Step Back, Baby
“Step Back, Baby” can in found in the song collection My Singing Bird published by the Kodály Center of America. Bessie Jones, author of Step It Down and member of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, taught the song at the Kodály Music Training Institute when she visited in 1973. The song is in call and response form and features a re, do, la tone set, both emblematic of African-American music. The story may or may not be true.
Because of the repetition of the response phrase “step back, baby, step back” the song is great practice for re, do, and la. It is also attractive to to older beginners because of the mysterious story and swinging nature of the tune. The repetition of the response phrase makes the song perfect practice for the A, G, and E notes on soprano recorder. Once students are familiar with the traditional form of the song, it can be extended with new rhyming couplets, recorder improvisations, or scat singing.
Introducing the Story
I get my students interested by asking them if they want to hear a very scary experience I had the other night. They never decline the invitation!
Not last night, but the night before,
Twenty-four robbers at my door,
Open up the door and let them in.
Hit ‘em on the head with a rolling pin.
I picked up my fryin’ pan.
Should have seen the way those robbers ran!
Some ran east and some ran west.
Some flew over the cuckoo’s nest.
I introduce the melody and the call and response form next. I tell the students that I’m going to tell them the story again. This time I want them to listen to for a part of the story that happens over and over. I sing the song for the first time in a very dramatic fashion.
They quickly pick up on the response “Step back, baby, step back”. They echo sing the phrase to me and I turn that part over to them. Depending on where we are going with the song, I might start introducing them to the couplets of the call. I sing the whole first call and and then let them fill in the rhyming words at the end of the second call. If we are playing recorders, I show them how to play the response on the notes A, G, and E. The beauty of call and response is the ability for a soloist to improvise new calls while the group holds the form together by repeating the call.
Form a longways set (Two lines facing each other). Act out the words as you step forward on the beat for each phrase of the call (Walk forward, 2, 3, 4). Jump back on the first three beats of the response, landing on the beats and clapping on the off beats (Jump back, (clap) 2, (clap) 3, (clap), Rest). Once the students can land their jumps on the beat and clap on the offbeats (a minor miracle in many communities), the artistry comes in the acting out of the calls. Make sure to compliment students that acting out the words in interesting, innovative ways. Allow different groups to perform for each other to help spread ideas.
Solos take the form of interesting walks down the middle of the set. Give the students ideas by having them try out movement words like slink, prowl, or swagger. They can then add some funk to different body parts like hips, knees, elbows, and hands. Once the walks are created, one of the partners at the head of the set starts down the set. The other partner either copies the walk or improves it. The next set of partners follows in the same way. For large groups with limited time, each new walker starts when the previous one is halfway down the set. After one side of the set has been the leaders, sing the song and then repeat solos with the other side being the leaders.
This a great piece for beginning soprano recorder players, especially if you start teaching recorder with the descending minor third of G and E. Soon after beginning recorders, students can master the three note response. Alternating the sung call with the played response extends the interest and provides opportunity for important repetitive fingering practice.
In order to assess individual students, pick a small group to play the response while everyone else sings the call. After the response is secure, groups of students can improvise rhythmic calls on a single note, A, G, or E. When students gain confidence, they can expand their calls to include two and then three adjoining notes. If playing this with more experienced players, any note in the A minor pentatonic scale can be used (CDE GA C’D’E’ G’A’). If playing recorders with the Orffestration, one or both of the upper harmony parts may be added to challenge advanced players.
Improvising is one of the hallmarks of the Orff process. Call and response is a great musical form for improvising in a group. A soloist or small group can improvise calls while the rest of the group sings or plays the response. Rotate the soloists and add harmony to the response if students need a challenge to hold their interest. Recorders can used as described above but there are many other options.
Rhythmic improvisation is always the first step. This can be accomplished through body percussion and non-pitched instruments. Start with the rhythm of the words and then branch out from there. It is important to feel the phrase length, so students should spend a lot of time singing and moving with the song.
When students can improvise a variety of “hip” rhythms, start pitched improvisations with a limited tone set. As students need challenge, expand the tone set until the whole Am pentatonic scale (A CDE G) is available to them.
For vocal improvisation, sing one of the existing calls on a neutral syllable like “du”. Practice sounding like different instruments. “Can you make your voice sound like a trumpet? What about a saxophone, guitar, drum, etc.?” If your students have facility with solfege you can give them a tone set (l, drm s) and have them improvise using solfege before moving to scat syllables. After letting students try out their own instrument sounds, I like to play some examples of expert scat singers to give them more ideas and up the ante.
