Author Archives: Liz

Listening

“That music reminded me of when my grandmother died last summer,” a second grade girl confided in me.

Today was the day for a listening and drawing experience with Stravinsky’s The Firebird.  My young students enjoy listening when there is an implied story line in the music, and this music is full of drama.  I briefly introduced Stravinsky to my 2nd graders, telling them a few facts about his life that would pique their interest.  He came from a musical family with a father who sang opera and a mother who played piano.  He was born in Russia and grew up with Russian fairy tales and folk tales.

The six short sections of The Firebird Suite (1919 version) make it a perfect listening piece because each section has a distinct and contrasting character.  For example, the first section is moody and ominous, and sets the scene for an adventure.  The second is dramatically different, with frenetic energy.  As the children listen to each section they are instructed to notice the images in their minds.  On a paper divided into six boxes they draw those images, and create their own story for the music.  The result is like an over-sized comic strip, but without any words.

The Firebird of course was a well-loved Russian folk tale before it was a ballet accompanied by Stravinsky’s music.  (The ballet actually is a composite of several stories.) A prince catches an intriguing, flame-colored bird.  The bird begs for his freedom and promises a gift.  A bright feather is left as he flies away.  This feather is later used when all hope is lost in a battle with demons.

Stravinsky composed the music to illustrate the folk tale and the action of the ballet.  The classroom listening exercise invites the children to do the reverse.  They use the music to inspire the creation of a new story.  Later on they will hear the actual Firebird tale, but I am most interested in first forging a personal connection to the music.  Unfortunately there isn’t time or patience to have each child tell the details of their story to the whole class, but 2 by 2 they can share their stories with each other.  The stories have caves, monsters and volcanoes.  There are princesses and weddings.  There are battles, weapons and coffins.

Section 5 of The Firebird, “Berceuse,” is the slow lament that especially touched my second grade student mentioned above.  She brought her paper up to me at the end of class, and I noticed that section 6 was empty.  She apparently had been caught up in the emotion of the 5th section and had stopped drawing.  “Berceuse” had carried her away to a place of loss and grief.

What is it about that section of music that calls up such memories?  I have found that many students draw pictures of dead warriors or coffins for that section.  What is it in the shape of Stravinsky’s melody or his choice of instruments that stirred my student’s heart and communicated the profound grief of death?  For that matter, what is it in section 4 that brings images of battle to my students over and over?  Musical notes written on the page almost 100 years ago are brought to life by French horns and oboes and strings.  Rhythmic patterns and melodic lines bypass words and story line, and communicate directly with the heart.

~ Liz

 

Transitions

The xylophones have been moved back to the music room.  The boxes of scarves, drums and puili sticks are shoved off to the side and will be put away soon.  The songs and poems from the big performance are tucked neatly away in a folder marked, Winter Performance 2012.  We did it!  And it’s time to move on.

In the days after a big school performance the whole energy in the music room shifts.  We are all exhausted, children and teacher alike, from working on the same materials for many weeks.  After the concert that intense energy evaporates.  This is a transition time, and the children need time to reflect, to have some choices, and to try something new.

The very first time I see the students after a performance I ask them two questions.  First of all, I invite them to reflect on their experience.  I ask them to think back to how they felt as they stood up to walk onto the performing space.  They offer a range of emotions: they felt nervous, scared, proud, awesome, embarrassed, happy.  I can see their faces relax as they see their classmates name emotions that they shared.  The word “stagefright” is discouraged.  It is such a loaded, negative word.  I prefer to have them talk in a more personal way about how their belly was fluttering, or if they were feeling shy.  I then assure the class that it’s okay to feel all of these things, and that anyone who performs experiences those same things, all mixed up together.  As we talk through the experience most of them realize that these uncomfortable feelings lasted only until the song or the dance actually started.  There is something about actually doing the materials of the performance that focuses the mind and leaves anxiety behind.  The reward is feeling the warm energy of the audience, and feeling proud at the end.

The second reflection activity is for the students to remember one song or dance that they enjoyed watching.  An answer of, “I enjoyed everything” is not accepted.  They are encouraged to recall details, perhaps some of the lyrics of a song, or a few words of a poem.  Maybe there was an instrument or prop that caught their attention.

The next part of the transition is for the students to have some choices.  Music class turns into a Request Day.  They can ask for a song or a game that we haven’t done in a while.  It is fascinating to see what they remember and want to do again.  In my classes this week, they asked for materials from earlier in the year, but to my surprise, they also requested games and songs from much further back.  Several first grades wanted to play Little Bird, a game they learned in Kindergarten.  A second grader wanted to sing a song from last May, an original end-of-the-year song that they sang as a thank you to their teachers.  They remembered every word.

