This weekend saw the third time my birthday came and went since I started writing Off The Podium, and each time I thought about writing this little article. It seems like such an obvious thing to do – a “no-brainer” – like other things I have written about here, and yet…it is these obvious, little, yet essential efforts teachers sometimes sacrifice with all the demands on our time in the classroom.
Remember their birthdays.
My first memory of realizing my teacher made a systematic effort to recognize student birthdays was when I sang in the Scripps College Concert Choir and Chamber Choir from 1984-85. (Although Scripps is a women’s college, at that time the school provided co-ed musical ensemble experiences to all of the students at The Claremont Colleges.) Regularly throughout the year, after the choir had finished our opening warm-up, our director Michael Deane Lamkin would gesture for a student to sep down off the risers and stand in front of the choir. He would gently turn her by the shoulders to face her peers on the risers, nod to the accompanist who would play an arpeggiated C dominant seventh chord, and the entire choir would launch into “Happy Birthday”. I don’t know what method Dr. Lamkin used to keep track of everyone’s birthday, but he must have had one, as I don’t recall him ever forgetting to do this when someone’s birthday occurred. I was struck too by how much it was simply a part of his choir program’s culture, the tiniest of rituals that happened without instruction, because everyone knew what to do. It only took a moment from our rehearsal time, and lifted everyone’s spirits.
When the day finally came and it was my turn to stand in front of the choir and listen to them sing “Happy Birthday” to me, I was struck by how powerful and profound the feelings that arose in response were. I never forgot this. It is no small thing to have the attention of a group of your peers focused and directed at you, to feel their affection through the sound of their voices united in harmony. Thank you, Dr. Lamkin.
In my first teaching position at Blue Rock School from 1991 – 1995, I saw our school director Peggy Flinsch make an impressive practice of recognizing each student’s birthday with a small and thoughtful gift – often a book from her own library especially chosen for that child and inscribed thereunto. This unspoken – only demonstrated – emphasis on recognizing each child’s birthday was not lost on me.
I think is is usual in elementary school environments for classroom teachers to recognize student birthdays, and for classes to celebrate them. In the early years of my career when I taught K – 8 music and performing arts, it was usually obvious when a child was celebrating her birthday. We would sing “Happy Birthday” in music class too, as a matter of course.
It was when I began teaching high school that I began to make a systematic, concerted effort to do this for each child I taught.
From 2007 – 2012, when I was music director of Music City Youth Orchestra, one practice I initiated that we kept every month through those five seasons was a monthly potluck honoring those whose birthdays fell during that month. I would extend the rehearsal break to 25 minutes or so that week so that everyone had time to eat and socialize. Student officers managed planning the menu for this event each month and it was something we all enjoyed and looked forward to – many of our students were excellent cooks already, and could be relied on to bring delicious dishes. We would end the first half of rehearsal on these evenings by calling all whose birthday occurred in that month to stand before the orchestra, and sing to them before the supper break. It is one of my many fond memories of MCYO, and was one of many ways in which I tried to bring a strong sense of community to a group of high school students who only made music together once per week.
When I was the choir director at Nashville School of the Arts from 2011 – 2014, I instituted a weekly-after school rehearsal for all of the students in the choir program. At that time there were four smaller, separate choirs that met as classes during the school day, separated by ability and experience, and this weekly “Festival Choir” gave them the opportunity to sing together in a larger ensemble as well. It was at the beginning of this weekly rehearsal that – imitating Dr. Lamkin in my memory of singing in his choirs – I would beckon each child who celebrated a birthday that week down from the risers and gently turn them around to face their peers. The NSA Festival Choir had over a hundred singers, and when they were in good form, the experience of standing in front of them when they were singing could be thrilling – it was a high point of every week for me. I felt it was important that the singers themselves have the chance to experience what I was so fortunate to hear at every rehearsal.
At the beginning of each school year I would spend a class with each choir making sure I had everyone’s contact information correct, including their birthdays, which I entered into my contacts directly: that way, their birthdays would simply show up in my calendar each week and I didn’t have to worry about missing one.
Many music teachers understand and practice this already. I have witnessed some over the years who – never missing a chance for a “teaching moment” – incorporate recognizing student birthdays into lessons with other objectives. Some spurn the traditional song traditionally attributed to Patty and Mildred J. Hill (the most popular song in the English language) for these lessons, choosing instead alternatives that can be sung in canon, or have more challenging melodies, or more descriptive texts.
I always chose for birthday moments in my classes to be relaxed and focused on the child whose special day we were celebrating: we sang the traditional song without any special pedagogic emphasis. But I don’t think it really matters what song you use, or how you present the activity. What matters is that every child in your care feels appreciated, cherished, and part of your classroom community. Don’t forget their birthdays.
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