Scat conversations between partners is a very musically meaningful activity. It forces students to listen to and interact with the musical material they hear. The first partner sings a phrase. The second partner uses part of the first partner’s phrase and changes part. When the first partner sings again they can create a brand new phrase or use the new part of the previous phrase and add something of their own. With the call and response form, the first soloist creates a call, the group sings the response, and then the second soloist answers the first call. An educational bonus of the call and response form is that it gives the soloists think-time between each phrase before having to create new material.
Teaching the Orffestration
The Orffestration is the icing on the cake. Make sure you spend a lot of time singing, moving, and improvising with the song before attempting the Orffestration. When the students can play it, extend the form with improvised solos on a variety of instruments, including the voice and body.
The arrangement below is an example of every single part you could play given unlimited time, talent, and perfectly focused concentration. Please do not look at the arrangement and think “My kids could never do this!” and abandon it entirely. We have often used parts of the Orffestration with great success even though the entire arrangement was well beyond the capacity of the group. Teach everyone all the parts that you are planning to use. Then differentiate by assigning students to parts where they will be challenged but successful.
Have all the students play each new instrument part. Then temporarily assign groups of kids to play the new part with the parts that have already been practiced to see how they fit together. Rotate the parts around the groups to help them hear and feel the whole ensemble. Playing the parts together for the first time after they have all been taught is one way to ensure complete chaos. Believe me, I’ve tried it! Don’t teach a new part until the existing parts are secure together. Use the texts provided under each part along with body percussion and/or movement before playing it on the instruments.
The Bass Part
This part sounds amazing if you have contrabass bars. If not, it will also sound really nice on your bass xylophone. We put this part in our feet and step the rhythm using the phrase “Let’s all step back.” Accenting the word “back” helps the students with the anticipation before beat four.
The Bass and Alto Xylophone Parts
The rhythm for the Bass and Alto Xylophone parts can be learned while saying “Let’s all step back” and clapping between the words on the off beats. The pitches are basically a moving 5th between the BX and AX. The Bb in the AX part should be added after the students are confident with the E, G, A, B part. After the students have learned that part, remove the high C bar, move the B bar over to that spot, and place the Bb in the spot B’s former spot. Since the BX and AX parts work together, the students playing these parts really need to listen to each other as well as listening to the main bass part.
The Soprano Xylophone Part
The soprano xylophone part is a fill that happens between the call and the response each time. Instead of telling the students this, play the part for them while they sing the song and ask them to figure out when it happens. Since the rhythm is quick, pat this part on the knees with alternating hands while saying “the night before.”
In order to add a bit of chromaticism, the F# is substituted for the lower F bar and the Bb bar in the B spot. It may be helpful to remove the low D bar and the high C to help the SX players visually see where they are playing.
The Glockenspiel Part
Set up all the glockenspiels in A minor pentatonic. Students remove the F and B bars, leaving CDE GA CDE GA. The rhythm for this part lines up with both times the word “back” is sung in the response. Invite the students to snap on the word “back” while singing the response. Students can play “best friend” bars each time they hear the word back. Best friend bars are right next to each other on the instrument.
An alternate way to play the part is by holding the big F bar, that was previously removed, vertically and carefully striking a group of bars. This works well if you only have a few glockenspiels. Since the glockenspiel part has a lot of down time, I have the students choreograph a synchronized mallet dance to fill that time. This keeps the devil from finding work for idle hands to do.
Conga drums, tubanos, or djembes can be used for the drum part. There are two drum pitches, bass and tone. The bass is played in the middle of the drum with the tone on the edge. The first syllable of “conga” is always the bass. The clap at the end of the phrase saves the place for the rest and can eventually be omitted or transferred to another non-pitched instrument. The ride cymbal part is swung and uses the name of the instrument over and over “Ride cymbal, (x3) ride the…” This part can be improved with improvisation on the basic rhythm.
Playing the Orffestration
Layer in the parts starting from the bottom of the score with the exception of the non-pitched percussion. Bring in the drums and cymbal after the alto xylophone. The soprano xylophone and glockenspiel parts are tied to the singing so they begin playing when the singing starts.
Once they students are secure in playing together, extend the form by adding solos. Solicit ideas for being able to hear the soloists. Some ideas that have worked for us are to have everyone lower their volume, have some parts drop out, or a combination of both during the solos.
Not last night, but the night before, Step back, baby, step back.
Twenty-four robbers at my door, Step back, baby, step back.
Open up the door and let them in. Step back, baby, step back.
Hit ‘em on the head with a rolling pin. Step back, baby, step back.
I picked up my fryin’ pan. Step back, baby, step back.
Should have seen the way those robbers ran! Step back, baby, step back.
Some ran east and some ran west. Step back, baby, step back.
Some flew over the cuckoo’s nest. Step back, baby, step back.