I believe that choirs learn more from performing than the pitches and rhythms required to sing an individual piece of repertoire. Every piece of music teaches much more than the piece itself, even more than the music itself.
I’m teaching “Hanging Tree” from Mockingjay at my school’s music camp this week. I chose it because I figured it will be familiar to a lot of the students, but they probably will not really know much about it beyond how it “goes.”
As far as its musical content goes, it’s rich with teachable facets. It’s pentatonic and therefore, as Suzanne Collins describes in the book, easy to harmonize. It can be sung in a round. It can be sung in a variety of canons, such as rhythmically augmenting a line or two while others move at the standard pace. We’re gonna solfege it. We’ll negotiate passagio challenges. We’ll explore the significance of schwa. We’ll round some vowels, and discover the timbrel and expressive effects of various placements of resonance. We’ll explore the nuances of voiced and unvoiced plosive and fricative consonants
Teaching ear training, music theory, vocal technique, and diction!
And then there’s the bigger picture.
The text is, at first glance, pretty dark — being about criminals and lovers who are hanged, being one giant invitation to the hanging tree. Should I really be teaching my students a song about hanging?
And this is where my conductor’s prerogative comes in.
I ask if there could be a deeper meaning to the story besides some dark death wish, and immediately it occurs to me that the “Hanging Tree” could be connected to the “Gallows Tree” or “Odin’s Gallows,” which is also called the World Tree, Yggdrasil. The branches of the World Tree extend to the nine realms; its roots reach into the three wells. That totals twelve zones of reaching, which is a coincidence since there are twelve districts in Hunger Games.
Huh. Maybe coincidence, maybe on purpose, maybe part of the collective unconscious and universal interconnectedness of life, the universe, and everything. So let’s run with it and see if it goes anyplace.
What is the significance of the mythological hanging tree, and does it relate in any way to the song or its context? Odin hangs himself, a sacrifice of himself to himself, in order to earn knowledge and understanding of the nature of destiny, proving himself worthy to know the runes with which he learns magic and teaches it to others. Self sacrifice for the purpose of personal development, and for the greater good.
Sacrifice for the greater good is, of course, a major theme of the Hunger Games series. The Games themselves are a form of ritual sacrifice meant to keep peace. Our protagonist, Katniss, is content to sacrifice herself for those she loves and, eventually, for her ideals. But she worries that she is drawing those she loves into the sacrifice with her into the suffering. Singing an invitation to the tree troubles her. But, of course, her comrades are all willing to join her — willing to be the ones to offer the invitation, even. And what do they get for their sacrifice? Knowledge of the divine? Understanding of destiny?
Well, the book isn’t clear on how the revolution turns out, who exactly ends up in charge, or how happy the citizens are. We also don’t find out what happens in the Games themselves. We only find out that (spoiler alert) Katniss is able to go through the motions of a normal life. Knowledge? Magic? Destiny? Not really. But wisdom of a sort. Rich in introspection and experiential understanding. Not intellectual, but deeply felt.
So, the invitation to the tree is an invitation not to punishment or death; but to a willing immersion in challenge for personal growth, as a way to enrich one’s contribution to humanity.
Did Suzanne Collins intend any of this? I have no clue.
Does my imagined context make the song more meaningful to me, and imbue it with larger purpose toward what I teach my students? Yep.
And that’s good enough for me.
p.s. In the movie, they change “wear a necklace of rope, side by side with me” to “wear a necklace of hope.” Supposedly it’s a marketing move on the part of the rebels. Seems to weaken the position of the song. Clearly, they want the rebels to be willing to die for the greater good! I can’t help but suspect maybe the producers of the movie wanted a more positive spin, and didn’t give a rat’s patoot about the richness of the metaphor.