Sometimes you have such a teachable moment and you just have to go with it. That’s what happened the other day during my class’s Active Listening time at snack. Each day my students and I listen to music – one piece per week. We listen, discuss and learn about music and how music is a parallel to so much we do in life and school.
For example, during this particular week, we were practicing listening for a variety of pitch in music and visualization. We listened to Little Fugue in g minor by J.S. Bach. I taught my student about how a fugue is built: one voice comes in at a time playing a motif and from there the voices intermingle together. As each voice comes in (soprano, alto, tenor and then bass) it is a if they are entering the party and once they are all there they seem to dance together creating harmony. It is a natural lesson in pitch as each voice S, A, T and B represents a different range of notes in music, soprano being the highest, bass the lowest and alto and tenor the mid ranges. But it was that idea of each voice entering the party that started us on visualization.
The piece we listened to, as we learned the pitch terminology, was arranged for four horns. The original score, however calls for Bach’s beloved instrument, the organ. After a few days of listening to the fugue played on horns, I brought in my recording of it on the organ. As soon as the organ’s first notes were heard, you could see in the students’ eyes, they were experiencing something different. After the piece ended, they shot up their hands and excitedly started to comment on how they visualized so many different things in the music.
Here is a playlist of 6 different versions of this fugue. It is quite interesting to listen through this variety of instrumentations.
Now, I realize it is close to Halloween, so this may be a huge factor in what they imagined, but their entire interpretation of the piece was turned to haunted houses and creepy ghouls. It was quite interesting to me to see how their visualizations changed simply because of the different instrumentation of the same piece.
So this is where I grasped onto an exciting teachable moment and asked the students to draw out their visualized concept of each version of the fugue. On one half of a piece of paper, they were to illustrate the setting they visualized when listening to the piece played by horns and on the other side, the setting of the piece played on an organ. Here are some examples of what they created:
As you can tell, I have some very talented artists this year, so doing this type of work is quite exciting, especially when they quickly ask to go to the art room to get special pencils to shade and sketch!
The best part is watching the students use these illustration they have created to write some very dynamic descriptive paragraphs.
One of the hardest transitions I find fourth grade writers doing is going from an essay that begins, “I will tell you about what I visualize as I listen to the fugue,” to an opening such as you will read shortly. I have found over the years of using music and visual art to help inspire writing, that when a young writer has a creative piece to keep going back to, they are more apt to write details and beautiful phrases in their work. This certainly happened during the couple of days we spend working on this project. I worked with many writers on their use of language to pull a reader into what they were writing.
These visual and music guideposts also act as something tangible I can refer to when prompting students to write more detailed pieces. For example, I can say to a student, “No, don’t tell me what your going to write about, just take me here,” pointing to their own illustration, “As you are standing, looking at this castle, what do you see, hear, smell and feel?” The students know these illustrations first hand. They created them, they added in every detail. They are fully capable of writing detailed descriptions.
Even one of my struggling writers was focused on this assignment. I think it was partly because he could write about zombies (a subject near and dear to him ), but also because he drew the illustration and could describe first hand what was in his picture.
Here are a couple of examples of writing from my students.
The haunted house is a very spooky, dark place to be near. The monsters smell slimy and gross. Their skin is crackly and rough. Their teeth are rotten and black and their clothes are ripped. Zombie breath flows through the air, rotting pumpkins. Watch your step because under the ground spirits lay where they rest in peace.
The castle is a very happy, wonderful place unlike the haunted house. Birds are chirping, the sun is shining. The grass flows through the breeze, pushing leaves across the plains. This is the place to be.”
The dark graveyard is a very scary place at night. The moonlight is the only light in the whole graveyard. Scary monsters and zombies fill the dirt ground. At night, it’s cold and smoky and there are dark clouds everywhere. The only thing you can smell is the smell of dead people and revenge. In the morning, sad people fill the graveyard. If I were you I wouldn’t come at night unless you want to be dead with the monsters.
The outside palace is a very beautiful place to be. There is a king outside and people playing pieces of beautiful music. Everywhere you look , you will see beautiful green bushes and trees. The sun is very hot and blinding. The palace behind the pathway is very beautiful. The windows and doors are so detailed. You could look at it for hours and still see something new. Blue skies and fluffy white clouds are the only thing you will see when you look up. I sometimes wish I could live in the palace with the king. Do you?”
I love how this project seems to come full circle. We start with music, move to visual art, and finally a written piece which brings us back to the student’s enhanced interpretation of the music they first heard.
There comes that time every so often, when you just need to go with your gut and do something that you know the students will love. When those moments happen, you have to trust it and do it. I never regret jumping on those opportunities. I only regret not doing it more!