Then it’s time for something completely new, and there is nothing better at this point than a new singing game or play party.  Some of my favorites are Down in the Valley, Punchinella, Little Johnny Brown, I Let Her Go-Go, Bow Belinda, and Chickens on the Fencepost.

Fellow music teachers – how do you handle the transition from the big concert back to regular music class?  I’d love to hear your ideas.  You can use the comments below to share.  (If no comments are visible, then click on the word: Comments, below the title of this post.)

It’s a Gift

It’s a week and a half before the big Winter Performance, and I’m spending extra hours at school each afternoon, I’m squeezing in extra classes during my breaks, and I’m waking up three times during the night.  Every music teacher faces this moment, whether it’s a simple classroom sharing or a more formal performance in the multi-purpose room.  In my case, it’s two programs of poetry, songs and dances that will involve about 350 first and second graders.

There is an art to putting on a performance, and although it gets easier with experience, it is never stress-free.  I’ve learned over the years to start early enough to give the students time to play around with some ideas in a relaxed way.  I’ve learned how to adjust and adapt materials to match the skills of the students in front of me.  I’ve learned how to make the assigning of special jobs feel fair to the whole group.  But with young children, it seems that half the job of a music teacher is to motivate and inspire them to want to be part of the group experience.

Performing may be a completely new experience for some of the students.  There may be some children who would love to crawl under the covers rather then stand in front of several hundred eager parents.  (And who can blame them?)  There are some children who are not comfortable holding hands with others, and there are those who simply don’t want to submit to the energy of the group.

One helpful idea to gather the group energy is to talk about the performance as a gift for the students’ families.  For example:

We are preparing our poems and songs and dances as a gift to give to our  mothers and fathers.  It is something we can do to make them happy.  If we all are singing and moving together, then our gift will look amazing, and our families will smile in delight. 

This thought can give the children an experience of focusing outward on the group gift they are creating, rather than focusing inward, and becoming anxious about their individual performance.

It’s also useful to talk about working hard and trying their best, rather than being perfect. When the families applaud at the end, the children can take pride in the fact that they have spent time creating something interesting and lovely, and that they gave the performance their very best effort.  If each child has that experience, then for me, the performance was a success.

~ Liz

Stillness

A recent New York Times article discussed the newest trend in advertising to children.  The writer, Pico Iyer, attended a speech entitled “Marketing to the Child of Tomorrow,” and was surprised to learn that the main concern of the advertising executive was stillness.

Stillness.

Yes, it’s come to this.  In this time of information overload, advertisers are actually looking for ways to sell children gadgets that shield them from their world.

As music teachers, we probably are not one of the average Americans who spends eight and a half hours in front of a screen, but perhaps some of us have teenagers who send or receive an average of 75 text messages a day. Many of us follow the 24-hour news cycle, and regularly text and update our Facebook pages.  We all have seen school parents who are texting during volunteer time or school performances.  As Pico Iyer puts it so clearly, “the distinctions that used to guide and steady us — between Sunday and Monday, public and private, here and there — are gone.”

The article quotes Nicholas Carr, from his book The Shallows, about the effects on the brain of slowing down. After people have spent time in quiet rural settings, they  “exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper.” And even more interesting, according to neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio, empathy depends on neural processes that are “inherently slow.”

Empathy cannot be developed unless we slow down.

So here’s an idea:  more music in schools.  More time singing together, and listening carefully to see if the group is singing in tune.  More instrument conversations between two children, where they must pay close attention to what the other instrument says before they answer.  More time playing the steady beat, and listening to see if the group can sound like one instrument.

Stillness, slowing down, empathy.  The answer to an overwhelming world is not an iPad for every child so they can play video games to learn math facts.  The answer is not more entertainment or more distraction.  The answer is to make the music class a place to slow down, to become aware of the breath and the body, to listen for quiet sounds, to join in with voices and rhythms so that the lines between self and other blur, and for a moment, there is a place of connection and rest.

~ Liz

Click HERE for a link to the New York Times article, “The Joy of Quiet” by Pico Iyer.

Jump Jim Joe

“I’m gonna jump, jump, jump Jim Joe.”

Tap your toe!

A child stands in front of a classmate and holds out his hands.  The other child takes the offered hands, and the song begins.  So many levels of activity going on here, but the most poignant is the social connection.  These games evoke some of the most basic experiences of being human: What does it feel like to be included?  What does it feel like to be rejected?

