This school year, getting kids to sing at holiday concerts is harder than ever

Music teacher Eric Ritter holds a guitar as he leads students in a sing-along
in a Newton elementary school classroom, image by Judith Kolgan

WGBH Morning Edition – In many school districts across Massachusetts, this is the first year since the pandemic began that will have holiday concerts and assemblies under relaxed COVID-19 restrictions — no remote learning, social distancing or mandatory masking.

But many music teachers are finding that both young and older students are nervous about performing, either because they’ve never done it or because it’s been a few years.

“Since singing is so personal, I think when you just don’t do it for an entire year — especially as a kid, like, a year is a really long time — I think that they were of course afraid to!” said Allison Fuller, who teaches music in the town of Franklin’s elementary schools. She said singing proved impossible while wearing masks and, this year, most of her students were reluctant to sing in class.

At Williams Elementary School in Newton, a handful of fourth-graders rehearsing for the Harvest Festival concert shared worries about forgetting the lyrics, getting stage fright, and whether they could rely on their classmates to do their part.

Williams music teacher Eric Ritter said picking out songs for elementary students is “the hardest thing” he’s ever done in his life, but that finding the right song is key to helping kids feel more comfortable. He picks out easy-to-learn songs set to familiar tunes (like the “Turkey Pokey,” which follows the melody of the “Hokey Pokey”), updates older songs with modern lyrics, and even picks out pop songs that the older kids might already know.

He also said getting parents involved encourages kids to participate. Capping off the Harvest Festival will be a student and parent sing-along of “The Garden Song,” made popular by Pete Seeger.

“’Inch by inch, row by row, we’re gonna make this garden grow,’ which I think is perfect for elementary school kids, in particular, because you’re sowing the seeds of people, right?” Ritter said.

Ritter says kids are resilient, and that the long-delayed opportunity to gather and sing should reinforce the pleasure of group singing.

“Elementary school is 95% social-emotional learning, and being inspired and engaged in a thing,” he said. “So having a concert to work toward is hugely motivating.”

One of the reticent students agreed: “When it all works out, it’s kind of cool.”

By Judith Kogan

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