Beyond the Music Class: Expanding the Musical Influence of the Elementary School

"Often a single experience will open the young soul to music for a whole lifetime. This experience cannot be left to chance. It is the duty of the school to provide it."
  -Zoltán Kodály: Children's Choruses, 1929

A few miles from the University of Hartford there is a mid-sized, middle class suburban town with four public schools; a Pre K-3rd grade school, a 4th grade-6th grade school, a junior high for grades 7 and 8 and a high school. It is the Pre K-3rd grade school that has caught my attention-how a whole school, and especially a music teacher and principal, can take advantage of the many opportunities to open a young soul to music.

This week, as the buses arrive and students enter the building from 8:15 to 8:30 a.m., they are hearing Barber's "Adagio for Strings" playing through the intercom. Classes officially begin at 8:50 a.m., but until then, students will hear music from a variety of genres, most often from the masterpieces of classical literature. There are no pretenses about Mozart making the kids smarter, only a principal and faculty who want the students to encounter these important musical experiences. The same tape will be played every day for two weeks so the students have a chance to gain some familiarity with the pieces; many can be found singing or humming themes throughout the day.

During this card marking, the third grade students will come into the gym every Monday morning from 8:30 to 8:50. While the rest of the school is preparing for their day with classical music, these third grade students will be folk dancing with the music teacher. During the next card marking, a different grade will have their turn at morning dancing.

This week is the first Friday of the month, so the entire student body is assembled in the gym for the "All School Sing." Some of the songs are favorites from one of the grades; other songs are taught to the group en masse. Color transparencies of "Mommy Buy Me a China Doll" have been made and are projected on the wall as the music teacher sings the story to end the "sing."

Children in the youngest music grades are given an "Ask Me" sheet to take home once a week. This is a sheet of paper that is to be presented to the parents when the child gets home. "Ask me about my silly horse," was last week's sheet. On the sheet were the words to "The Horse Stood Around" and instructions for the parents to "Ask your son/daughter to teach you this song and the game that goes with it."

During library time the students are given the opportunity of borrowing from the Music Lending Library, which is housed in the main school library. The librarian and music teacher have assembled hanging plastic bags containing folksong picture books and accompanying cassette tapes, quality music videos, and other exemplary audio cassette tapes. Many of these have been experienced in the music classes; others are for extended discovery. Initially, funding for this program came from the PTA. Now, a portion of each year's school music budget is used to enhance the collection.

The "Parents as Teachers" program is once again in full swing. Designed for parents of children who are not yet of school age, the weekly meetings with educational specialists present activities that parents and children can share so as to help their children be ready for school by age five. As part of this program, parents and children (birth to age 5) are invited to attend music and movement classes twice a month. These classes are sometimes scheduled before or during the school day; other years the classes have been scheduled after the regular school day has ended. These lucky children will soon be musically ready for kindergarten.

In the autumn the first of two annual Family Folk Dances will occur in the gym on a Friday night. Children and their families will do play parties and dance Folk dances from around the world. This fall's dance is being held in conjunction with a school-wide spaghetti dinner. Although the dancing will continue from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m., the families will come and go as they take their shift attending the dinner.

During "Music in our Schools" month, one week is designated for parents to share their child's music class. Parents participate fully with their children in all of the activities that would normally occur, including active movement activities, pitch matching ones, call and response songs and play parties. This week-long musical celebration culminates in the second Family Folk Dance of the year.

In the spring, rather than spend many weeks rehearsing a few songs for a musical show, the children are learning country dances and songs to be shared during the May Day celebration. Parents and children gather on Thursday morning at 10:30 with blankets to sit on the hill behind the school and watch as each grade presents the dances and songs they have learned as part of their curriculum that year. All eagerly await the third grade, who have the annual honor of performing the May pole dance. Each year the final result elicits the same awed reaction from students and parents alike.

But the year of music isn't over. The music teacher has prepared a short tape of twenty to thirty songs for each grade-songs that they have learned during the year, with copies for every student. (Blank tapes are purchased in bulk from a tape distributor at a price of about fifty cents a piece and the recordings are duplicated on the district's high-speed tape duplicator *). Summer weeks will be filled with kindergarten children listening and singing "Frog in the Meadow" or "Oh My, No More Pie," while third grade students will hear on their tape, "Four Skaters" or "Jolly is the Miller." Parents eagerly look forward to the new tape their child will bring home, anticipating its contribution to the summer's family car trips. When the next school year begins, these students will be ready to continue where they left off, without needing a long period of musical reawakening.

All of this in addition to music twice a week for 30 minutes.

Any one of these ideas might serve as the "single experience" to open the young soul to music for life. This school is not leaving these experiences to chance but is taking seriously its duty to provide. I am especially proud that these fine ideas are in action at a school where the music teacher is my wife. I hope some of her ideas will inspire others as much as they inspire me.

* Obviously this was the most modern method in 1997.

Reprinted from the Fall 1997 issue of the Kodály Envoy.

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