Things I Learned From My Daughter
by John Heath, Bad Wolf Press
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of watching my daughter perform in her second holiday songfest at school. She has great teachers with nearly twenty years of experience each. So I was mildly surprised last year that the performance was so, well, mediocre. Everything else in the curriculum has been absolutely excellent. But this year's show was no better. And it's not from lack of practice - my daughter and her classmates had been singing the songs for months. The problem was in the presentation - there always seemed to be some reason the kids did not sing loudly enough or pay close enough attention. Having watched some wonderful productions of our shows the past few years, I tried to think of three basic recommendations I could give to teachers putting on student performances. These tips apply to the performance of classroom plays as well as holiday concerts.
1. Limit props. One of the songs this year featured kindergardeners singing "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Each student carried a long stick or two to which were attached pictures of the gift associated with their particular day: a partridge, eight hens a'laying, three French hens (you could tell - they wore berets), etc. When it came their turn to sing, the kids would whip their sticks high in the air. Usually this action included accidentally belting the head of the kid in front and/or the near blinding of several students on either side. Sometimes the prop shattered, or bent, or mysteriously flew several rows back resulting in an ugly entanglement of ladies leaping with maids a' milking.
What the kids were NOT doing was thinking about singing loudly and clearly. Most props are not necessary. Yes, they're fun to make, but they are also very distracting to young performers and potentially lethal. If prop-making is part of the classroom experience, it would be better to make decorations for the stage that do not require handling by students during the performance.
2. Avoid fancy hats, masks, beards, etc. This year the pre-schoolers all had very cute reindeer hats made out of construction paper. The girls spent most of the time trying to hold their hats on their heads - some hats slipped down to their shoulders, making it look like the girls had antlers growing out of their necks. The boys had less trouble - they simply took off their hats as soon as they sat down and started beating each other with them. All in all, this was still an improvement over last year when the kindergardeners had papier-mache masks through which they could neither breathe nor see, much less sing. The kids had to hold their masks up during the entire performance, meaning that they spent most of the time looking at and singing to their shoes. The poor kid playing Santa Claus had a beard so big that he disappeared into it halfway through the show and it took three teachers, the fire department, and the jaws of life to pry him out.
I know how cute the kids look in these outfits - my daughter was most beautiful reindeer ever, even with antlers sprouting from her neck. But the challenge is to get the kids to pay attention and sing loudly. Most costuming gets in the way. If you want to use hats, try simple, comfortably fitting baseball caps with some sort of decoration on the top of the bill.
3. Keep choreography to a minimum. We often leave space in a song or two in our shows for some movement (we offer cryptic instructions such as "students at this point do the cranberry dance"). But we explain in our Teacher's Guide that what we mean is simple movement, not fancy dance steps. Even basic movement is very difficult to teach to young students and it is extremely hard even for adults to sing and dance at the same time. Movement requires a certain amount of room that is often not available during the performance. My daughter and several of her friends at one point in the show were to spin like a dreidel. This may have worked well during practice in the classroom, but once the kids were all seated in chairs on the stage there simply was not enough space even to turn around. Two of the kids spun into their chairs and fell into other students, starting a domino effect that for all I know has not yet ended.
There is no need to turn students into killer dreidels. Keep things simple! Concentrate on getting students to sing loudly and clearly. Anything else you can add is great, but don't let it get in the way of the songs. (For more tips, see the Teacher's Guide that comes with all our shows.)
Ron Fink Chat On Archive....
Read the transcript of Ron Fink's online chat at Teachers.Net about
dramatic productions for the classroom at: http://teachers.net/archive/badwolf102199.html
About Bad Wolf...
Bad Wolf Press was started in 1995 by John Heath and Ron Fink. They've known each other since 6th grade and have been writing songs together since high school, which was a very long time ago.
John is the word guy. He's a classics professor at Santa Clara University, which means he teaches Latin and ancient Greek, along with the literature of the period. He likes to play banjo for his dog, daughter and wife.
Ron Fink is the composer of 19 musical plays for classroom use in grades K-9. All are published by Bad Wolf Press. Ron lives with his wife and two kids near Los Angeles.
Ron does the music. He teaches piano out of his home in Southern California, and he accompanies music programs at his local elementary school. He's also the person likely to answer the phone when you call. Ron has two kids, one wife, and too many instruments.
Visit Bad Wolf Press at http://www.badwolfpress!