What happens when two band geeks who grew up playing in garage bands are given the opportunity to teach elementary school music? The result would be East Providence’s own Kids Rock Chorus.
Not content with singing the likes of “Kumbaya” and “This Old Man,” the Kids Rock Chorus is the creative outlet of Taylor Temple and Nick Hurd. Since bringing contemporary music into their chorus classes, Taylor and Nick have seen a sort of School of Rock-esque embrace of the music they create with their students. They have been featured in a Benny’s commercial and on Ellen, The Grateful Dead have shared their music and they have been talked about by the likes of ABC6 and the Providence Journal.
They sang David Bowie a birthday wish days before his passing, and their covers have been shared by CeeLo Green, The Monkees, Daniel Johnston, Blind Melon, Soul Asylum and Bebe Rexha. But, even with the hype and attention, at its core, the Kids Rock Chorus is a snapshot of what’s possible when music is made relevant and children are allowed to not just sing, but fully enjoy and embrace the music they create.
Taylor began teaching elementary music in East Providence with a fourth and fifth grade chorus as part of the gig. “The music teachers before me had choruses like most elementary schools,” he recalls, “with stock repertoire from music publishing catalogues, choreographed hand movements, singing along with CD accompaniments to songs that no one has ever heard.” After following the model for a couple of years, he realized the potential of the more than 150 voices at his disposal. What began as a job, started to become a musical canvas that brought back the excitement of jamming away in his East Providence garage in high school.
Taylor soon saw what was possible: “This program scratched an itch that I had inside me from years of playing in rock bands on my own. And when we started shifting to more modern music, the kids and parents were more excited as well. It all clicked.”
Following the success of performing “Hey Jude” at one of Taylor’s spring concerts, fellow music teacher, URI alum and childhood friend, Nick, teamed up to take that approach full scale and have their schools sing popular music exclusively. “At that time each of us taught at two schools and had each school perform their own concert,” Nick says, “That following year we decided to combine our four schools to make it a much bigger event with a much larger audience.”
Nick and Taylor, before working to develop the Kids Rock Chorus, both hailed from Riverside. Interestingly, they were never involved in a chorus until they began to teach the class in the schools. It may have been this outsider perspective that allowed them to creatively approach the genre. With a canon of popular music to work with, the Kids Rock Chorus feels less like a chorus and more like a rock band. “We have both been a part of several musical projects over the years,” Nick points out. He thinks that the experience of being in rock bands and performing at clubs helped shape their idea of what a performance group should be. His approach to the chorus is very similar to how he would work with other musicians in a band.
The choice to fully embrace pop music in place of more traditional choirs came as a response to the demographics of students living in East Providence. In the hyper-connected modern world, current elementary age students have been familiar with the concept of high-speed Internet since they were born. In the age of YouTube, no song is left unturned and it is the music kids know that they respond to. Thinking back as far as the invention of the radio, was it ever really any different? Whether it was The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears or Twenty One Pilots, youth always responds to the music of the times. Taylor puts it this way: “Contemporary music has a place in the kids’ lives. We call it pop music because it's new. But, if it were 300 years old we would call it folk music and it would all of a sudden have more credibility. In college, we were told to teach these tired melodies like ‘Merrily We Roll Along,’ ‘This Old Man’ or ‘Kumbaya.’” These songs use the same 12 notes that are used today, but don’t resonate with students like pop music. When he puts on a Twenty One Pilots song or a Sia song, the students’ eyes light up.
The choice of using pop music in the choir has also opened the door for students to approach topics with friends and families in ways that they might not have before. “Music is a powerful tool to connect people to each other and I feel that exposing students to music that their parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles care about will not only help build a bond with these people, but will also help make music an important part of their family,” Nick says. “Every single time a student mentions a conversation that they've had about our songs it gives me goosebumps.”
Even though pop music can get at something deeper than a classic choral song can, choosing the right song for an elementary choir can be harder than it seems. “Song choice is tough. First you need to find a song that is lyrically appropriate, which can be a challenge. Then you have to find a song that has a range that works well for children's voices. If a song's range doesn't work, sometimes certain notes can be moved around,” Nick says. With this in mind, Taylor and Nick choose a variety of styles each year to get the kids to experience more of what music has to offer. So, a pop song medley of Janis Joplin and Neil Young (check out YouTube) and the song “Happy” are presented in the same context and students are able to make their messages and melodies their own.
Nick points out that the sound of a children's chorus is very unique and it can create effects that you can’t get with adult singers. “Children are sometimes easier to convince to let their guard down and truly involve themselves with the music,” he adds. He hopes that working with kids at this young age and giving them the experience of performance will help to encourage them to take such risks later in life and continue to perform. Each show takes months of hard work to pull off, and in the push button world that they live in, he feels it's good for the soul to share something that you worked very hard on.
While the Kids Rock Chorus has been gaining attention, both locally and nationally, Taylor still has hopes for the program to further grow. “Honestly, I would love the program to get to a point where this could be more of a full-time gig. As it stands right now, I teach mostly general music classes all week. Once a week, I get to work with our chorus. Imagine what we could do if I could see them twice a week.” In the future, Taylor hopes to take the Kids Rock Chorus concept to other classrooms, but for now, they will continue to prepare for their May 31 concert and put out videos on social media to welcome the world into their classroom.
“Every concert has been amazing, these kids get to perform their hearts out to a packed house every year,” Nick says. “Watching our students up on stage while a full audience cheers them on is a truly magical moment.”