When I introduce the xylophones to my young students we do a wide variety of activities:  we play follow-the-leader games, we listen to the differences between the metallophones, xylophones and glockenspiels, and we do echo patterns with two hands together and with glissandos.  On other days we play sound effects for stories about wind and rain, or we play notes on the special words in a song.

We also play a game called Noodle Doodle.  This is a free-choice time where they can play anything they want.  Even on the first day the students sit at the instruments they get this improvisation time.  It’s a welcome relief from the strict control found in many of the other activities.  But in the past there’s been a problem.  Some of the children would simply bang on the bars as hard and fast as they could, completely forgetting the earlier experiences of light bounces and slides.  I tried several different ways of re-directing them, but wasn’t successful until I used the word “interesting.”  The new rules of Noodle Doodle for this year are 1. to play quietly and 2. to make it interesting.  This works even better if I model beforehand what I want.  Ms. Keefe gets to play the game and they watch.  I play my xylophone with great curiosity, wanting to know what this note sounds like, or what it feels like to sweep my mallets together and apart.

With the addition of this one word, the improvisations in Noodle Doodle time have completely changed.  There is a quality of attention and focus that is quite lovely to see.  The inner expressiveness of the students is connected to their hands and to their instrument.

Interesting – it’s a powerful word.

~ Liz

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