One Piece: A World of Learning
Choral Applications for the NY Blueprint for Music Education
by Brian Hoskins, R&S Chair for Multicultural and Ethnic Perspectives
In a recent discussion with my fellow choral directors in the Renton School District, we discussed revising the current curriculum guide for the district music programs. I have often thought of, but have not followed through due to time constraints, on my fondness of the New York State “Blueprint” for music education.
I became familiar with this “Blueprint” while studying for my Master’s degree at New York University. I began looking through my research from NYU and found a paper I had written using the “Blueprint” as a guide. I’d like to share it with you here. In my opinion, this “Blueprint” employing six strands of music learning is still one of the more practical guides I have seen. It can be found here: http://schools.nyc.gov/offices/teachlearn/arts/Blueprints/MusicBP08.pdf.
I invite you to look over the guide and read how I was able to take a piece of choral music and fit it in to the strands. I use these strands as a guide in all my lessons, middle through high school. The ‘Blueprint” was updated in 2008, after I wrote this paper. However, the main themes remain present and the most important aspect of success, in the previous and current versions, resides in choosing ‘quality’ choral literature that can propel the ensemble into endless possibilities of learning.
This article also reflects the teaching of Dr. David Elliot and his book Music Matter: A Praxial Approach to Music Education. I am not going into detail about that book (and how it changed my teaching approach, philosophy and career), but I encourage you to give it a read as it unravels the layers of knowledge within a musical composition. These layers are shown through the lesson examples shown in the “Blueprint” strands.
Background and Set-Up:
The New York State “Blueprint” for instruction in the arts approaches music curriculum in six ‘strands’ that are guided by quality repertoire. These five strands are: 1) Music Making, 2) Music Literacy, 3) Making Connections, 4) Community and Cultural Resources, 5) Careers and Lifelong Learning and 6) Musical Wraparound. This article will deal with the first five strands in relation to choral music (the document has specific strands for general, choral and instrumental music). For each strand there are two to four essential skills. Each strand is divided into grade-level benchmarks for 2nd, 5th, 8th and 12th grades with progressively sophisticated concepts. I will be referring specifically to the 5th Grade benchmark level and only one or two concepts within the strand.
This article will be written with the following assumptions: 1) The students are a 5th Grade class of approximately 30 students. 2) The class is general music with an emphasis on choral singing. 3) The students are learning, and have learned ways, to use their voice as a musical instrument with appropriate technique and musicianship. 4) Students have a basic understanding of sight-reading using the Kodaly method. 5) Students can read and notate rhythmic patterns using stick notation. 6) Students have experience and knowledge about critical listening. 7) These are very general lesson suggestions that can be expanded and enhanced depending on time frame and interest.
Page, Nick. Fairest Lady (from “The Nursery Rhyme Cantata”). Published by Boosey and Hawkes, 1999.
In Fairest Lady, the composer uses the melody of London Bridge in the descant, but also based the main melodic line off the tune in retrograde inversion and in retrograde. The rhythmic and melodic harmony is based on the African mbube. The text is quoted from an old English lullaby, Golden Slumbers.
Strand I: Music Making
This strand includes: Vocal production, ensemble singing, small group/solo singing and improvising/creating.
Students can learn the piece London Bridge, along with the game, as part of a warm-up activity. The melodic line is step-wise and accessible through solfège. Many echo and simple sight-reading warm-up activities are possible that connect to the context of Fairest Lady.
Fairest Lady works well with ensemble singing since the melodic line is legato and often has sustained notes. The long notes, along with long phrases, provide the opportunity to learn vowel formation and blend while focusing on the dynamic changes within a musical phrase. As with any piece, students can sing the melodic line as a solo to demonstrate their knowledge of phrase and good vowel production. Small groups can be an effective way to hear students who need the extra support of classmates and also further explore blend within an ensemble. Solo/Ensemble singing is a great tool for the sound of the choir since other students can then listen critically and further understand, and see, concepts being taught.
There are wonderful improvisation and creative aspects that can be taught along with this piece. Fairest Lady is composed using the chord progression and rhythm of the South African mbube. The mbube rhythm is the basis of the American popular piece The Lion Sleeps Tonight. This piece can be taught separately and used as warm-up activity. Rhythmic and melodic ostinatos can be created to accompany The Lion Sleeps Tonight and students can explore the accompaniment of Fairest Lady to listen for the mbube rhythm and chord progression.
Strand II: Music Literacy
This strand includes: Responding imaginatively to the expressive qualities of musical works, listen critically through analyzing works of music, understand and apply written musical notation, understand and use music vocabulary.
Since Fairest Lady has many long phrases in the melodic line, students can create a motion or movement that expresses the ‘loud and soft’ of the phrase. Add the words forte and piano into the activity and before changing activities, ask the students to spell the new words and write them in their music journal. Also, perform the piece using contrasting dynamic levels. Questions the teacher should ask are: How does the character of the piece change when it is all forte or all piano? Keeping the text in mind, what should the dynamic level be? What should be the loudest part of the piece? Why?
