Thinking of themes for concerts is so tough! Here are some ideas to help jump-start your concert planning.
Why a theme?
The words “concert theme” strike fear into the hearts of many classically-trained music educators. They think, “If I have a theme, then I am not selecting educational music for my students!” Or, “Themes breed fluff and novelty, not quality!” Having come from that school of thought in my undergraduate and graduate training, I would like to offer a different opinion: Themes can provide guidance, cohesiveness, and flow during concert planning and performances.
I am not theme-heavy in my concert programming. I prefer to think that quality music is quality music, whether there is a theme. However, I’ve found over the years that having a general theme guides my concert planning. It helps me find songs when I’m stuck, helps narrow down a long list of songs, informs my song order for the program, and can result in your concert being a powerful message. Think of this as… Theme Lite.
Here are some ideas for concert themes and some repertoire ideas to go along with each. Feel free to use any or all of them. I’d love to hear what you do with it! Do you have any repertoire suggestions to add? Leave a comment below with your ideas and favorite songs!
1. American Patchwork
Patchwork quilts are an important part of American history. Stitched together by the women who were the backbone of the family, quilts warmed toes on cold frontier nights, offered soft comfort for broken hearts, told stories of happiness and struggle, and became treasured family heirlooms. Some quilts even contained coded messages during the days of the Underground Railroad. Drawing upon the concept of a patchwork quilt, this concert theme stitches together songs from America’s past and present, creating a tapestry of music.
Corn Grinding Song – Traditional Native American
Silver the River – Stephen Paulus. This lyrical song is one of those melodies that just flows out of your mouth. Paired with a soaring countermelody, your students will be thrilled with how mature they sound.
Hot Chocolate (from “Polar Express”) – arr. Roger Emerson. This fun song contains engaging rhythms and enough repetition to make it accessible. It lends itself well to riser choreography and can easily be choreographed by students.
The Cat Came Back – traditional. I created a simple ostinato accompaniment for Orff xylophones using la, so, fa, and mi on a descending pattern. The kids loved singing the song, and the accompaniment was low-pressure and easy to learn.
2. All Jazzed Up
Jazz is a distinctly American art form that has relationships to many other music genres. It’s an important style for kids to learn, and learning how to scat and improvise can build strong vocal skills in all areas of singing. Plus, it’s fun!
Dancin’ on the Rooftop – Teresa Jennings (Score and choreography available in “Share the Music” Grade 6). It’s a great song to teach kids about form because it is a rondo. The C section has a scat echo, helping kids learn scat vocabulary in a non-threatening environment.
Sing (from “Sesame Street”) – Joe Raposo, arr. Steve Zegree. This unexpected arrangement takes the childhood classic “Sing” and sets it with some jazz rhythms and scat interludes. Students who are new to scat will need to go over the scat phrases slowly and with many repetitions, but they will be really happy with the results!
Mosquito Blues – Martha E. Burgess. Okay, so blues isn’t jazz, but they are related. This tongue-in-cheek ditty has your students lamenting the presence of those small birds we call mosquitoes. The song ends with a satisfying SWAT!
3. Through the Seasons
This concert represents the four seasons. I did three songs from each season, and 12 songs ended up being a really long concert. I would reduce it to 8-10 songs if I were to do it again.
Spring: Singin’ in the Rain – Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown (Available in “Share the Music” Grade 4)
Summer: Red Dragonfly (“Akatombo”) – traditional Japanese. The harmony part was collected by Julie Schramke at Concordia Language Villages Mori No Ike.
Fall: Skin and Bones – Traditional (Available in “Share the Music” Grade 1). It’s fun to see the audience jump when the singers shout, “Boo!”
Winter: Yuki – Japanese school song (Available in “Share the Music” Grade 3)
4. A Winter Spectacular
I have students who don’t celebrate Christmas, and I don’t want them to feel alienated in any way in my classroom or my concerts. It’s been a challenge coming up with winter concerts that will satisfy the Christmas parents while still respecting those who don’t celebrate Christmas. This concert theme touches everyone by representing all winter holidays.
