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  • Sounds, Stories, and Symbols: Finding the Music in Me
    By Lori Custodero and Danette Littleton

    Grade Level: K-2

    The lessons presented here represent a developmental sequence for the teaching and learning of musical expression. Activities are designed to address the creative potential of children as they progress from early childhood through adolescence. Beginning with an awareness of self as music maker, children move to apprenticing with the various music making roles of the culture, and continue by critically examining music making as a function within larger social and historical contexts.

    In order to offer a clearly perceptible developmental framework regarding musical expression, we found it necessary to limit our focus to a single tradition of musical practice. Cognizant of the need for authentic interpretation, we chose western art music because of our own experience and knowledge in its many genres, styles, histories, and social meanings. It is our hope that these ideas stimulate similar teaching and learning strategies with music from additional cultures.

    Scope and Use of Activities
    Each activity is conceived as a "theme" over which teachers and children can create their own "variations" through repetition and extensions. Therefore, what we are providing may function either as a set of 4-6 single plans, or a curriculum for a semester.

    We planned these lessons for elementary and secondary general music teachers. In addition, these lessons may provide an excellent resource for elementary classroom teachers and secondary liberal arts teachers who wish to include music as an important part of their curriculum and instruction. We believe university students studying music and music education, and elementary and secondary education will find these lessons useful and thought provoking. To all, we hope to model the endless challenge, creative satisfaction, and joy of teaching and learning.

    Beginning with the body and adding use of the voice and musical instruments, these activities are meant to engage students in musical thinking through a curricular framework based upon imagination and interaction. Sounds are "heard" from a variety of video and audio recordings, are "created" with vocal and instrumental improvisation, and are "re-created" with singing games. Stories are "interpreted" from books and "invented" with the imagination. Symbols are enactive [body-based] representations as well as iconic figures; that is, graphic representations that look like the sound, such as an undulating descending line for a glissando.


    Students will:
    • Apply critical thinking skills regarding the relationship between music and feelings though listening, responding, and creating with their voices and musical instruments.

    • Respond with movement to a variety of musical moods.

    • Improvise with movement and with instruments to create a variety of musical moods.

    • Notate sounds they create as they develop an understanding between sound and symbol.

    • Initiate conducting gestures in musically expressive ways.

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    Integrating Curricula

    Reading, writing, vocabulary, drama, social studies

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    Materials and Preparation

    • CD/Cassette Player

    • Song: "If You're Happy and You Know it" in WEE SING: CHILDREN'S SONGS AND FINGER PLAYS by Pam Beall and Susan Nipp: Price Stern Sloan. (Also available in other collections.) Other favorite songs about feelings would be appropriate to substitute.

    • Books: TODAY I FEEL SILLY AND OTHER MOODS WHICH MAKE MY DAY by Jamie Lee Curtis, illustrated by Laura Cornell, Harper Collins. The MAESTRO PLAYS by Bill Martin, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky, Henry Holt.

    • Recordings: Selected Excerpts depicting emotional qualities. We suggest drawing from compellations such as CLASSICS FOR KIDS (RCA Victor, 09026-61489-2) which includes:

      • "March, Dance of the Flutes," and "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from the Nutcracker (Tchaikovsky)
      • "Hoedown" (Copland)
      • "The Swan" (Saint-Saens)
      • "The Girl with the Flaxen Hair" (Debussy, Orchestrated by Galway)

      or MAD ABOUT THE CLASSICS (Deutsche Grammophon, 439 513-2). Which includes:

      • "March of the Toreadors" (Bizet)
      • "Spring from the Four Seasons" (Vivaldi)
      • "William Tell Overture" (Rossini)
      • "In the Hall of the Mountain King" (Grieg)

    • Video excerpts for introducing orchestral musical instruments and conductors from PBS:
      • TUNE BUDDIES, GETTING TO KNOW THE INSTRUMENTST (available in overview version or separate in-depth looks at a family of instruments like woodwinds)


      • GREAT PERFORMANCE series


    • Musical Instruments: interesting sounding hand-held instruments like drums, shakers, triangles or finger cymbals, guiro, claves or woodblock, glockenspiels

    • Paper and pencils or crayons

    • A conductor's baton

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    Teaching Procedure

    Activity One: Hearing Feelings in Music

    1. Sing "If You're Happy and You Know it," or another favorite song about Feelings.

    2. Invite discussion about emotions, asking questions such as "What kinds of feelings did you have when you woke up this morning?" or "What makes you happy? Sad?" Angry? Joyful?"

