— Glad I learned how to sing harmony. Thanks, Mom, for all those choruses of "Found a Peanut" in three parts when I was a kid!
— We had fun singing in the car, didn't we, sweetie? "Found a Peanut," "Make New Friends," "Thou Poor Bird" .... happy memories.
— Lots more than these, too ... dozens and dozens ... you would sing the harmony and I would sing the melody ... it trained my mind for hearing the parts and eventually we could switch.
This exchange between a professional backup singer friend and her choir director mother inspired me to write about a question that has been troubling me: Where do today's young children learn to sing in harmony? They are surrounded by music (of a sort, anyway) in a way my generation never was, whether by choice on their phones or by chance in the shopping mall. But it's passive; where do they learn to sing?
Many of my elementary school classrooms had pianos. (And bless the teachers, we occasionally were allowed to fiddle on them before and after school.) Sometimes the music teacher came in and sang with us, and sometimes the teacher herself led us in singing. Later, but still in elementary school, we could choose to participate in a chorus, where we learned two- and three-part harmony. By the time we were in eighth grade, there were enough boys whose voices had changed to make that four-part.
Does that sound like a swanky private school to you? It was actually four different public schools in a very small town in upstate New York. (Even back then districts were fond of moving students around.)
My own children had an absolutely fantastic music teacher in elementary school, and she gave them many experiences I never dreamed of. But when it comes to harmony, I had the better deal. They also had a far more amazing high school chorus experience than I did, but I'm talking about younger children: few high school students chose chorus as an option, fewer still if they had not had a great musical experience earlier on.
Our children also gained an incomparable musical education in church, thanks to a choir director who was both a great musician and a great teacher. But for congregational singing, I was much better off than children in most churches since then.
The church we attended when I was young was not, generally, an enlightening experience, and I was glad when we stopped going and I had my Sunday mornings free. But it, too, deserves a lot of credit in my musical education. We sang from the wonderful red Hymnbook published by a group of Reformed and Presbyterian denominations, a hymnbook complete with time and key signatures and four-part harmony for every hymn. Congregational singing was not as peaked in those days as it often is today, and that experience was foundational for my musical life.
Granted, I'm shy enough that I didn't feel at all secure in my singing until after many years of choir experience, and learning to improvise harmony came almost too late. I wish I'd learned more as a child. But I'm beginning to be convinced that, between school and church, I gained a better musical foundation in my tiny New York town than most children receive today.
What has been your musical experience? Convince me that I'm wrong!