Winter Fantasy – Jill Gallina. This arrangement of “Jingle Bells” adds a super fun, energetic countermelody!
Kitty for a Present – Teresa Jennings, from Music K-8, Vol. 23, No. 2. This hilarious song is appropriate for people of all backgrounds because virtually every winter holiday includes gift-giving of some sort: Eid, Kwanzaa, Chinese New Year, Hmong New Year, etc.
S’vivon – Valerie Shields. This song is about the dreidl game. The text is repetitive enough for students to learn the Hebrew. It’s especially fun when sung with an accelerando!
5. O Colored Earth
For this concert, I wanted to bring together songs from around the world. I especially wanted to represent the students in my choir. I sent home a note asking students to interview their families about their heritages. I also included a section for parents to tell me about songs they know from their heritage. One girl’s mother is from China and was able to recall the text of a beautiful Chinese poem that turned out to be “Moh Lee Hwah.”
O Colored Earth – Steve Heitzeg. This inspiring text is set to a mixed-meter melody that is surprisingly easy to learn and just makes your kids want to sing it. It is mostly unison with a few moments of 2-part harmony to help young singers on their journey to part singing. I emailed the composer to thank him for his understanding of the human voice and how to write music that is singable. The students were over the moon when he wrote back!
Ala Dalouna – Traditional Arabic. I created a simple accompaniment that students performed on drums, woodblocks, and finger cymbals, in imitation of traditional Arabic instruments. A small group sang the B section soli. The students helped me come up with simple choreography using scarves so the result was a stunning performance of a quite simple song.
Moh Lee Hwah – arr. Wayne Bisbee. This melody and counter-melody will take a little extra time to learn, but it is totally worth it. If you can get the boys hooked on this lyrical melody, they and your female singers will be thrilled with how they sound.
6. Peace on Earth
This is another solution to the Christmas concert dilemma. I included songs about peace, many of which have a holiday feel. I stuck in one Christmas song at the end with a peace countermelody.
Peace Round – traditional (Available in “Share the Music” Grade 5). I had two students start singing soli alone on stage and had the rest walk in in small groups and join singing in unison. When all were finally on the risers, we split into the round. It was a really powerful demonstration of how peace has to start with each individual before it can spread to the whole world.
Dona Nobis Pacem – traditional. This round was pretty difficult for my 4th and 5th graders to learn, so I’d definitely encourage lots of repetition and unison singing before attempting the round.
Peace, Peace – Rick and Sylvia Powell. This beautiful countermelody to Silent Night is only available in SATB. I just dropped the tenor and bass lines. I taught the whole choir how to sing “Stille Nacht” in German and we added a verse of that in the middle. At the end, I had them split into three groups, with one group singing Silent Night in English, one group singing the soprano countermelody, and one group singing the alto countermelody.
7. Words of Wisdom
All of the songs in this concert contain advice. Setting good advice to music is a great way for your students to remember it.
Mama Says (from “Footloose”) – Dean Pitchford. This hilarious song parodies the advice of a mama who’s “got marbles missin’.” It’s difficult to learn and the piano/vocal score is different than the original Broadway cast recording, but it is do-able. Best start learning this one early. “Mama says don’t use a toaster while standing in the shower. Now who can argue with that?…”
Won’t You Sing Along – Daniel Kallman. This song speaks to the child’s heart without being childish. It’s a sweet reminder of how important music is. And it contains my favorite: an audience sing-along! This is the song that teachers email me about, complaining that students are singing during class. Hee hee *devilish grin*
Good Fight – Unspoken. This is one of those cool songs that makes boys love being in choir. It’s a male group and has a really catchy beat. I couldn’t find a karaoke version, so I just played the iTunes version with vocals and had the kids sing along. It was a hit for singers and audience alike.
