A Thousand Choices

ribbonsinairThe annual Winter Performance at my elementary school has come and gone.   The floor tape has been pulled up, the ribbon sticks and coconut shells are tucked away in the closet, and the kerchiefs and tee-shirts have been washed and folded.

Every performance is the result of a thousand choices.  What songs should the children sing?  What dances should they perform?  Should the kids stand on the floor or use risers?

Every performance also reflects a set of values.  These values may be conscious or not on the part of the music teacher, but they drive the result.

Here are some values that inform my student performances:

kerchiefs◊  The performance is mainly for the benefit of the children.  It is an age-appropriate experience that allows them to work on some materials to a more polished degree than usual, and to share these activities with their families.

◊  The children get to sit in the audience and see different grades perform.  This allows them to grasp a continuum of learning.

◊  The materials are child-centered, that is, they fit the age and interests of each grade.

◊  The children help to create some part of the performance.  For example, they might help to create dance movements, or an accompaniment pattern on the xylophones, or a new verse to a song.

◊  The children perform with as much independence as possible.

sing&xylos◊  The children learn to move confidently from one activity to the next. My 2nd graders recited poems, played instruments, sang songs and performed dances. We worked not only on each section, but how to move from one section to the next in a seamless way.

◊  Everyone learns all of the parts and only when the performance is near are the parts divided.  If there are solo parts, then everyone in the class gets to try them out.  The solo parts are chosen in a way that feels fair to everyone.

One more thing: children love to dress up.  Even a simple tee-shirt or a kerchief can create a special feeling for the child and a wonderful visual effect for the audience.

Performances are part of every music teacher’s experience.  What are some of the values that underlie your performances?


The Happiest Place in Kabul

A young girl who was selling gum on the streets of Kabul to survive is now learning sitar and will play in Carnegie Hall this month as part of an Afghan youth orchestra.  It’s almost a fairy tale story, but it’s true.  As described in a recent New York Times article, Afghan music students, age 9 – 21, will travel to the U.S. and perform in both traditional ensembles and Western-style orchestras.  They are all students at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul, founded in 2010. This music school is a small step toward recovering from the Taliban years when music was banned, instruments were destroyed, and girls were not allowed to go to school.

William Harvey is an American violinist who conducts the orchestra at the school.  Both Western and traditional Afghan styles of music are taught, so students are learning violin, saxophone, tabla, sitar and electric guitar.  When it came time to create an orchestra ensemble, Harvey included them all.  “There are all these Afghan instruments,” he said, “all these Russian instruments plus Western instruments that aren’t usually in a western orchestra…the pianist wants to be in the orchestra, the saxophonist wants to be in the orchestra….So I take a masterpiece like the Four Seasons of Vivaldi, add Afghan instruments, Afghan rhythms, Afghan melodies, improvisations and then it becomes the Four Seasons of Afghanistan.”

Now that is a piece I would love to hear!

~ Liz

Click below for the New York Times video.

Afghan Youth Orchestra

Educating the Parents

It can be discouraging to remember that music teachers need to continually justify their existence.  They are vulnerable to budget cuts where their jobs or hours are cut, and if they are lucky enough to have a dedicated music room, they know that it could be snatched away in a minute if the school’s enrollment increases. New teachers or seasoned veterans, no one is immune.  I am grateful that my own situation is secure, but the harsh reality is that music and the other arts are at the bottom of the heap when it comes to economic decisions.

Frequent, clear communication can only help.  Most parents focus on the reading and math skills of their children, and have only a fuzzy-headed idea of what goes on in the music room.  Information can be distributed through teacher websites and school newsletters, but a premium time to communicate the goals of the music program is at a performance.

The big music performance at my K/1/2 school is at the end of January.  Every 1st and 2nd grader performs on this marathon day: four 1st grades and four 2nd grades for the 8:30 AM program, and four 1st grades and three 2nd grades for the 10:30 AM program.   This is a chance for the parents to see the variety of activities and music skills for both grades.  (Kindergarten has a more informal Music Sharing Day in early March.)

I want the parents to have an aesthetic and heart-felt experience at the performance as they watch their children sing, play instruments, perform dances and recite poetry.  But I also want them to appreciate the learning that has taken place.  It would be dreary for me to interrupt the beautiful energy of the performance and talk at length about all the music skills involved, so this year I decided to create a parent letter that will accompany the printed program.  My hope is that this clearly communicates a few simple ideas, and will give parents more reasons to strongly support the music program.

I’ve attached a copy of the parent letter.  It’s in Word so it could be used as a starting place for a new letter.  This of course is only one of many possibilities for good communication.  I’d be interested to know how other teachers help to educate their parents.

~ Liz

Click below for the Parent Letter.

Parent Letter


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