    3. Music can make us feel happy or sad or angry or joyful or even scared! Play excerpts (we suggest some compilations above) and invite children to move to each example. You'll want to prepare your own movement ahead of time (the teacher can often function as the musical score) and model only as much as is necessary for children to feel comfortable inventing their own movement responses. Be sure the selections you choose represent a variety of textures, tempos, and orchestrations. Some possibilities:

      • "The Swan" from CARNIVAL OF THE ANIMALS (Saint-Saens)

      • "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from PEER GYNT (Grieg)

      • "Spring" from THE FOUR SEASONS (Vivaldi)

      After moving to one selection, ask about how the music made their bodies feel. Children may respond differently than you expect them to -- this activity provides a chance for teachers to observe children's thinking in new ways as they interpret sounds. In the movement and verbal responses to selections, there may be conflicting answers - this should be welcomed and will provide an opportunity to model honoring multiple perspectives.
    • Add additional recorded excerpts to identify emotions - we've had great experiences repeating this activity over several weeks, and even returning to it later in the year to see how interpretations may have changed.

    • View portions of the PBS Video: Mister Rogers: All About Music: Music and Feelings

    Activity Two: Creating Music from Feelings

    1. Read Jamie Lee Curtis' Book: TODAY I FEEL SILLY AND OTHER MOODS WHICH MAKE MY DAY. Use a dramatic voice, depicting each of the moods in a distinctive way.

    2. Review the moods from the reading (e.g., silly, grumpy, angry, excited, sad, joyful). Invite individual children to show a movement that might demonstrate that mood. Reread the book, and do the movements together.

    3. Instrument Exploration: choose 4-6 classroom instruments that represent different sound potentials such as drums, shakers, triangles or finger cymbals, guiro, claves or woodblock, glockenspiels for children to explore. You can facilitate the exploration in several ways (see Beyond the Lesson section). One simple way that engages children is to simply pass them around, each instrument starting in a different point (with a different child) in the circle, allowing them to explore the instruments. You may wish to say something like "Play with the instrument any way you'd like except in ways that might hurt it or one of your friends." Encourage acute observation to see how different people come up with different ways to play, and ask them to think about which moods they can make on the different instruments.

    4. Review the moods from the story once more, with the movements, this time making decisions about which instruments might depict the moods. Conveying to the group that everyone will get a turn, start with enough instruments for each mood and ask who would like to play the parts. Reread the story with instrumentalists playing, and the rest of the class moving to the sounds. Rotate the instrumentalist roles to other children until everyone has had a chance to be a part of the band.

    5. Choose one or a few of the movement/accompaniments to notate iconically, that is, so that it looks like what it sounds like. One example is a glissando, which might be depicted as descending undulating line. Avoid using representative references like happy faces or monsters - focus on the quality of the sound itself.

    6. Children draw their own iconic representations of a sound-mood and perform on an instrument (or multiple instruments) of their choice.

    7. Compile children's representations into a musical class version of the TODAY WE FEEL book. These can be copied and given to each child to take home and perform.
    • Extend movement/instrument-playing improvisations into a game. Three roles can be represented: one child or team who moves, another child or team of children who play instruments, and another team (or the rest of the class if using individual children) who either draw a visual representations of what the sound/movement looks like or guesses what emotion the other group is trying to depict. The choice of emotion to be moved/played could be initiated by either the mover(s) or player(s).

    • Children make their own individual TODAY I FEEL books.

    • Perform the TODAY WE FEEL book at a school program.

    • Leave TODAY I FEEL SILLY AND OTHER MOODS WHICH MAKE MY DAY along with instruments in a corner of the room for children to initiate their own play at an appropriate time in the day.

    Activity Three: The Maestro Plays: Interpreting Music with Feelings

    1. Introduce the notion of a performing group, focusing on the orchestra. Show excerpts from any of the videos listed in materials.

