Janet Underhill has been teaching music for 30 years at a private school in Chicago. She has taught piano, voice, guitar, recorder and general music to students of all ages, from kindergarten to graduate school. In this article, she tells how copyright prevents her from providing her students the best possible materials.
I teach general music. My goal is to engage all of my students in music making, to develop their musical skills, and then to send them on to their choice of band, chorus, private lessons, ensembles. Hopefully, my students will continue to connect with music, singing and playing, as part of their lives.
I need materials that are formatted for the elementary student that will foster the development of musical skills as well as provide the materials for enjoyable singing experiences. Such music should contain the changes that the beginning guitar student can handle. True, there are plenty of songs written expressly for the music classroom. They come with permission to copy for classroom use; they’re cute, clever, integrated with the broader curriculum, written in the service of math, social science, English — and have no connection whatsoever to the wider world of parents, grandparents, the community and the culture. The songs are disconnected, expressively flat, remarkably forgettable. They cannot be shared with parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. They don’t exist outside of the walls of the school. The children sense this, and do not take them very seriously.
What my students need is a good mix of children’s song literature, folk music, appropriate pop literature, Broadway songs, and songs from the American song book. Songs need to make connections across the curriculum, across the generations and across cultures. Freedom to choose these kinds of songs is crucial to my work as a teacher. Copyright laws restrict how I can use music from, say, the Beatles. The problem with simply purchasing the music is that it often comes in formats that don’t work with my young students. I need lead sheets with simple, hopefully mostly primary chords, written in a fairly big type, and with the words beneath. I want my students to connect with the notes as well as the words. Their singing experiences should be music reading experiences as well. I can’t find music like this. Any collection may contain one or two songs that are appropriate, but their format always presents problems for the young singer and student. They are often printed in keys that don’t match the vocal ranges of my singers. They are too difficult to read because they often come in voice plus piano accompaniment formats. The easy guitar song books often include changes that are far too complicated for my young guitar players. So, in an attempt to address these issues within the current copyright world, I went about writing to publishers with suggestions for song books for the elementary music classroom, well-tested songs from all these various musical traditions. The market for such materials is as huge as the elementary school systems. But market is not my consideration. Music education of the young is my concern. I bought and examined several publications from Hal Leonard, the giant in this field. There are many terrific books in their library that might serve the classroom purpose quite well. They all have problems that would need to be addressed in order to make them truly useable. I wrote to Hal Leonard, offering suggestions along the above guidelines. I got back a terse, impersonal response, which I will paraphrase here: No input allowed. We do not consider, review or accept outside solicitations. It’s a lock without a key. I have greatly reduced access to good music because of copyrights, all held by a few megacorporations. And I am shut out of the process that might result in materials that would serve genuine educational goals, that might actually connect the students to the very world of music these corporations wish to promote. It makes me wonder whom copyright is really meant to serve.