Saturday, February 4, 2017

Fun, Exciting Ways to Teach Classical Music & Composers in the Classroom

At my school, we have a three year rotation of composers, with a different one each month.  As a Kindergarten through 3rd grade building, this ensures that the average student will learn about each of the composers while at the school.  When it comes to the composer lessons, I am always trying to explore new ways to teach them.  I don’t merely want to give my students facts about the composer’s life, birthplace, family, music, etc. – not that those aren’t important.  They do have their place, but I want my young students to appreciate the music of each composer and to have a deeper appreciation for that music because their life, family, etc. 

David Elliott, in his book Music Matters, uses the word “musicing” to refer to musical doing.  He uses this word in the “collective sense to mean all five forms of music making: performing, improvising, composing, arranging, and conducting.”  He also calls the people making the music the “musicers.”  If we spend too much time talking about music (i.e. facts, dates, definitions), then, I believe, that our students will miss out on the enjoyment of “musicing” and being a “musicer.”  When active listening and performing to music is effectively used in the lesson, the music, “musicing”, and “musicer” are woven together into a wonderful musical experience.  *If interested in reading Music Matters, you can find it here.

So, when teaching a composer lesson, here are a few activities that I use to encourage creative thinking and active “musicing” in my young students.

1.     Listening Maps:  Anytime you can use (or create) a listening map for students, they help in so many ways.  First, they keep students on task and all at the same place in the music.  They provide the visual students in your classroom with something to focus on while the music plays.  Also some maps may show the form, themes, instruments, and dynamics used in the piece.  This is a great way to encourage young kids to analyze the piece, noticing similarities and differences.  Other maps may show a story-like picture relevant to the piece.  I have even used some animated listening maps for The Nutcracker, and my students absolutely loved them!

2.     Using Graphical Scores:  If you’re not familiar with graphical scores, they are basically just videos that show the sound in different colored and sized bars that match the music.  I came across a few by searching with the added tag of “listening” or “graphical score.”  My students just love these.  It gives them another one of their five senses to use – not only their ears.  I love how the colors even show the different instrument families heard.  It can provide a great discussion with elementary students, connecting what they hear with what they see.  
     Here is one of my favorites for you to check out: 

3.     Adding Instruments:   Students love playing instruments, and I always try to provide them some time to play along with the composer’s pieces.  Depending on the piece, I will either plan to add certain instruments to match the form or to possibly match the instruments in the recording.  This obviously needs to be planned out ahead of time, however, there’s always those times where you have a brilliant idea on the spot!  My preference is to match the form with different instruments.  Here is one example that I recently used with Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca.  On the A section, I had tambourines play their rhythm, displayed on the board.  The B section belonged to the triangles, and in the C section, all played (tambourines, triangles, and rhythm sticks).  Then D section was only rhythm sticks.  This encourages listening as they must follow the piece and listen for their theme to come in again.  In this particular piece, it goes back and forth so many times.

4.     Listening Glyphs:  Listening glyphs are another great way to encourage meaningful listening to all types of music.  Basically, students listen to a piece of music, identify key attributes of the music, and color according to the directions.  I used these with my 3rd graders studying The Nutcracker in December.  It was a great review of dynamics, tempo, instruments, and form, and the kids enjoyed doing it!  If you’re interested in these, a quick search of ‘listening glyphs’ on will probably provide you with many choices.

5.     Movement:  Movement to Baroque, Classical, and Romantic music can come in a lot of forms.  Folk dancing, mirroring games, and scarf routines are just a few.  I have found a lot of great ideas by searching YouTube for videos, and I also really enjoy making up my own.
     Several years ago, I took a class with John Feierabend, and I was so inspired by his movement to classical music.  With my students, I call it mirror time – as compared to echo time (do it after me).  I love watching the kids’ faces as they watch me.  I will try to pass my teacher’s cap onto a student who would like to be the “mirror leader.”  I just tell them to make their hands and feet feel and be the music.  It also works well to do in pairs, with partners taking turns being the leader.  With this activity, I could tell that the leaders are really listening to the music.
     Folk dances work really well with short simple compositions or dances, such as Mozart’s 12 German Dances for Orchestra.  Use simple repetitive steps for Kindergarten and 1st grade, and then you can add a more complex step for your older students.
     I will normally wait to use these movement activities until after we’ve listened to the piece a few times with some of the other above methods, and they already have an aural grasp of it.

Listening to music is so important in music education and to young children.  I hope that you can benefit in some way from these ideas.  Feel free to e-mail me if you have any questions or comments.  Also I’d love to hear about how you encourage active listening in your music classroom.  Thanks for reading!