    2. Read THE MAESTRO PLAYS (by Bill Martin) using exaggerated vocal qualities. Make connections between the sound and the pictures (reviewing iconic notation concept from above). Point out names of instruments pictured such as the bass drum, violin, tuba, etc.

    3. Invite children to improvise with their voices (and with body percussion) by choosing several adjectives from the Maestro book, such as "singingly," wildly," or "trippingly." "What would "reachingly" sound like?"

    4. Tell a story about the Maestro's baton and how it has magic powers - when it is pointed at a musician, they know how to play or sing the music! Demonstrate by reminding students that they have shown they can make different sounds with their voices and bodies, and that you will lead them with the baton. Model simple conducting gestures to indicate start and stop, faster and slower, sustained and articulated sounds as children perform.

    5. Give each child a turn to conduct the class "orchestra."

    6. Take opportunities to apply musical vocabulary such as fast, slow, short, long, etc. to children's interpretations
    • Have class sing a familiar song under the baton of a student conductor.

    • Leave the book and baton in a special play corner of the classroom for children to play with on their own.

    Activity Four: The Maestro on Tape: Observing Others' Interpretations

    1. Show excerpts from any of the videos listed above.

    2. Discuss the role of the conductor - how did he/she make the sounds change? What kind of moods do you think the conductor was trying to express in the music?
    Extensions: Leave the baton and selected excerpts from Activity One in a "listening corner" for children to go to on their own and practice conducting the orchestra

    Activity Five: Music Tells a Story - Synthesis Activity

    Students create their own stories about feelings. This could be a "day in the life" of a character or themselves, adding movement and instrumental accompaniment. Can be done as small group activity (perhaps with 2nd grade, or with parent helpers overseeing groups in younger grades) or collectively as a class. The final product could serve as a performance for a school assembly, and/or could be videotaped for reflection.

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    Assessment Recommendations

    1. Observe students' movements and musical improvisations. Ask if behaviors
      1. Demonstrate a range of expression?
      2. Reflect original thinking?
      3. Represent stylistic variation?
      4. Sustain musical thought through the complete musical unit?

    2. Record (audio and video) student performances of learned and improvisatory material. Ask if student performances
      1. Demonstrate a range expression?
      2. Reflect original thinking?
      3. Represent stylistic variation?
      4. Sustain musical thought through the complete musical unit?

    3. Collect paper-based student work including notated pages from TODAY I FEEL and other stories and written reports. Ask if students' use of musical symbols and language
      1. Demonstrate a range expression?
      2. Reflect original thinking?
      3. Represent the musical experience or topic matter authentically?

    4. Provide time for student reflections on their own experiences. Gather response to questions such as
      1. How did it feel to .....?
      2. The best part of music was when we (I) .....I liked that because ...
      3. I would like to learn .....

    5. Combine these four sources of assessment to form a portfolio. Instruct students to critique their own progress based on material in the portfolio at the end of a unit, semester, or school year.

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    Extension/Adaptation Ideas

    1. Suggest starting each music session with instrument exploration in the following way: Set up room with several areas for exploring classroom instruments - shakers, guiros, glockenspiels, small drums, finger cymbals and/or triangles, tambourines, etc. The general rule should be that there are more instruments than there are children. Provide a nonverbal cur, such as the playing of a special instrument or singing a song, to indicate it's time to stop the exploration and resume group activity. Allow at least 8-12 minutes.

    2. Develop inter-age connections by establishing a relationship with an upper grade performance group. The high school concert band could work together on arrangements of children's songs (like "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star") and the lower grades could take a field trip to watch the band rehearse and could be invited to be guest conductors!