Since the mbube is a major part of the piece, listen to a recording of The Lion Sleeps Tonight in its original form. Ask the students to write down the kind of instruments they hear and how many voices they think are singing. A recording of a traditional African mbube can be used to discover different ostinato patterns played. With guidance, help the students notate the simpler ostinatos in stick-notation and then use them in warm-ups or a performance of the mbube.
The melodic line of Fairest Lady is step-wise in motion. Students can practice sight-reading on solfège syllables given the key signature and a starting pitch. Begin this activity with solfège echoes and small excerpts of the melodic line in call and response.
After the students have learned the entire piece, record the students performing the work. Using the musical terms they have learned in class, have them write down a critical evaluation of the performance and offer their thoughts to the class. This is a good exercise to do before a performance or assessment.
Strand III: Making Connection
This strand includes understanding the role of music, applying musical concepts and skills learned.
Using the African mbube once again, the students can explore the role of percussion in African culture. Topics to explore could be: What other rhythms are used in African percussion and music? Are the African pieces used as part of a ceremony or traditional activity? What are the names of African percussion instruments and what are their origins? Are there other cultures, aside from African and American, that use a rhythm called mbube in their music?
Fairest Lady is a lullaby and can be used as a catalyst to explore other lullabies from various cultures. For example, students could compare this Old English lullaby with Duermete mi Nino, a traditional lullaby from the Dominican Republic, or Thula Mama Thula, a Zulu lullaby. Not only can these lullabies be discussed in terms of content and connections, but they can also be discussed in terms of musical similarities. Various topics can be discussed, such as: How does the melody reflect a lullaby? How are dynamics used? Are the lullabies similar or different in their form?
Using the student’s knowledge of ostinato and rhythmic notation, have them create an accompaniment to a lullaby that they know. If the students do not know a lullaby, they can write a short poem or story to set, rhythmically, to an ostinato accompaniment. Students can also be encouraged to write their own melody to their text and create an accompaniment, or do this activity in a small group.
Composition can be further explored by discussing retrograde and retrograde inversion techniques. Notate the piece London Bridge and apply these techniques to demonstrate how the composer of Fairest Lady wrote the melodic line. Have students create their own melody and apply the same techniques. With teacher guidance, students should be encouraged to discover other ways to manipulate a melodic line.
Strand IV: Community Resources
This strand includes: Collaborating with teaching artists, going out into the community, visiting and engaging in musical experiences with students from other schools, use of libraries and online resources.
Teachers can invite various ensembles to perform at their school. Percussion ensembles that play various African instruments would be a benefit to enhance student learning through this piece. Invite performers who will discuss and demonstrate the instruments to give the students a better understanding of how to correctly play the instrument. Also, students who have created their own piece should be encouraged to perform for the guest musicians so they can receive positive feedback and musical suggestions from a professional (other than their teacher).
Attend an arts/music festival and perform this piece. Briefly discuss the connection between Fairest Lady and the African mbube rhythm. As part of the performance, demonstrate the various musical activities this piece encouraged. Invite other grade levels to preview your performance before attending a festival. Encourage the younger students to get involved by teaching them the rhythms performed and inviting them to play the rhythms on the percussion instruments.
Research the mbube, the origins of London Bridge and the meaning of words such as retrograde, retrograde-inversion on the Internet. Students can be assigned to write small reports on various aspects of the musical ideas being studied. Offered in the “Blueprint” are www.kidsmusicweb.com and www.teach-nology.com.
Strand V: Careers in Music
This strand includes: Gain awareness of careers in music, set goals and career plans, appreciate music as a source of enjoyment and lifelong learning.
With ensembles and musicians performing at your school, have them discuss their career in music as well as perform. Students can gain an understanding of the commitment and knowledge they would need to pursue to become a professional musician. Discuss the making of African percussion instruments and the craft involved in creating the various drums and sounds.
Create a class project where students will perform in a special concert featuring their lullabies. Have the students take charge of the entire production: creating and invitation (publicity), organize staging, lighting, costumes, equipment needs, and reception. A great prelude to an activity such as this is to take students to a concert or recital and organize a meeting with various production members, stage manager, producers, etc. Have the students interview the professionals and create a list of necessities for their own concert.
I see built in assessment possibilities with the “Blueprint.” Students are continuously thinking critically about their music education. There are performance and in-class assessment opportunities provided by the various activities you have students do in solo or small group situations. Presentations in class, a short writing assignment, creating ostinato patterns or setting a text to a notated rhythm are but a few possibilities.
The activities mentioned here are only a few of the many possibilities offered within the “Blueprint.” The “Blueprint” allows for creativity and change for the teacher involved. By providing a basic guideline and benchmark, it gives the teacher direction while allowing for the teacher’s knowledge to find the appropriate means to teach their students.