This Little Light of Mine – Traditional. My accompanist and I composed-slash-improvised a driving gospel arrangement of this song. It definitely was not the Kindergarten version you learned in Sunday School. We ended with an acapella verse with hand claps and it was amazing.
8. Here Comes the Sun
These songs are all about sun, daytime, or daylight. It’s a good reminder to stay positive because no matter what happens, a new day will dawn in the morning.
Here Comes the Sun – The Beatles. There is a karaoke track for kids on iTunes that is pitched slightly higher than the original, making it much better for children’s voices. I’d suggest having your singers practice with the original and the karaoke track because some of the entrance cues are misleading.
Day-O – Traditional (Available in “Share the Music” Grade 3)
Miss Mary Ann – Traditional (Available in “Share the Music” Grade 5)
Yonder Come Day – Georgia Sea Islands, arr. Judith Cook Tucker
9. My Planet, Your Planet
This is actually a revue from Plank Road Publishing. I came up with a storyline about aliens who came to Planet Earth because their planet is filled with garbage and they can’t live there anymore. The aliens teach the Earthlings how to “go green” before it is too late and our planet fills up with garbage, as well. I added in a rap I wrote called “Recycle Rap.” The students created instruments out of household trash and accompanied themselves on a simple rap about how to recycle.
My Planet, Your Planet – Teresa Jennings
It’s Easy Bein’ Green – Teresa Jennings, arr. Paul Jennings
Agents of Change – Teresa Jennings
10. Lighten Up!
This is another revue from Plank Road Publishing. The nice thing about Plank Road is they give you permission to modify their revues as necessary. You can pick and choose which songs you want to use and supplement with your own. I used about half of the songs from the revue and added the following.
Zoo Illogical – Clare Grundman. These short Ogden Nash-style poems are lighthearted and witty. Great for older elementary singers because they are melodically challenging and will help you emphasize the importance of good diction. After all, if the audience can’t understand the words, they won’t get the joke!
I’ve Lost My Homework – Marta Keen. This hilarious song lists just about every excuse anyone could think of for not doing their homework. Great opportunities for choreography and props (think ripped up paper thrown into the air on the word “confetti”, followed by two students comically crossing the stage with push brooms).
The Thing – Charles R. Grean (Available in “Share the Music” Grade 5). The singer in this song finds a box containing a–well, you never find out what it is–and he just can’t get rid of it. The final verse is a little risque: “Get out of here with that (knock knock knock) and take it down below!” The 5th graders were scandalized and thrilled that they got to sing about THAT.
Yes, another Plank Road revue. This concert reminds students to think positively. In a world full of dangers and evil, it’s easy for kids to get caught up in everything that’s wrong. They need a fun reminder that even when things are difficult, your attitude makes all the difference.
What I Am – Will.I.Am. From “Sesame Street,” available on YouTube. For the concert, I just played the audio from the YouTube video and had the kids sing along with it. It’s a great song, fun to sing, with a great message.
Mumble, Grumble – Minnie O’Leary (Available in “Share the Music” Grade 2). Kids get to complain in this song! Though it’s not necessarily a happy happy joy joy song, it’s a good reminder that even when things are not fun, “you don’t have to like it, but it’s gotta be done.”
Think Good Thoughts – Teresa Jennings. Professional choreography available on musick8.com. My small group of dancers looked really talented performing the dance moves they taught themselves by watching the choreography video.
A patriotic theme is appropriate all year long! There’s always some national holiday coming around the corner and you can easily adapt this theme to fit your circumstances.
America (My Country, ’tis of Thee) – Words by Samuel Francis Smith, music attributed to Henry Carey
America the Beautiful – Words by Katharine Lee Bates, music by Samuel Ward
This Land is Your Land – Woody Guthrie
The Star-Spangled Banner – words by Francis Scott Key, music by John Stafford Smith
One Nation – Teresa Jennings
Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier – Traditional. This lilting lament will probably not leave a dry eye in the house. Especially appropriate for Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day.
Thanks for reading! What themes or pieces have been your favorites? Leave your answer in the comments below!