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Navigating the Charts: Choosing Contemporary Tracks For Children

I think one of the most difficult jobs as a music teacher, and particularly a singing teacher, is choosing repertoire for students that they'll like and is also age appropriate and is also actually useful for a singing lesson.


At the time of me writing this, 18 of the top 50 tracks in Australia are marked as explicit on Spotify. Those that aren't include "bury a friend" by Billie Eilish ("step on the glass, staple your tongue...I wanna end me"), "don't call me up" by Mabel ("don't call me up when you're looking at my photos") and 3 nights by Dominic Fike ("green lights in your body language, seems like you could use a little company from me"). Mainstream music isn't written for kids - and it doesn't need to be. But it can make for a minefield when choosing contemporary repertoire!


There's a school of thought for students only working with pieces that have been written specifically for children until they're old enough to take on "radio" songs - which would make the job a lot easier (and in a lot of cases, their singing development a lot more efficient). In theory, I actually prefer this way of teaching. BUT, I don't think in my teaching context it works as well if students don't have some control over their own songs - and that usually means singing from the charts. Here's why:


Firstly, it's difficult (almost impossible) to draw a line on what age students are able to incorporate songs they listen to on the radio on the way to school and love (until they're around 15, where I let them choose pretty well whatever they like). Secondly, I think taking their musical taste into account from a young age shows them a level of respect they really appreciate - and helps them respond better to me incorporating songs they don't already know and exercises they are inevitably not as motivated by. It's beyond the scope of my music teaching, in my opinion, to dictate what their music taste at seven or eight years old should be. I just have to work with what it is, and expand it where I can.


In the interest of balancing these factors, I try to use songs that I'm happy to teach my young students while they still feel like they're doing something current, cool, and worthwhile. I haven't put these songs into age brackets as it gets too finicky, but feel free to pick and choose as is appropriate for your students! There are a LOT more songs that I use and have used, but these have been great as a touchstone where I get a bit stuck:


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Share With You, Heart on Fire, Love, That's What's Up, Joy Parade, A Life That's Good, Sanctuary -- Lennon and Maisy Stella (these girls' earlier stuff is a GOLD MINE for my younger students)


Price Tag, Flashlight -- Jessie J


So Much More Than This, Beautiful Thing -- Grace VanderWaal


The Best Day -- Taylor Swift


Wings -- Birdy


Bright -- Echosmith


Malibu -- Miley Cyrus (usually in a higher key)


Would You Be So Kind -- Dodie


One Call Away -- Charlie Puth


Scarecrow -- Alex & Sierra


How Long Will I Love You, Your Song cover -- Ellie Goulding


Put Your Records On, Stop Where You Are -- Corinne Bailey Rae


Panic Cord -- Gabrielle Aplin


What Do I Know -- Ed Sheeran

Better Place -- Rachel Platten


Don't Dream It's Over -- Crowded House (usually in a higher key)


Lost Boy -- Ruth B


Everything Stays -- Rebecca Sugar


Yellow Bird -- Jess Mauboy version


Be Alright -- Ariana Grande


Lanterns -- Birds of Tokyo


Best Day of my Life -- American Authors


Natural, Thunder, Believer -- Imagine Dragons


Take the World by Storm -- Lukas Graham


Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken -- P!nk


Scars to Your Beautiful -- Alessia Cara


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If they absolutely LOVE artists that are fantastic but debatable for kids (think Billie Eilish, Lorde, Twenty One Pilots, Troye Sivan, Chainsmokers...and the list goes on) I tend to just pick the best of a 'bad' bunch, change a few lyrics if I need to and go with it. For the above, this might look like:


When the Party's Over -- Billie Eilish

Team -- Lorde

Youth -- Troye Sivan

All We Know -- Chainsmokers (replacement lyrics: "come on now, let's go, and we'll jump right through the window")


+ I will choose a song with swearing in it and use the radio edit over a song with a general inappropriate theme but "clean" lyrics every time.