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French through Songs and Singing: Site Origins and Ideas

Prevots, Aaron. Southwestern University, Georgetown, TX. October 2006.

Humble Beginnings
“French through Songs and Singing” originated through a summer 2006 ACS-Mellon Teaching with Technology Grant. At the time, my plan was to record a handful of songs I had been using to teach French and make them available to others. I wanted to “virtually” facilitate the sing-alongs that had been so popular in my courses. Once I began, it became clear how much I could expand the materials through creativity and further research.

Many Americans have heard in passing of people such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, who keep musical traditions alive by exploring roots and experimenting with forms. No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s recent biographical film on Bob Dylan, shows how music can be as if circulating in the air, waiting for artists to tune in and grab on and bring it back to the people again, whether to keep tunes alive or to create with new lyrics.

One of the more common ways of developing songs for language teaching is to write lyrics to match traditional melodies. The songs I’ve written so far that best match this approach are “Je ne veux pas,” “Qu’est-ce que tu aimes, Madeleine,” and “Une vieille bonne femme,” based on “London Bridge is Falling Down,” “Jenny Jenkins” and “I Know an Old Lady” respectively. Similar material has been around for many years, as for example “Le boogie-woogie” and “Si tu aimes le soleil” (”The Hoky-Poky” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It”).

Something I hope to experiment with more in the future is writing in the style of periods, artists, or genres. “Le blues d’être,” meant to help students internalize irregular verb patterns, has somewhat of a T. Rex feel to it, while “Je t’aimerais mieux, mon mari” contains traditional lyrics adapted to a Cajun style. “Belle Virginie” crept into my ear as a way of modernizing sailors’ laments. “Les menteries,” meanwhile, takes the lyrical tomfoolery of some traditional Franco-Canadian strains and makes it accessible to students still in their early years of French study. “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” from the film O Brother Where Art Thou and likewise full of fantastical tall tales, cued the melody.

Although American and British music inevitably provide inspiration to someone raised on US radio, the goal of exploring French and Francophone music quickly came to the fore. I’ve always listened to many styles, and in recent years have particularly taken to call-and-response “chansons à répondre” from Québec, but until recently I hadn’t actively investigated the vast area of French and Francophone folk styles beyond trying to gain basic familiarity. My main inspiration to date has been material presented by Raphaëlle Nicolas, Mary Perramond and Bonnie Woolley that I purchased at a Middlebury College summer program. See the Links page to locate similar texts and midi samples.

Using the Material at the University Level
Textbooks increasingly incorporate music on a companion CD or include links to Internet material. The publisher Thomson Heinle offers a French Music CD for introductory and intermediate French programs that features a detailed pedagogical guide. Sur le vif, Troisième édition, Niveau intermédiaire, by Clare Tufts and Hannelore Jausch, closely incorporates music throughout the course. A wealth of videos and teaching guides can be found through the French consulate’s “Espace francophone” (see the Links page).

“French through Songs and Singing” encourages learning by doing. In my experience, sing-alongs spark a response and lead to better retention regardless of age or level. I enjoy playing CDs to students, but always find that having them actually sing reinforces grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation skills in other ways. Also, music makes a nice warmup. In short, sing-alongs are not for children only. Culture and history are of course other key aspects that songs can reveal. Here, however, I will focus on a few select uses for teaching Beginning, Intermediate and Advanced French, in the hope of encouraging those less familiar with the music to experiment and those who already love these sorts of tunes to explore the site and bookmark it as a resource.

Beyond its value as a free archive, the main advantage of “French through Songs and Singing” is its flexibility. Most songs featured are easily sung by students at various levels. Some appear in multiple versions. I have tried to sing slowly and clearly, and often count off a tune or offer musical cues for starting a verse. The lyric downloads should help make everything especially classroom friendly, particularly if one wants the lyrics but prefers to replace the English annotations with French definitions. The option of downloading lyrics with chords enables students to learn material on their own or share it with friends (the chords shown indicate patterns suited guitar, often with a capo).

A primary strategy of mine in recent years has been to mate at least one song to each chapter of our textbook and thus enhance grammatical progressions. In French I, for example, “Bonjour ! Comment ça va !” and “Les ABC” work well as course openers; “L’arbre est dans ses feuilles” presents the expression “il y a”; “Le petit train” emphasizes the verb “avoir”; and “Une vieille bonne femme” highlights the past tense. In a third-year upper intermediate course on culture, we sang songs as they related to topics: “J’aurai le vin,” regarding sociability, “Au clair de la lune” for added insights on mores, and “Le tourbillon de la vie” when studying Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. In addition to the obvious linguistic benefits of using varied materials, students seem to take naturally to singing most always, and sometimes even request more for end-of-year parties.

Putting Students at Ease
Surely not all of us want to suddenly burst out in song — as in Les parapluies de Cherbourg, On connaît la chanson or Pas sur la bouche, or the recent Canadian hit C.R.A.Z.Y. where this marks every Christmas. For putting others at ease beforehand, multimedia shines. First, students can listen to a song before class. When I bring my guitar with me, I usually present vocabulary then one verse and chorus by myself, as a further model before we all start together. I also start into songs slowly. With the “French through Song and Singing” Flash Player, this same modeling can in most cases be done just as easily without an instrument. For the “Comment dit-on blues,” I let the MP3 provide the ‘call’ lines that students respond to, and I don’t have to sing at all.

Similarly, it is worth noting that the very subject of some songs can put students in touch with course material in new ways. I envision using “Savez-vous planter les choux” as a tie-in to Agnès Varda’s Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, and “Le petit mari” for a course on gender and identity. One could also examine more troubling or comical aspects of everyday life through the undertones of “Il était une bergère” or “C’est la mère Michel.” Furthermore, singing the actual texts adds linguistic variation to courses that otherwise focus on analysis. I often find that students are more apt to participate. Parallels to poetry can be especially interesting, in terms of how folk traditions were embedded in daily routines, with stories and wordplay an inherent part of existence socially and individually. Assuming easy access to materials and the right pedagogical touch, singing in the foreign language classroom adds variety, concretizes learning and invites a stretch beyond what students perceive to be their level.

Future Plans
It is very much my hope that “French through Songs and Singing” can suit a broad public. I plan to expand the site with MP3s of tunes from a variety of traditions and styles: children’s songs, work songs, ballads, dance numbers, etc. It has been a pleasure initiating this resource to celebrate as much French and Francophone cultures as lyric traditions and the human voice.