Sounding and Writing Good: Composer Ethics When Writing for Children
What music should high schoolers sing? What should even younger children sing? Following the line of logic where they can’t sing truly “good” music, it seems they should and can only sing “bad” music. However, this mentality poses an interesting question for composers tasked with writing music for children. If we are trained to write “good” music, how should we write for children?
By conventional classical music wisdom, high schoolers should not sing Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria. Their voices haven’t developed fully yet, they likely don’t have a lot of proper training, and probably don’t have enough musicianship to perform such a piece well. The Queen of the Night’s aria is a “good” piece of music, and therefore “good” performances of it are only achievable by someone truly skilled and equally “good”, but not a high schooler. Even on top of that, it is said that this aria would do harm to a high school singer’s health and training. They shouldn’t sing it, and moreover, they can’t sing it, which is to say that they could never sing it well. “It” is a good piece of music, not worthy of teenagers.
But then what should those high schoolers sing? What should even younger children sing? Following the line of logic where they can’t sing truly “good” music, it seems they should and can only sing “bad” music. Pop music maybe, which, to some people is bad music already. They should sing music that is “simple”, “easy”, “short”, or “fun”. However, this mentality poses an interesting question for composers tasked with writing music for children. If we are trained to write “good” music, how should we write for children?
There is a lot more discussion in the world of new music and in particular in classical academic spaces about how to write for “skilled” musicians. Musicians that are our peers in terms of education and perceived ability. If you were to ask any adult composer, they would probably say that they know more about music than any child does. Therefore, in a situation in which they write for children, there’s a way of looking at things where these subsequent pieces would be “lesser-than” compared to their “good” pieces – that children inhibit their full compositional prowess from coming to light. I think this is the assumption made by a lot of adult composers and directors and it is quite an ambitious assumption.
My belief is that many common assumptions that go along with writing music for children constitute terrible breaches in composer ethics that do incredible harm to marginalized children. These assumptions position children’s performance ability in negative terms (e.g. a high schooler can’t sing Queen of the Night). Assumptions like children being immature, innocent, or pure. Assumptions like “children’s performances cannot be as affecting as performances by the masters.” Assuming that children need adult care or that they need to be brought into the folds of classical music “for their own benefit.” I believed this last part once but then I was forced to sing in a men’s choir and be seen as a man in front of an entire state’s worth of choir directors – I felt like vomiting. Then, I was put in choir rehearsals where my back was so stiff and my breath painfully caught in my throat out of fear and panic. Beyond feelings of alienation or neglect, the results of others acting unethically caused physical pain in my body.
So let’s look at those assumptions. Children are assumed to always be immature, innocent, and pure based on narratives used by patriarchy and white supremacy to make arguments that children (read: white children) need to be protected above all else. That alone is enough to destabilize this assumption, but as another counterpart to this, I think about children held prisoner within ICE detention camps or children that went to a protest recently and got tear gassed by police. These children have likely been through more than most people reading these words; are they really only capable of singing about rainbows and sunshine? Turning to notions that children’s musical performances are less impactful than “good”, “professional” performances, I am immediately struck by how many stories I’ve heard about parents crying upon seeing their children perform. I think those feelings should be recognized and valued, not written off.
Lastly, let’s look at the assumption that kids need us adults. Need us for what? Children’s music education is so often positioned as essentially “good”, that it can only benefit children. But why should our “rational” or “masterpiece” music be in their lives instead of, say, the pop music they might already listen to? Why do they need training in order to someday, hopefully (if they’re lucky and talented and work hard), perform that “good” music? It’s a complicated question, but there is so much more to be had in earnestly asking this instead of making assumptions and ignoring it. I’m sure that kids already find plenty of musical gratification in pop music; so why do they need Mozart, or any number of well-regarded classical composers? (Or us for that matter.)
For better or for worse, we composers are in a position of power over the children we write for because we get to answer those questions. Not them. So, like a surgeon having power over a comatose patient, we can do serious damage if we neglect or refuse to care for the people left to our personal whims.
Most of this article focuses on vocal music. This is because the combination of words and music makes acting unethically much, much easier. However, the principals I lay out here apply to all music written for children. Instrumental music can also carry a lot of meaning that creates unethical situations. For a short, hypothetical example of an ethical breach, in the case of writing a band piece for a school where most of the students are children of color, think about the ethics of writing a patriotic military march. The assumptions that you would be making here are that: a) these students do already or should feel pride in our country; b) that that feeling is undeniably a good thing; and c) that that’s a feeling your audience wants to feel. The resulting consequences are asking children of color (on your behalf and without consent) to glorify a military that has a history of murdering people that look just like them.
For an extended example, let’s specifically turn our attention towards high school women’s choruses. Of the contemporary repertoire available to women’s choruses, there is a staggering amount of sexist love songs (for examples, see Ron Nelson’s “He’s Gone Away” or David N. Childs’ “The Kiss”) – songs that position womanhood as directly related to love, songs that have the choir sing from the perspective of the man who is attracted to them, songs that remove all sense of selfhood (Patricia O’Toole wrote an article about this in the Dec 1998 issue of the ACDA’s Choral Journal).
