anyone reading this hasn’t been emotionally moved by music at some point in their lives, let alone this week. Lori Pope, mom and piano teacher from Clovis, California, underscored that teachers can reach students through music. She cited Hans Christian Andersen: “Where words fail, music speaks.”
Providing all students with a sense that they can make meaning, make change, make history, and much, much more is a duty of our schools. A powerful performing arts experience can’t be replaced — and can help students know they are makers of something far bigger than themselves.
What Steps Can You Take?
- Administrators and Board members: Fund music and performing arts and ensure powerful performing arts experiences to all.
- Parents: Advocate for the arts and expose your kids to early experiences – whether through lessons, Kindermusik, church, or community.
- Teachers: Most importantly, draw connections for students regarding their ability to take initiative. Further explore opportunities like this.
- Students: Get involved in a variety of activities, including the performing arts!
- Community: Be active partners in sharing your artistic talents with the learning community where you reside. Be proactive in approaching schools to brainstorm how your talents could enhance learning.
This piece by Mary Ryerse originally appeared on Getting Smart. Reprinted with permission.