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    National Standards

    1. Content Standard: Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music
      Achievement Standard:
      b. sing expressively, with appropriate dynamics, phrasing, and interpretation
      c. sing in groups, blending vocal timbres, matching dynamic levels, and responding to the cues of a conductor

    2. Content Standard: Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music
      Achievement Standard:
      a. perform on pitch, in rhythm, with appropriate dynamics and timbre, and maintain a steady tempo
      b. perform easy rhythmic, melodic, and chordal patterns accurately and independently on rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic *classroom instruments
      c. perform expressively a varied repertoire of music representing diverse genres and styles
      e. perform in groups, blending instrumental timbres, matching dynamic levels, and responding to the cues of a conductor

    3. Content Standard: Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments
      Achievement Standard:
      d. Students improvise short songs and instrumental pieces, using a variety of sound sources, including traditional sounds, nontraditional sounds available in the classroom, body sounds, and sounds produced by electronic means

    4. Content Standard: Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines
      Achievement Standard:
      Students create and arrange music to accompany readings or dramatizations
      Students use a variety of sound sources when composing

    5. Content Standard: Reading and notating music
      Achievement Standard:
      a. Students identify symbols and traditional terms referring to dynamics, tempo, and articulation and interpret them correctly when performing

    6. Content Standard: Listening to, analyzing, and describing music
      Achievement Standard:
      c. Students use appropriate terminology in explaining music, music notation, music instruments and voices, and music performances
      e. Students respond through purposeful movement to selected prominent music characteristics or to specific music events while listening to music

    7. Content Standard: Evaluating music and music performances
      Achievement Standard:
      a. devise criteria for evaluating performances and compositions
      b. explain, using appropriate music terminology, their personal preferences for specific musical works and styles

    8. Content Standard: Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts
      Achievement Standard:
      b. Students identify ways in which the principles and subject matter of other disciplines taught in the school are interrelated with those of music

    9. Content Standard: Understanding music in relation to history and culture
      Achievement Standard:
      c. Students identify various uses of music in their daily experiences and describe characteristics that make certain music suitable for each use
      d. identify and describe roles of musicians in various music settings

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    PBS videotapes from the series GREAT PERFORMANCES. To order call (800) 336-1917.

    THE INCREDIBLE FARKLE MCBRIDE, by John Lithgow, illustrated by C.F. Payne, Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2000.

    SONE AND DANCE MAN, by Karen Ackerman, illustrated by Stephen Gammell Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.

    THE BOOK OF RHYTHMS, by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Matt Wawiorka, Introduction by Wynton Marsalis, afterword by Robert G. O'Meally, Oxford University Press,1995.

    JONATHAN AND HIS MOMMY, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Michael Hays, Little, Brown, and Company, 1992.

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    About the Authors

    Dr. Lori Custodero
    Dr. Custodero is an Assistant Professor of Music and Music Education at Teachers College, Columbia University has established an Early Childhood Music concentration that integrates pedagogy and research though both theory and practice. Over twenty years experience with young children, parents, and teachers in a variety of musical settings has informed her work - she continues these interactions at the Rita Gold Center for Early Childhood on campus. Her research on musical experience has focused on children from infancy through preadolescence, and addresses issues of musical challenge, engagement, and meaning. She is currently working on the Parents' Use of Music with Infants Survey study, which involves 2250 interviews with parents across the country. Dr. Custodero serves as the U.S. representative on the International Society for Music Education's Commission for Early Childhood and is former chair of research groups for both the American Orff-Schulwerk Association and Music Educators National Conference. An active participant in national and international psychology and music education conferences, recent publications include "Observing Flow in Young Children's Music Learning" (GENERAL MUSIC TODAY), "Context and Discovery: Rethinking the Nature of Creativity" (THE ORFF ECHO), and "Music for Everyone: Creating Contexts of Possibility in Early Childhood Education" (EARLY CHILDHOOD CONNECTIONS).

    Dr. Danette Littleton
    Musical training in piano, voice, and conducting led Dr. Littleton to an academic career in music and music education with professorships in the USA and Canada. As a university professor and educational consultant, she has designed music and arts education programs funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, Head Start, and the Getty Foundation, conducted professional development workshops for teachers and artists supported by the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning in the Arts, Tennessee Department of Education, and Georgia Council for the Arts, and created integrated music, visual art, drama, and social sciences curricula for students from preschool through graduate school. Dr. Littleton has worked in radio and television as a writer and on-air performer of music programs for children, directed children's choirs, published works on music education, and made presentations at conferences and universities in the USA, Canada, Japan, Korea, Sweden, and South Africa. Her interests in music and the performing arts are expressed through consulting with arts organizations, teaching young children, and writing about the emergence of musicality. Her area of expertise concerns the relationship between music learning and play during infancy and early childhood when the urge to play and learn is most fervent.

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