by Ailisa Newhall, Commercial Music
If you have ever taught middle school choir, you know what I’m talking about. Everything is a huge dramatic deal inside a tiny bubble. It makes the emotion of the music exhilarating. It makes every other aspect of life a crazy roller coaster. One student told me, “the only reason I even get on that bus every morning is because I know I get to go to choir. It’s my daily group therapy.” Sometimes the big deals really are big deals.
Last fall, one of my beloved seventh grade choir students passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. About ten minutes before my sixth period choir class on a Friday afternoon, I was told the horrible news. It was not yet public, but I was given permission to let the fifty-five members of her choir know before they went home for the weekend and heard about it on tv or social media. This was one of the most tragic moments of my career.
As I watched my students deflate into sadness, confusion, and despair, I knew that this was a time to let music heal them. This was a time to teach them how to use music as their emotional outlet and therapy. I told them that we were going to honor our friend by composing a song together.
We started by making a big poster. Everyone wrote to our friend as though we were writing in her yearbook. We wrote what we loved about her. We wrote stories. We wrote all the things we wanted to say to her and wouldn’t be able to. Over the next week, we added to our poster as we progressed through our grief.
We began to listen and discuss keys and chord progressions. We played around with different accompaniment instruments and styles. The kids migrated to the popular music style that currently spoke to them: key of C, simple piano accompaniment, with cello.
Once our poster was full, we began to circle phrases and ideas that stood out to us. We circled things that were poetic, or things that seemed to be a theme. I played through our chord progression for our chorus over and over, and the kids began to sing some of the phrases to different melodies. A few students sang their melody, a few others tried some variations, and finally they had created their chorus. I recorded it and notated it. We did the same process with the verses and the bridge. Once we had created the song, the kids started making up harmony and we added a cello part. Students learned the piano, cello, melody and harmony and we performed it at a tribute concert to our friend. We then went to the recording studio and professionally recorded the song so that all of the students, family members and people affected by the tragedy could listen to the song and be comforted.
Dealing with such a loss and then creating this piece of music to honor our friend made a strong and lasting bond. It created a tight choir family who took care of each other inside and outside of rehearsal. I had countless emails from parents and communication from counselors and administration praising the project. There were so many individual stories of each student, how they were coping with the loss, and how they were surviving through this song creation. It became the answer to the question we all had that day, “how are we going to survive without her?”. Music.
Visit this link to hear Gabi’s Song: Gabi’s Song