My daughter, 3 years old, is crazy about favorites. I mean crazy in the sense that she walks around endlessly asking me what my favorites are about Everything. All the time.
“Yes or No. Is that your favorite? Yes or No?” she asks, and if an answer isn’t forthcoming in a nanosecond, she repeats herself. “Yes or No, I said, Mommy. Is that your favorite? Yes or No?” And then, because I understand the definition of favorite as preferring one over another, I think about it. I ponder my choice, thinking about which one actually is my favorite, because really, isn’t she just trying to learn more about me? Doesn’t she want to know what I really think? Isn’t she trying to relate to me and know me better and don’t I want to foster that kind of thing?
So, I think about it. I tell her that yes, I think G just might be my favorite letter. After all, her name starts with G and so does God and about a million other words that I couldn’t possibly do without. And she calmly tells me all about the letter W being her favorite, but so are T, J, and L, with X, B and D making an appearance as “mostly my favorites,” but really “all the letters are all favorites. Yes, all favorites.” That’s when I start thinking about a lesson in understanding the meaning of the word favorite being in order.
When it comes to music, she has a long line-up of favorite songs and composers; currently Seiji Ozawa and Leonard Bernstein top the list as favored conductors. With a composer for a father and frequent attendance at chorale rehearsals and performances, much of her days are immersed in music. She almost never listens to music without moving. Sometimes in earnest, sometimes just a little toe-tapping or finger wiggling as she does something else. But she’s always moving. She can pick out the different instruments playing in different pieces, but more than that she talks about what is happening in the music. Sometimes it is story-like and her leaping and dancing take on specific, determined movements. Sometimes she talks more about emotions or feelings and her dancing is less precise and more emotive. She loves music. She listens to music. She hears it. Obviously. I took for granted that all children do.
I have children aged 4-6 in my kindergarten class. We sing a lot during our mornings. But I was surprised when we listened to musical selections for composer study. It was almost as if most of the children didn’t know what to do. I expected them to have a lot to say about what they were hearing. I expected they would want to move. But most of them didn’t. I wondered about that.
Had they not been exposed to music much previously? I found that hard to believe. It’s almost impossible to go anywhere without hearing music. Our satellite and car radios are preset to our favorite stations. It pops up on our screens. Music is readily available at home. We hear it in every store, every restaurant, and in our town, music is piped outside every business on Main Street. I began to wonder if music for them had become like wallpaper. It’s in the background of our lives and we almost don’t notice it anymore. Were they being unintentionally trained to not listen to music sometimes?
I’m not sure. It may be a number of reasons, but I found some things helpful in scaffolding the little ones in my classes to purposefully, attentively, joyfully listen to music. Henry Riding, in a lecture on music instruction for children given at the Wanstead Branch of the P.N.E.U. states, All should be taught to understand how to listen to music, and this early training – be it ever so little – will help everyone to use ears more intelligently. To be really interested in anything is the most refreshing thing in the world, and Music, physically, morally and mentally, is all powerful in this way.
Almost all of the instruction in our kindergarten finds its beginning in story. And so with listening to music. We began with songs (or parts of songs) which clearly portray a story or bring vivid images to mind, for example, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, Jessel’s Parade of the Tin Soldiers, or Copeland’s Billy the Kid: Gun Battle. (I should say that this is not an article on How To Do A Composer Study, but rather, what worked for me in terms of scaffolding children in order to do Composer Study.)
To begin at the beginning we started with songs which had corresponding pictures of great art to accompany them. Can You Hear It?, a book by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, pairs paintings in their collection with great musical selections. Showing the children the paintings as we first listened to the songs gave them the idea that there was something they could imagine in their mind’s eye as they listened. As we listened attentively they began to develop the ability to notice the different sounds of the different instruments and how they interacted with one another during the course of the song. After listening (without talking) the children would share their thoughts – what they heard, what they noticed, what they imagined, what the song made them feel, think about.
Then we listened to the song again. This time the children were free to get up and move about, responding to the music. One child almost always stays seated and closes her eyes. When a friend asked if she was going to get up and dance, she replied, “Shhh. I am listening with my eyes.” Perfect!
Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights from Romeo and Juliet, age 5
At this point we get out our music journals and respond in picture to the song.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, age 4
Once the children were comfortable with this, we began to listen to songs that were still rich in imagery, but I did not show them a picture as we listened – they provided the image using their own imagination. They loved to hear how their ideas differed or were similar to those of their classmates. Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals was one of their favorites to listen to. As their attention and discernment increased so did the length of selections we listened to. The children begged to hear Peter and the Wolf over and over again. (We enjoy the version conducted by Claudio Abbado and narrated by Sting.)
Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals (Lion), age 6
During our times of free play indoors or clean up time, the children began to recognize some of the songs that were playing on the cd player. Music was becoming less like wallpaper and more and more a delight and an integral part of their day. As a matter of fact, one day as we were getting ready to go home, I was playing Saint-Saens, and one of the children said, “Oh, listen! It’s our friend the Swan!”
© 2014 by Rebekah Brown Hierholzer