Philadelphia is an amazing city: historic, rich in the arts, and incredibly diverse. I am proud to call it my home. I don’t always take full advantage of it, however. Life has a rhythm, which means that I usually eat the same foods, drive on the same roads, and watch the same sports teams lose and occasionally win.
This summer was different. For four weeks, I had the opportunity to work with children from all over the world, making music, learning Chinese songs, and discovering that, in Portuguese, the word for “dodgeball” is “queimada” which means “burned!” I felt lucky to have this job, and I think this blog will explain why.
This July, I worked as the assistant to music teacher Javvieaus Stewart at Gilbert Spruance Elementary in Oxford Circle, where Al-Bustan provided arts classes to students in the School District’s program for English-language learners entering sixth through eighth grade.
These children had migrated to the US recently, from all over the world, so while there were groups who shared a language or national background, as a class we had little in common besides the classroom we occupied and the mission to make music. Javvieaus’ and my challenge, as educators, was to create a group out of these individuals.
We did this by making music together, in particular music that empowered children to share knowledge of their own language and culture with the class. Miss Javvieaus, as the kids called her, chose songs from different traditions so that we could do both things at once: make music and share. Students who spoke the language of a certain song could demonstrate their knowledge by helping us pronounce and understand the words, and everyone could come together to make the words into music. We hoped to create a space for the children to connect over both similarities and differences.
We sang songs in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese. Each time we introduced a new piece, students who knew its language would perk up, engaging visibly with the words. For those of us who didn’t speak it, volunteers translated. “Who can tell me what ‘Ya Leil’ means?” Miss Javvieaus would ask, and hands would shoot up. “It means ‘the night’ in Arabic!” Sometimes we received help without even asking for it. For example, students blurted out corrections of my Spanish every time I mispronounced something.
We also used our students’ language skills to deepen their understanding of the music. As we were rehearsing “Ya Leil” for our performance on the final day of the program, the students’ singing became loud and unfocused. So I asked the students what “Ya Leil” meant. “The night, of course,” they answered. “For you, is the night loud and wild? Or is it quiet and beautiful?” “Quiet and beautiful.” “Okay, so when we sing about the night, keep the image of the night in your head.” Their sound immediately changed for the better. By allowing the students to use their own knowledge of Arabic, we brought them into a conversation about the music, rather than simply issuing directions.
Miss Javvieaus’s choice to perform songs in different languages encouraged those students to invest in our mission to make music together. But our repertoire did not represent every language present in the classroom. Some kids didn’t get to show off knowledge of their native language. Still, the act of bringing the music to life gave every student a chance to express themself.
In fact, the most popular song did not come from any of the students’ traditions. Their favorite piece was, by a large margin, “I Sing Because I’m Happy,” a gospel hymn from Javvieaus Stewart’s own musical background. It’s a lively, high-tempo declaration of joy: “I sing because I’m happy / I sing because I’m free / His eye is on the sparrow / And I know He watches me.” The song’s syncopated beat (where the accent comes earlier or later than you would expect) created a certain energy as soon as Miss Javvieaus called the lyrics out for the singers to repeat. They started moving, quickly embodying the rhythm’s dynamic tension and eager to hear the melody, which we covered next. These kids were quick learners.
Typically, after a choir learns a song’s rhythm, melody, and lyrics and then puts it all together, there is a certain amount of work to do in order to make the music come alive – basically, you switch from trying to make the song sound right to trying to make the song sound beautiful. No such process was necessary for “I Sing Because I’m Happy.” Intuitively, the students brought the hymn to life, their smiles, movement, and sound showing everyone that they really were happy. In fact, they got so excited while singing that Miss Javvieaus often had to calm them down and focus their energy.
Looking back, I’m not surprised that this song resonated with the kids. In my own experience as a singer in high school and college, gospel music has had a unique power to move both the singers and the audience. At my concerts, people would often find themselves clapping along to the music, and gospel songs always got the biggest round of applause.
The audience’s response to gospel reflects my own response as a singer: the feeling of singing gospel is very natural and personal. Something about the music empowers me to express joy using my own voice. At the same time, hearing your own voice resonate with the voices of other singers in this way is an electric experience, one that I have been fortunate to share on a few occasions in my life. So when we began working on “I Sing Because I’m Happy,” I instantly recognized the students’ reaction. Listening to the children, I was jealous I couldn’t sing along.
Choral music is both a personal and a collective form of expression. This makes it challenging to produce. Unlike other instruments, which can be manufactured to be almost identical, each singer’s instrument, their voice, is unique. Because of this, creating a unified sound can be quite difficult. Singers need to concentrate on what their own body is doing while listening closely to everyone else. Togetherness can be difficult to achieve, but it’s incredibly rewarding.
I was satisfied to see – and hear – that “I Sing Because I’m Happy” brought the class together. Not only were the kids making music, but they were having fun with each other. They spoke Portuguese, Russian, Pashto, Arabic, Vietnamese, Haitian Creole, Turkish, Spanish, Chinese. Communication in English was difficult. But, for a moment, they sang with one voice. What brought them together was, I hope, a communal joy in sharing a new musical experience with each other.