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One innovative director shares his approach to this subject.


The 2020 NWACDA conference title was “Sharing our Story”. I love it when my students are able to tell their own stories through song. My problem, though, is that I teach in a school where the stories aren’t that diverse. How, then, can we use song to tell someone else’s story? Ignoring migration narratives is not an option in 2020 if we are to be relevant. In this article, I will provide resources for teachers and directors interested in using music to teach choirs and audiences about immigration.

I came to this project by accident. Every other year I commission a local rock musician to write a concert-length program for my students to perform alongside a rock band and then take the show on tour. I use this material to teach my students about the business of music from local industry professionals, and the students end up writing press releases and booking the opening acts for the show. This year, we worked with Luz Elena Mendoza of the band Y La Bamba, who wrote an incredible piece entitled “El Agua De Mi Ser” centered on the story of her parents’ immigration from Mexico. Upon delivering the score, Mendoza urged me to teach my students to understand the truth of immigration stories rather than the political narratives they may have been more familiar with.

[Luz Elena Mendoza of Y La Mamba]

Immigration is a huge topic! Fortunately, so is love, beauty, hope, music, and any of the other topics that we tackle on a regular basis in choir. If I want to center a concert on love, I would much rather engage with a first-person text in which my students are singing love songs rather than singing ABOUT love. This is the magic of choir: our choristers get to try on emotions, rather than just describing them. To teach about immigration, then, I sought out first-person narratives of the immigrant experience, in story and song, with musical textures that matched the emotions of the text. At the end of this article I will include a list of music that meets these criteria, including all voicings and levels of difficulty.

My primary source for this project was The Immigrant Story (

Sankar Raman runs this incredible project which publishes short immigrant biographies online and hosts live storytelling events (in the style of The Moth), with the mission of expanding Americans’ understanding of the stories of immigrants. The Immigrant Story has begun developing a curriculum for teachers to engage students in oral history and journalism to tell the story of immigrants in their own communities. Though my school is a predominantly conservative community, my students were eager to explore the stories of their neighbors who have immigration stories to tell. Here were some of the strategies and resources we used:

  • We began the semester with Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror, an excellent book (and

  • corresponding young person’s edition) that tells a comprehensive story of America through the eyes of each group of immigrants throughout history.

  • I partnered with six teachers at my school from a variety of subject areas to offer The Immigrant Story curriculum to a broad swath of our student body. Several classes succeeded in conducting interviews with immigrants in our school community and writing their stories for publication. Our journalism program produced a full-length special magazine issue on the subject.

  • I brought in performers from our community whose immigration stories inform the music they perform.

  • I partnered with the English Language Learners program at our local community college to bring an adult English discussion group to my school, and together we facilitated an intercultural discussion that also served as an English language practice session.

  • I put together an Immigrant Story Panel featuring immigrants in our community from every continent and generation. Each panelist told their story, and students were able to ask questions to deepen their understanding and empathy.

  • We played role-play games from The Line Between Us by Bill Bigelow, a curriculum guide for teaching about the US/Mexico border. There are some extremely powerful activities in this set that really helped my students understand their own role in the forces that drive immigration.

  • Finally, we held many sessions with Luz Elena Mendoza, our featured composer, in which she told her own stories and her parents’ stories that inspired the work.

Before the pandemic canceled everything, we were planning on performing El Agua De Mi Ser for several majority-Hispanic populations and conducting dialogues with the audience on what we had learned and how the music resonated.


My students gained a tremendous amount of empathy for everyone they encountered, and an appreciation of the breadth and depth of the immigrant stories they don’t regularly hear on the news. This was an incredibly gratifying project that I imagine will continue to be relevant in the foreseeable future!

Many other choirs have undertaken similar projects. I put together my repertoire and curriculum by researching the groundbreaking work of other choirs. Here are just a few: (link no longer works, contact for more info)


Here are a few of the resources I might explore if I had more time or was working with a different group (in no particular order):


Below is a list of music I selected for the NWACDA Repertoire Spotlight Session on Music of Migration:


HAWLEY – Vivre, Aimer, Partager


NUNEZ – De Colores

SAEZ – Vidalita

SAB/Middle School

SONSTENES – I Am Leaving


GUASTAVINO – Pueblito, Mi Pueblo

KESSELMAN – Skye Boat Song

GRASES – La Paloma


NUNEZ – El Aire Lloro

SMITH – Chi Mi Na Mor

HEATH – Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child

MYLER – Three Polish War Songs

BERKEY – Cibola

COZATL – Luz y Sombra

LEAVITT – Bashana Haba’ah


ALLAN – Distancia

BETINIS – Journey Home


GUBIOTTI – Immigrant Son

SIRETT – Cliffs of Dooneen

WILBERG – Ah el novio no quiere dinero

Additionally, here is some reasonably topical, seldom-performed music I encourage you to check out. Many of these pieces can be found online – if you need any help I have perusals for most.

SHAW – To The Hands

KOON – Mother of Exiles

ALLAN – Tu Voz

ALVAREZ – Lacrimosa

CHAVEZ – Llamadas

CLINE – She Took His Hands

COZATL – Pasar La Vida

COZATL – Xtoles



HAGEN – Look Out Above


ISAAC – Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen

KUNTZE – Nido de Amor

MORALES – Dos Cuerpos

MORENO – Barquito de Papel


MORENO – Velero de Papel

PALESTRINA – Super Flumina Babylonis

SMITH – Skye Boat Song


Finally, please be in touch if you are thinking of taking on a project like this! I would LOVE to help with any other advice or information I can provide.

Ethan Chessin; Choral Director, Camas High School

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