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Laurie Niles

June 17, 2004 at 6:57 AM

My daughter’s first-grade teacher, Mrs. Walker, has made a heroic effort to teach her class a unit on the history of Western Music, despite the lack of time after jumping through all the state-imposed hoops to teach reading and math.

On a recent morning I came to class at McKinley School here in Pasadena, Mrs. Walker started by reading a picture book on the life of Beethoven. Let’s just say it wasn’t much of a pretty picture for a class of six- and seven-year-olds: Beethoven’s father was an abusive alcoholic, his mother died when he was young, he had to take care of his siblings, he went deaf…It’s just misery piled on misery!

“So Beethoven,” Mrs. Walker said quite earnestly, “was a guy with issues!”

By the time I was ready to play, the kids were wearing mildly pained looks of bewilderment. I stood up and took a big breath. What to say?

“The important thing about Beethoven,” I said, “was actually the beautiful music he wrote for us.”

I had decided to introduce them to the little piece of Beethoven that first awakened me to the composer’s genius: the second movement from the Seventh Symphony. Of course, I was playing in a youth orchestra the first time I heard it; we were sight reading. I was stunned: first came that soft pulse from the basses and celli, then the celli move to a gently soaring melody as the second violins take over the pulse, then the firsts, until the entire orchestra is riding this incredible wave….

“It starts like a heartbeat,” I said, asking them to place a hand over their hearts and beat the rhythm with me. Then I played a bit of the second violin part, starting with that pulse. “See, then it echos here,” I said as I played. “Then we have this pretty melody, or song, that floats over everything.” They liked it quite a lot.

“But to really understand this music, you have to hear a symphony play it,” I said, digging out the CD. “I want you to close your eyes, and put your hand over your heart again and tap to the rhythm of it.” Then I started the second movement. Standing at the front of the class I could watch them all. A few were squirmy, but some…wow! One little girl in the front seemed lost in the music, her eyes shut, hand over her heart -- she was feeling it. Several other little girls were doing the same, and everyone was quite immersed. When I stopped the CD at the natural break in the middle of the movement, the teacher said, “Couldn’t we hear that whole movement?”

I had visited Mrs. Walker’s class several times over the past month, as they studied Machaut, Palestrina, Vivaldi, Handel, Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Incidentally, the kids wrote little biographies and drew pictures of each composer, which came home today in a folder.

This is an urban public school. They can promote music but they need our help. If a teacher ever asks you to come play for class, do it! Do it for the kids, for society, for music. They don’t need you to work up the Sibelius, either. They just need you to show them why this music is relevant.

For example, when the kids were studying Mozart, I simply played the first violin part from various movements of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Why that and not my Mozart concerto? Because most of them had heard Eine Kleine before, but they hadn’t made the connection that this was the Mozart they were studying in school. It’s important that they make that connection to understand the significance of a composer whose music has lasted some 200 years. It illustrated quite well some simple points I was making about Mozart, that his music tends toward the happy, that even his slow music sounds more like a walk in a garden than a sad song.

When they studied Vivaldi, I simply got out the Suzuki book. I showed them the theme from the A minor violin concerto, then I showed them the theme all dressed up fancy, as it came later. We talked about echos, and other Baroque effects. They understood.

It is important that we make people understand. The more people know, then learn to love our music, the more it will thrive. Let’s not forget to do our part to help.

From Fiddle Nerd
Posted on June 18, 2004 at 4:30 AM
What a wonderful blog, Laurie!!
Thanks, it made my day!
From Diane Roberts
Posted on June 19, 2004 at 6:17 PM
As a former music teacher in the public schools, I also applaud you for what you are doing. And, bravo to you for finding that connection to their eveyday lives (i.e. the heartbeat).

One of my jobs was in a junior high general music class in South Central Los Angeles (our inner city here). We had gang fights galore all day long.

So, for our opera unit I picked "Carmen" since there is alot of fighting in that one.

The kids loved it as I had them listen for key points in the opera as they acted it out.

They also liked the fact that Carmen worked in a cigarrete factory and was a gang leader.

The tension in her between two lovers also spoke to them, especially the girls.

After "Carmen" I tried "Lohengrin," but it failed majorly. I guess the students had difficuly relating to a swan boat..LOL.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on June 24, 2004 at 3:42 AM

You sound like a gifted teacher.

Thanks so much for writing this. Thanks for reminding us that we must transmit our love of music to kids for the knowledge, practice, and love of it to survive.

I'd like to do something similar to what you did. Do you have any recommendations on how I might go about it?


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