A student who recently transferred into my school approached me after music class and asked, “Do we sing in this class?” She joined our school just after the winter concert. Without the pressure of an upcoming concert, I’ve been enjoying teaching lessons focused on participating in music without performing it. Actively engaging in music in ways in which the participant isn’t making sound can provide young students with alternative ways to connect with our content. And my students seem to be enjoying it, too.
Conducting is an interactive activity that helps students explore a variety of music concepts, and it’s something that young students really enjoy. As part of their study of meter, my third through fifth grade students have all been learning to conduct at different levels of complexity. The students made a list of elements that can be shown in conducting, such as meter, tempo, dynamics, and who should and shouldn’t be playing. We practiced basic beat patterns, changing the speed, showing dynamics with gesture size, and simple cueing. Students watched the Class Notes video “What Does a Conductor Do?” (see video below), conducted recordings together, followed my conducting while playing the beat on basic classroom percussion instruments, and took turns conducting small groups of classmates.
The students took their leadership roles seriously and were impressed by their power to change the sound of others’ instruments without saying a word. Student conductors are removed from the technical challenges of producing musical sound themselves, yet they’re able to explore and affect elements of music. They can find a new perspective on music and how it works through “playing” an ensemble as a conductor.
Dancing and Movement
Dance is a natural accompaniment to many types of music, and movement can be used to help students grasp musical concepts, too. Primary students enjoy finding ways to use their bodies to demonstrate musical concepts that they hear, such as pitch, dynamics, tempo, beat, articulation, note length, etc. Movement can also be used to direct music. For example, my first graders sometimes volunteer to lead vocal warm-ups by showing high and low movements that the other students mirror with the pitch of their voices.
While it’s important for elementary students to learn the technical skills to sing and play instruments, their musical creativity should be fostered, too. For some young students, managing the technical aspects of producing musical sound can distract them from the creative aspects. Incorporating activities that allow students to express musical creativity without focusing on technique can help to make them into more thoughtful and innovative musicians once they have gained more vocal and instrumental skills.
So many pieces of music are composed to tell a story, and those that weren’t can still inspire listeners to imagine their own stories. My students have been learning about music in opera and ballet recently–two genres that involve collaboration between multiple art forms to tell a story. Before telling the students the stories that inspired the pieces we were learning about, I had them imagine their own stories to accompany the music. They told their stories by drawing comic strips showing emotions, actions, and characters that reflected what they heard. Visual art and creative writing aren’t dependent on time like music is, but the students created their comic strips as they listened, so their stories unfolded with the music. They participated in music as it was happening, expressing their imaginative ideas through their artwork and writing. Their stories were amazingly creative. They varied widely in some ways, but were remarkably similar in others, demonstrating how music can create a common experience among listeners or touch people very differently.
I assured the new student who asked if we sing in music class that we do. But it’s important for elementary students to experience, create, and participate in music in as many ways as possible, whether they are making the musical sounds themselves, or engaging in music in another way. General music teachers teach students with a variety of learning styles, abilities, and experiences; the more ways in which we can expose them to music, the more likely that one of those experiences will be the one that sparks a thoughtful and creative interest in music that could last a lifetime.