I recently had one of those delightful teacher moments when my third grade students suddenly seemed to be running the class by themselves and doing a better job of it than when I’m the one “in charge.” Every day, students arriving at music class ask me if they can do performances. Sometimes they’re students who are in piano lessons and want to practice a recital piece for an audience, but more often, they’re kids who don’t get lessons and don’t have instruments at home who just want to explore and have the experience of performing. On this particular day, we had two long, improvised performances on piano. After both were finished and the audience had applauded, the students started a discussion that compared and contrasted the musical elements they had heard, emotions they had felt, imagery and stories they had imagined in the music, and more. They talked to the performers to compare what was intended and what was communicated. With just a little training in performer and audience etiquette and some guided listening experience, my students have shown me that they are capable of taking ownership of their own learning, and empowering each other to be creative performers and thoughtful and respectfully opinionated audience members.
Some general guidelines can help students to feel comfortable and have a positive experience while performing in the classroom. We talk in class about the difference between music that’s learned before a performance and music that’s improvised. Students are welcome to do either type of performance, opening the opportunity to those who don’t have training in music outside of school.
Especially when improvising, students need to have an understanding of what is appropriate for the setting. Banging on drums as loud as possible might be expressive, but it could damage instruments and disrupt neighboring classes. A ten minute exploration on the piano can bring out some interesting musical ideas, but it’s not considerate to take up so much of a twenty-five minute class period when there is a lesson planned and others who want a turn to perform. Learning to manage performance time is thoughtful and good musicianship.
Students can also be taught performer behaviors, such as waiting for everyone’s attention before beginning, introducing the piece they will be playing or singing, and bowing during the applause. It’s important for students to understand why they do these behaviors. Waiting for attention ensures that everyone will be able to enjoy the performance, and shows the performer’s pride in what he or she is about to do. Introducing the piece provides the audience with information that can help them to follow and enjoy the performance. And bowing during applause is the performer’s way of saying thank you to the audience for their kindness and attention.
In order for a performance to be a performance, it needs an audience. In-class performances are opportunities for students to practice good etiquette in both roles. Just as with performer behaviors, students should have an understanding of why certain behaviors are expected of audience members. Quietly listening while facing the performer helps audience members get the most enjoyment out of the performance, is polite to others who are listening, and shows respect and support to the performer. Reacting to the music is natural and encouraging to the performer, but students can learn to react in a way that won’t distract the player.
Young students can have a lot of fun learning respectful audience behavior. Invite students to demonstrate both the right and the wrong ways to behave, practice behaviors during student performances, or take students to a concert outside of school. My students particularly enjoy the Class Notes video “What To Do at a Concert.”
Providing young students with guiding questions will help focus their listening skills. Prepare students to listen for general elements, such as how an instrument is used, and what feelings the music evokes. After a performance, ask more specific questions about what was just heard. Ask about techniques, musical elements, how the music made the students feel, what it made them think about, if it reminds them of any other music they have heard, etc. As students come to expect these kinds of questions, their listening becomes more focused and their answers become deeper. And when they do their own improvisations, their performances become more focused and musical because they know what their audience is listening for.
Dialogue with Performers
Creating a dialogue between performers and audience gives students an understanding of communicative purpose of music. When students in the audience offer an idea of a story they heard in the music, we can ask the performer if he or she had a story in mind while playing, and if it aligns with what members of the audience were thinking about. If it’s the same kind of story, we praise the performer for communicating it well; if it’s different, we celebrate how amazing it is that music can have different meanings for different people. We talk about specific elements of the performance that made up different parts of the story. Slow, smooth, high notes could sound like someone sleeping. Short, quiet notes could sound like a robber tiptoeing into a house. Students can come up with incredibly creative ideas whether listening to Mozart or an untrained first grader’s improvisation.
Elementary students are at a pivotal stage of development as musicians. Before they reach the stage when inhibitions could scare them away from trying out performing for an audience, give students in-class performance opportunities to bolster their confidence and the value they place on their own and others’ musical ideas.