The song can be taught.  The dance can be taught.  But the puzzle remains of how to choose a partner, and that also needs to be taught.  First of all, every person in the class needs to be included, so the children are instructed to choose a new partner each time the game begins again.  Also, everyone deserves to be treated with kindness, so the children are taught that if someone holds out their hands, you accept.  For the quiet child, the challenge is to reach out to others, or at least to be available for others to invite them.  We demonstrate how you can raise your hand high if you find yourself without a partner, so that someone can find you.  Often the other single person is behind you, and out of sight. And there is always the option of  “Emergency 3′s” where you can join a group of two if time is short, and no other singles are close by.

An Emergency 3.

Why go to all this trouble to teach the step-by-step social skills of this simple play party game?  Ah… the social skills make ALL the difference in the experience of the game.  If everyone feels valued and if each person knows that they will be treated fairly, then something magic begins to happen.  The energy flows and bubbles over.  There is an almost ecstatic feeling when everyone in the room is feeling the kindness of others, and they are singing and dancing together.  This moment is worth every minute of teaching time spent on the minutiae of social connection.

“Now you find another partner, and you jump Jim Joe.”

~ Liz

Click HERE to download a pdf of Jump Jim Joe.

Calming the Wild Beast

The children come in the door of the music room. One child is angry at a classmate for cutting in line. Another was hurt at P.E. and has a scraped knee and a leaky bag of ice. Two girls can’t sit next to each other without constantly talking. Three children are simply exhausted from the rigors of the day, or perhaps not enough sleep the night before. It’s a normal day in the music room.

How about this… try this simple focusing message and see if all those discordant energies can be brought into alignment.

“When we’re outside, our bodies are large and moving and full of energy. Let’s bring our bodies into this room, and make them smaller and quiet. Our voices outside are loud and yelling, let’s bring them into this room, and make them smaller and quiet. Our minds outside are as big as the playground. They’ve been thinking about friends and lunch and homework. Let’s bring them into this room, and make them smaller and focused.”

These simple words might possibly transform a class of wriggly, disconnected children into a quiet and calm group of children who are all sitting on the floor, looking at you. Class can now begin.  ~ Liz

A Moment of Beauty

wheatIt is the privilege of teachers, and especially of teachers who deal with the arts, to have experiences of beauty in the classroom. Probably many of us have experienced these moments of grace… of flow… of spirit.

At the end of the year in my elementary music classes, I invite those students who take music lessons to play informally for the class. The point for me is to bring the students’ out-of-classroom music-making into the classroom. Oftentimes the offerings are modest, beginning pieces, but I honor them all. The theme from the James Bond movie is a perennial favorite, and I usually hear Für Elise at least a dozen times. The students play their simple pieces, and the class gets to practice being an attentive audience.

violin200I offer this opportunity every year, but I don’t remember a moment of beauty entering my classroom through this activity until this past June. “Alex” brought in his violin. He also brought in his composer/violinist father. The two of them together played a “Bourrée” by Handel. There was a note here and there that was out of tune, and “Alex” rushed one section, but there were moments that just grabbed my heart. I closed my eyes, and there, in that simple music classroom of 3rd graders, there was a moment of transcendent beauty.

How does this happen? Why does this happen? Why do these moments fill us with such joy? These moments can occur in the most surprising places. In fact, the surprise is part of the deep pleasure of the experience. This is not something that you can create with your will. It is something that just happens. From last spring I have a mental snapshot of 9-year-old “Roberto” dancing across the classroom with such grace and abandon that my heart was seized. Something happened – something that was connected with joy and spirit, something connected with guilelessness and pure intent.

marinhillsOf course these moments are not limited to the classroom. Several months ago, as I was walking in the hills north of my home, I watched the wind move the grass so that it rippled like ocean waves. It brought me nearly to tears. These moments of beauty can happen listening to music, or looking at art, or in the midst of the mundane events of life. But there is something about a music classroom, where attentive listening and creativity are nurtured, that creates a fertile ground for these connections.

I get annoyed when I meet someone new and they say naively, “Oh – you are a music teacher, how fun! You get to sing and dance all day.” Arggg! If anyone has spent any time in a music classroom, they would know that it is not all sweetness and light. A classroom full of 20 – 30 active children, each with their individual issues of not enough sleep, too much sugar, different learning styles, different levels of music and movement experiences, feelings of rejection or anger, lack of impulse control, (not to mention the ability to sing on pitch or not, and the ability to control their bodies in space) – all of these factors make the day of a music teacher lively, to say the least! But… there is also, in the midst of schedules and canceled classes and lice checks and report card assessments – in the midst of all the hubbub of the day – there is the possibility for one of those elusive moments – a moment of beauty.

~ Liz