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Laurie Niles

Making Music Resonate

January 8, 2009 at 10:42 PM

My children just keep growing, and have moved well past first grade. But their first grade teacher, Mrs. Walker, has not forgotten the violinist mommy, and yesterday she tracked me down on the playground before school.

"You ready for Baroque music?" she asked, and I knew just what she meant. In addition to jumping through all the hoops to teach her classroom of 20 children "California state standards," this very ambitious teacher makes a yearly priority of introducing her first graders to classical music. "I need your help again!" she said.

Last week she made them listen to Gregorian chant as they practiced their ABC's, and this week she's going to play them recordings and read them books about Vivaldi, Handel, and Bach. In a few weeks she'll continue with classical composers: Mozart and Haydn, then on to romantic with Beethoven, as well as other composers and musicians, too! My own children wound up with a thick book of classical music from her class, complete with bios they'd written themselves in their wobbly first-grade print, and pictures of each composer that they'd colored.

"It just really brings it home for them when you come in, Mrs. Niles," she said. "Can you visit us this week?" It's not difficult to cajole me into preaching music to children; she knows the answer is always "Yes"! So this morning I brought my fiddle (yes, the Gagliano) to school along with my kids, and I dropped in on Mrs. Walker's class.

"Baroque music," I said to the munchkins, rosining up my bow as they sat "criss-cross apple sauce" on the big carpet.

"Baroque music!" they chimed back.

"Can any of you tell me what some people do with trees at Christmas time?" I asked. "What do they put on them?"

The hands went up: "Decorations!" "Ornaments!" "A star on top!" "Fake snow!" (Remember, we're in California)

"Exactly right. Some of those are the same words we use in Baroque music; it's music that has decorations and ornaments. Let me show you: here is the plain tree, with no decorations." I played the first 14 measures of Vivaldi's Concerto in a minor, the third movement. "Now, here's the same thing, with decorations:" I skipped to measure 30 and played the next section, the fancy version of the beginning. Ah, light bulbs everywhere, they get it!

"Did you hear the decorations?" They nodded.
"Did you hear the ornaments?" More big nods.
"The star on top? The fake snow?!!" They heard that, too!

"Okay I'm just joking about the fake snow, but you heard how that was fancier, right?" And they certainly did.

We continued with me playing random Baroque music and pointing out decorations and trills and bariolage, etc. I played the beginning of Bach's E major Partita and explained that it's written for just one violin, but to sound as if more than one person were playing. They closed their eyes and listened, to see if it sounded like more than one voice.

"Did you know, when Bach lived, there were no iPods?" They looked terribly alarmed. "What else do you suppose they didn't have?" The kids helped me compile a list: CD players, video games, cell phones...."Bath tubs!" piped up one child, quite seriously. "Hmmm," I said, without laughing. "They actually did have bathtubs. I don't think they used them as much."

Somehow in explaining how the sound comes out of the violin, I had the idea of having one volunteer touch the scroll of my violin, to feel how the wood physically vibrates when I play an open "A." Then, of course, they all wanted to feel the scroll vibrate, so they formed a line. One-by-one they came forward to touch the violin scroll as I played a note. "Can you feel that?" I asked each one. "Yes!" each said, with some surprise.

"You don't just hear music," I said. "When it's live, you can feel it. It's different from an iPod with earphones."

"Is it fun to play the violin?" asked one little boy from the back of the class.

"At first, it's hard," I said. "But then you get good at it, and it's fun. Imagine, 20 people playing together, you feel the vibrations from the violin next to you, and from your own violin, and you are all making music together. Yes, it can be very fun!"

From Michael Divino
Posted on January 9, 2009 at 12:50 AM

Teaching in action!


Bravo Laurie!

From Rosalind Porter
Posted on January 9, 2009 at 12:58 AM

Much more fun having a visit from Laurie and her Gagliano than doing normal lessons!  Sounds like a cool time was had by all!

From Alicia Nevriana
Posted on January 9, 2009 at 9:45 AM

well, all this time i don't understand how to play baroque. but when i read your post, i had to say that your post had enlightened me :)

thank you!

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 9, 2009 at 11:58 AM

Thanks for sharing this!  What a great teacher, and what a great thing for you to do for the kids! 

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on January 9, 2009 at 2:36 PM

I agree that you're doing a great thing for kids.  There is nothing like live classical music, and many kids don't hear it because concert tickets are so  expensive.  A free concert with a live musician who educates kids about music is really special.

From Royce Faina
Posted on January 9, 2009 at 3:37 PM

Boy, I would have loved to have sat in on this one! What a fabulous experience!

PS: I thought the reason they called it Baroque was because no one knew how to fix it?

From Bill DeFilippis
Posted on January 9, 2009 at 6:02 PM

A really heartwarming story to read, it does my heart good when I hear things like this. Most kids these days are so removed from classical music that other then movie references (a lot of kids who are now adults, who grew up in the 80's, will hear the "ode to joy' from Beethoven's 9th and say "that is the Die Hard Music" (snippets of it were used in that movie). I think it is especially important to get to the kids early, before they start being 'taught' that classical music is boring, old people's music, that has no relevance to today, that is for rich snobs or whatever. In my experience, young kids who are exposed to classical music learn not only to appreciate that, but all music. And given that music education in most schools is nonexistent or dismal (it usually consists of teaching kids cute songs to sing at winter and spring concerts) this may be the only way to do it. And I expect, with the rotten economic climate, that this is only going to get worse, since of course arts "don't matter"......

In any event, thanks for sharing, and if you talk to the teacher tell her that it may not win her much kudos  from her own school, but that others appreciate what she is  doing.

From Tess Z
Posted on January 9, 2009 at 7:15 PM

I think your whole story is just wonderful.  It's too bad that more musician's like yourself Laurie, don't volunteer their time and knowledge of music for the benefit of the kids and schools.

Music programs are suffering in schools but, do we have to stand idly by and let it happen?   We are always ready to complain and point our finger at someone else, but how many musicians in our communities are coming forward to teach the next generation...outside of private lessons?  People talk on this forum that classical music training is becoming a career only the rich can afford.  And to a certain extent that is true.  Middle and lower class families cannot pay for instruments and lessons when they are living paycheck to paycheck.  Kids are not exposed to classical music in their homes or even in most schools because orchestra programs have been cut.

We can all volunteer in our schools and make a difference.  In our school district, the school is full of volunteer adults and volunteer teens who are helping kids with extra reading and math.   Teacher assistants are no longer paid, we don't have the funds.   We have volunteers not only in the classrooms but in the library, computer lab, and the office as well.   Why not volunteer to teach kids about music too?

Kudos again to you Laurie.


From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on January 10, 2009 at 7:27 PM

Great flexibility! Congratulations and I'm sure the kids learn so much from people like you!


From BJ Berman
Posted on January 10, 2009 at 11:11 PM

Hi Laurie,

Good job.

I remember studying Ornaments in Bach with the incomparable Agi Jambor (Chopin Prize, 1937), and being more confused at the end than your elementary kids were at the beginning with a demo.

After all these years, I still don't know ifI would classify the fabulous Ludwig as Romantic, but rather occupying a category all by himself.

I don't know if the following idea has a place in your teaching or not, but you can decide that.

I have had a theory for many years now that the reason for reverb and other special effects in modern recording when we all know how dry the live sound is, is simply that the visual element is absent, and we are trying to make up for that with a more complex sound that reminds us of the mental image of the rooms we remember where we have heard (and seen) concerts.

What do you think of that theory, and where can we use it in teaching?


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