Life is precious and mysterious.  Everything passes.  Only light, love and beauty endure.  In this holiday season I had the thought to share this video by Louie Schwartzberg.  I’ve watched it numerous times, and it always brings me back to a place of gratitude.  Happy Holidays to one and all.


Transition and Distraction

It’s that time of year.  It’s the next to last week of school and everyone is distracted.  Not just the kids, but the teachers too.  In  between classes I’m online, planning my summer travel.  I’m in a slow panic about being ready to teach my summer university courses.  My classroom needs to be organized before I leave for the summer, and with all the piles of random stuff here and there, it looks like a whirlwind hit.  As I look out at my young students, I feel like I’m trying to keep a pot from boiling.

An activity I call “Weird Percussion” comes to the rescue.  I drag out a large box that contains instruments that I’ve collected over the years.  Shekeres are there, along with plastic tubes, tiny tambourines, clusters of kola nut shells, guiros, cabasas, and oddly shaped sound-makers that my sisters brought me back from their vacations. These are instruments that the students haven’t seen before.  Each student takes one and explores them, looking for interesting sounds.  This is not a day to be concerned about playing the instruments correctly.  We are simply looking for a variety of sounds.  The students are encouraged to play them inside out and upside down, with a stick and without, tapping them on their legs and on the floor.

Each child shares three sounds, one at a time around the circle.  Then we create question and answer phrases, using the instrument as our voice.  Even my 2nd graders can grasp the idea of “speaking” through the instrument, and they play expressively.  We add a game of secretly deciding how two partners will play – happy, sad or angry.  The two students play their conversation, and the rest of us guess which emotion they were expressing.

On another day, these same instruments can be used for categorizing and conducting – an activity I first learned from the Orff maestro Susan Kennedy.  Three hula hoops are placed in the middle of the circle and we sort the instruments into those played by hitting, scraping, or shaking.   Each type is placed into one hula hoop.  Some of the instruments could be in two categories and interesting discussions arise as students defend their choice.  Then students reclaim their instrument and gather on the section of the circle that is closest to “their” hula hoop.  Then the conducting begins.  A student steps in and out of a hula hoop to start and stop the sound of that section of instruments.  The students soon discover that they can “play” one, two or three sections at a time, and can create nuances of slow and fast, long and short, sound and silence.

This is a lesson that had a cluster of boys say on the way out, “That was really fun!”  Yeah, it was!

I’m curious to know what other ideas teachers pull out to bring order to the last few weeks.  Please share some ideas if you like.  Happy summer vacation!




“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


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


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.


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.

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