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How to Create the Perfect Pop Performance

This is a guest post from Elisa Jones of I am very excited to share this post with you. Check out her site and see what she has to offer. If it’s anything like this lesson, I bet you will like it.

No parent wants to hear ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm’…again.

There are so many fantastic songs that teach a wide variety of music skills, but few are crowd pleasers. And even fewer teach the wider range of vocal skills and rhythmic variations as do pop songs.

This is why for the past few years I have included pop songs every program that I have had with my students. It develops their vocal range, teaches them a wider variety of rhythms [particularly syncopation], and engages the audience in so many ways that unfamiliar [or too familiar!] songs don’t.

This spring I’ll be having my students perform a program I call “The Time Machine”, where each grade, Kindergarten through grade 5, perform a medley of songs from a particular decade, followed by a dance number. [And, yes, including dance/movement in each program is a very useful pedagogical technique.]

If you are feeling a little on-the-fence about this whole pop-song-program thing, please allow me to share with you the step-by-step process I follow to ensure a successful, educational, and crowd-pleasing program.

Guitar Kid 3

STEP 1: Select Music

Let’s be honest. There’s a lot of pop music out there that is sooooooo inappropriate for kids…even high school kids. So task #1 is to decide on a theme [if that’s your thing] and start listening to songs. Sing along with them. If a song checks off all of these boxes, consider it for your program:

Song matches my theme [be it Patriotic, World Tour, Time Machine…American Idol Classics…what-have-you]

All song lyrics are appropriate for the age group that I am instructing

Song is in an appropriate vocal range for the age group

Song is enjoyable enough to me [you] that you won’t get sick of listening to it 5-10 times per week over a 6-week period

If your students are too young to read sheet music, you have to consider your accompaniment. I exclusively use Spotify karaoke tracks. This being the case, I also check off these:

There is a karaoke track or sheet music version in the correct range available to me

The karaoke track doesn’t confuse me.[Because, yeah, some follow some weird version that I’ve never heard of. I have to understand the chord changes, etc., so that I can arrange the song for my kiddos.]

STEP 2: Craft Your Program

Okay, so now you have your songs selected. You have background tracks, or the sheet music and a piano accompanist. What’s next? Here’s what I recommend:

Decide on the order of the program. Take into consideration your age groups [older kids can wait until the end of the program to perform. Younger kids will get antsy about 30 minutes in…]

Record and edit your tracks so that they fit your time limit and expectations. This is the part that probably takes me the longest. I don’t run a program longer that 1 hour. 1:15 MAX. I use Camtasia studio and do a screen capture recording, but you could use Audacity as well. I then edit and arrange the karaoke tracks within that program, and save it as an MP3 file. This takes deciding how much of each song you’re going to do [for our recent Christmas program I did entire full-length tracks. For this upcoming one I’m doing a 4-song medley for each decade, so it requires some editing]. I LOVE Camtasia. It is very user friendly, and though it requires purchasing they give you a substantial educator discount. I use it for a myriad of projects [webinars, video ads, assessments…music programs] I wouldn’t go back.

STEP 3: Prepare Your Program

Learn your songs. No, I don’t think you have to have each song memorized before you plan your program. But you had better know them well before you start teaching them! I print off a big list of all the song lyrics and learn them well. I listen to and sing them over and over and over again until I have the down pat.

Record practice tracks. I take the karaoke track that I recorded and play it on my stereo in my classroom while recording myself singing it using my iPhone Voice Memos app. Once I have a solid ‘cover’ of myself singing it, I email it to myself, save it to my Google Drive, and share it with the classroom teachers for each grade doing that song. That way they have an exact version they can practice in their classroom. I also give them a copy of the lyrics. Frequently, the classroom teachers use what I am teaching to create lesson plans that reinforce the songs. They will teach about the history of a song, or the meaning behind it. The younger grades will actually use some of the more challenging words in their spelling lists. By doing cross-curricular teaching, we all win!

Choreograph your dances. Look. No one says you have to do a dance, or movement, or actions, or instruments, or anything. But don’t think for a moment this little bit extra won’t make a HUGE difference for your kids. I like to incorporate actions every chance I can…from Yankee Doodle to God Bless America to Mary Did You Know to Stand by Me… Movement teaches the #1 most important musical skill: Maintaining a Steady Beat. So buck up little camper and learn to choreograph 8 measures at a time. Right now I’m creating dances for 6 grades, each with a different decade. Here’s how I do it:

  1. Print out the lyrics to the song

  2. Analyze the form of the song [yes, those dictation classes DO come in handy!]