One of my favorite collections of songs for children is the book Sing the Stories of Jesus by John Horman and Mary Nelson Keithahn. It is chock-full of songs based on various stories from the Gospels, some well-known stories and some that are often overlooked. Several songs are simple enough to be used for Sunday School groups, but all are perfect for young singers in choirs. They cover events of Jesus' life from the angels' Gloria at his birth to Breakfast by the Sea after the resurrection. Instructions for teaching are included for each song as well as an accompaniment CD if you need it. Over time, I have taught and directed many of these songs, but I'd like to share the way I have taught, embellished, and performed four of my favorites from this collection.
Jesus Is Baptized
Jesus was baptized by John, * down by the riverside. This is an echo song. Each phrase is sung by a leader then echoed by the choir. I sing the Leader part and have my singers respond in echo, making it instantly easy to teach notes, to model good singing, and to model good diction. (Be sure to not sing an ending R on 'river'.) This song is rhythmic and has a bouncy, happy accompaniment that keeps the movement going forward. We add a clap at the beginning of the second phrase of the song on the rest ( * down by the riverside). I suggest teaching the clap first and separately - speak in rhythm over and over. This next embellishment makes my singers smile! We extend the song's ending; the piano repeats the final measure an octave lower and then another octave lower -- going down, down, down - as low as you can go. This creates visual and auditory text painting.
Storm winds blew, the waves rose high. "Save us, Jesus, or we'll die!" Jesus woke and said, "Be still!" Wind and waves obeyed his will. We use a 2-octave set of choir chimes and colorful scarves (or wide ribbons) to bring this story to life. Choose D minor notes ( D, E, F, A ) to create a cluster chord. Have some children play the cluster chord on the 3rd beat of each of the opening measures. Repeat the opening two measures to make a longer intro. The other children each hold a scarf at a corner (tell them to pinch a corner) and sway in half notes side to side from the beginning of the introduction. At "save us" the children swish the scarves over their heads as if signaling for help. Next they slowly bring the scarves to the front and on the word "still!" they hold it straight out, frozen. After the word "will" they slowly lower the scarves and on the final chord they drop the scarves to the ground while the cluster chords play again on beat 3. Very effective.
Teach Us How to Pray
"Jesus, teach us how to pray," asked his friends along the way. "Help us find the words to say what is in our hearts today." When learning this song, we talk about the disciples' question to Jesus and his answer to them - the Lord's Prayer. First we sing through the song and then our accompanist replays the entire song quietly (and improvises a bit) while we speak the Lord's Prayer together over the music. We add hand motions for each petition of the prayer, ending with an Amen. I have used this in worship and in a choir camp performance. To avoid having the listeners and other worshipers applaud at the end ('yeah, good prayer!'), I keep my conductor's hands raised at the 'Amen', and we go straight into another song of similar mood and tempo or the accompanist continues playing as the children settle. Another meaningful way to use these motions is to pray silently and just pray with the motions. Powerful. Email me for a short video of the motions. email@example.com
Jesus Heals Ten Lepers
Ten who had a bad disease called to Jesus "Help us, please!" Jesus healed them all that day, sent them on along their way. Only one returned to say "Thank you, Jesus. Thank you!" But where were the other nine? "Thank you, Jesus. Thank you!" Children love to count and to ask questions in songs. A unique way to introduce this song is to give choir chimes or handbells, one to each of 11 singers or double up with 6 singers. You are counting and naming the characters in the story. Select 11 bells going up the pentatonic C major scale: C, D, E, G, A, C, D, E, G, A, C. Line the children up in order, low to high notes, and as an introduction have each chime ring (low to high) while all the children count: ring C "1", ring D "2", ring E "3"...all the way to ring C"10". After the last chime (the eleventh), all say "Jesus!" At the end of the song, all chimes ring in a giant cluster chord. Embellishing this way includes more children, lengthens the song, and helps endear the story to your singers.
I encourage you to learn and teach all the songs in this collection to your singers. Each provides an excellent opportunity for teaching good diction, phrasing, and tonal quality as well as important moments from the life of Jesus.