These love songs bring up a whole host of ethical questions even when we are just thinking about gender and age. Why do we, as adults, feel the need to create situations in which minors profess being swept away by the whims of love? Why do we, as adults, feel gratification on seeing children act out existence in a sexual framework? Why, as it so often is the case, do we choose really old poetry almost exclusively written by white people as our models of “good” love? Why should these songs make up most of the women’s chorus repertoire?
Let’s even go beyond that to the next logical step and think about the girls in these choirs that are attracted to other girls. They are not attracted to men in any way, so why should they be forced to sing about loving a man? By writing such music, we are literally putting words into their mouths that they won’t and could never mean. We are asking them to pretend that they are straight in a medium that promises “authentic” expression and communication. From the composer’s point of view, if we don’t consider the very likely possibility that not everyone in a women’s chorus is straight, we are not allowing those queer girls to give voice to their experiences. We miss the chance to allow these girls to feel good in their attraction and instead ask them to lie.
There are a couple of possible counter arguments here. One, queer people play straight characters in plays and musicals all the time. The key difference here is that children auditioning for theatre productions choose to do that – in normative choirs, children have no say about what music they are asked to sing. On top of that, theatre is explicitly disconnected from the actors’ personal lives. Choir music does not make the same claims. (See “Hive of Frightened Bees” by Andrea Ramsey and “Ner Ner” by Jake Runestad for examples.) Two, there’s a possible argument that the historical canon of “good” love poems are usually straight themselves, so we don’t really have a choice but to write straight love songs. But honestly, I don’t care about valuing “our” history when doing so can do violence to marginalized children. I care about kids more in this case because they are alive.
Furthering this women’s-chorus-love-song example, since most poets of these love poems are white (Look up Sara Teasdale for a popular example), these songs privilege the actions and standards of what white colonialism deems good, pure, and acceptable about love. For example, take the stock image of a white woman wistfully watching a man from afar while waxing poetically about the surrounding land we white people stole and that, in the present day, is most easily accessed by us. If music can only benefit kids, can only be “good”, this stock example shows that the benefit being talked about here is unquestioning assimilation of those kids into a society built upon colonialism and white supremacy. Ethically speaking, there is no way to justify that in a way that shows that we are doing good by the children who actually take the burden of performing this kind of music.
So what should you do instead? Perhaps you find poetry where a woman speaks of loving a woman or structure your piece in such a way that allows for any pronoun to be substituted in so that all attractions may be accounted for. I think this can be a great solution if you are writing for a very small choir where all singers can discuss and actively consent to this. But large choirs will still not get that chance – and anyways – positioning love as inherently tied to gender is a very heteronormative way of thinking about things in the first place. So in this particular case where maybe you want to write a queer love song, don’t focus on gender at all. Focus on material things that actually might be a part of anybody’s experience of romance, even children’s: the deep-felt meaning communicated in holding hands with your lovers, sharing a meal, waking up in bed one day and realizing that yes I like them. Maybe tea or fruit or water (see Dale Trumbore’s If I Say Yes).
Here is where justice-driven composer ethics takes us. Consent is important (Alex Temple already wrote a piece for NMB that I find beautiful, so I won’t go into this further here). It is important that we acknowledge that music can hurt people. It is important that we recognize and really deal with the fact that we are writing music for people far removed and far different from us. We should not put words into their mouths without thinking about what we are doing.
Justice-driven ethics are important because, even while neoliberal social justice puts so much weight in abstract ideas, acting unethically in music has very material consequences. Leaving racism unchecked in the choir world has led to many choir directors only programming music by Black composers when their music is perceived as “sufficiently Black”. Ablest and cis-gendered notions of how bodies are “supposed” to work creates cultures where any form of bodily deviance is not tolerated.
I think one of my favorite authors, musicologist William Cheng, says it well in his book Just Vibrations. “[…] by attending to how our convictions, relations, and actions ripple through public spaces, we can achieve a sense of how we matter and what matters most.” If we do not attend in this way, you could say we are being selfish and narcissistic, creating work that ripples through only our private spaces, only our own experiences. We would not be caring for others. Cheng goes on to say that, “care ethics prioritize[s] embodied encounters and the precarities of lived experience,” we must “seriously [consider] feelings, pleasurable as well as painful.”
By traditional standards, children’s music is “bad” when compared to music of “skilled” performers, but on what grounds is that judgment being made? Some abstract idea of what music should be? How could we follow such an abstract, immaterial idea and know whether or not our music is good? Following Cheng’s lead, in writing this music we should not worry about whether our music “sounds good” according to traditional standards, but rather if our music sounds good-ness into the world. That’s what matters most. Because, after all, our music cannot claim to be “good” (as in ‘desirable’) if it does not sound (as in ‘to put into the air’) good (as in ‘that which is right or just’).
Children being told that they have no idea what they’re doing does not sound good. Deciding without children’s consent or knowledge that they should only sing music about subjects we as adults deem suitable does not sound good. Projecting images of innocence and naiveté onto children who might have experienced more pain than us does not sound good.
But holding hands? Tea? Sleep? Decolonization? Justice? Solidarity? Or, maybe even simpler, just the words of William Cheng’s mother, “Love! Optimism, happiness … closure.”
That sounds good to me.