Sunday, October 31, 2010

Week 8: Practicing for Our Performance

This week our kindergartners began practicing for their upcoming November 10th concert, which will feature the work they've been doing in their violin, general music and Humanities classes.  They are very excited about this concert because it acts as a rite of passage to playing the real violin.

I don't have much to add in the way of interesting pedagogical tips, other than the students love when I ask them to shout out in a Texas cowboy drawl:  "Look, mom and dad!  Here's my one-armed bow hold."  Then they proceed by putting one hand behind their back as they pick up the bow with the other and place their fingers in the right order and position:
  1. Thumb!
  2. Middle!
  3. Ring!
  4. Pointer!
  5. Pinkie perched on top!
As I hear anecdotes from parents, students and teachers concerning this violin program, I'm reminded again and again how important it is for every child to have the arts as part of his or her public education.
  • A mom shared with the kindergarten teacher that her son had been practicing bow hold with a stick over the weekend.  
  • A child-care provider noticed one of our students making Mr. Fox with his bow hand during his free-time
  • A student came up to me in the hall to tell me that he dreamed about playing violin.
  • Another parent shared that when she asks her son what was his favorite part of the day, he consistently responds,"Violin!"
With that said, I'd like to leave you with a YouTube video that Shelley Toon Hight, an incredible visual artist whom I had the pleasure to teach alongside, shared during last summer's Juneau Art Institute for public school teachers and administrators.  The video is called "Art, I Want You" and reminds me why the arts should be a right of every child.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Week 7: Twinkle, Twinkle and Up Like a Rocket!

Glacier Valley Kindergartners Practice Bow Hold with "Up Like a Rocket" Exercise
Before the Abreu Fellowship ended last June, Katie Wyatt of KidzNotes shared with me all of her Suzuki tips and exercises for young children.  One of them focused on building bow hold strength while maintaining correct hand position.  Here it is:

UP LIKE A ROCKET (sung to Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star)

Up like a rocket           (lift bow above head)
Down like the rain        (lower frog to belly button)
Back and forth            (move bow side to side)
Like a choo-choo train  

'Round and 'round         (circle bow around your head) 
Like a great big sun
Tap your head             (tap frog on your head)
Bumpy thumb              (show your thumb knuckle out)
Pinkie push-ups, 1,2,3     (tap your pinkie on bow 3 times)
Bow to your side,          (rest bow on shoulder)
Now watch me.            (watch to take a bow)

This week we put bow to paper violin by playing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.  To help support a continual "up, down" bow direction, we adapted Shelley Gill's Twinkle, Twinkle Northern Lights from her book The Alaska Mother Goose and created our own Alaskan version.  Here it is:

An Alaskan Twinkle
Twinkle, twinkle little starlight
Sparkling in the arctic clear night
Up above the mountain ridgeline
Blue-green ribbons dance with spruce pine
Twinkle, twinkle little starlight
Sparkling in the arctic clear night

Right now the kindergartners are singing the bow direction "down, up" rather than the lyrics, but our hope is to invite the audience to sing along with them as part of their finale piece for the concert. Here is a short video clip of the students "playing" Twinkle, Twinkle with Mr. Xia.  You see their kindergarten teacher, Miss Hickman, moving through the group helping individual students make adjustments.  I can't emphasize enough hoe important the collaboration between classroom teacher, music teacher and community artist has been to the success of our program.

One question I have for folks out there using paper violins as a pedagogical component of their strings program is, "Does theis process help students stick with the important, but oftentimes boring, steps needed to master bow and violin holding positions?

My initial thoughts are "Yes."  Each week the students see progress as we add another piece to their paper violin, which logically corresponds to a skill they mastered.  They seem willing to stay the course knowing that with each new skill, they are getting that much closer to the real thing.  I don't know if they'd have the same attitude and patience if the violin was handed to them the first day.  They might expect to be able to play right away and then become frustrated with the process when our eager kindergartners learn the realities behind playing an instrument.   Any thoughts out there?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Week 6: Peer Mentoring Begins at an Early Age

Ongo, one of Mr. Xia's "teaching assistants," helps MacKenzie with her bow hold
One of El Sistema's principles is "Place trust in our youth." In the nucleos throughout Venezuela, children are encouraged to become peer mentors at an early age.  Students take their responsibilities as class leaders and teachers quite seriously, and it's incredible to watch the respectful interaction that occurs when they are given the opportunity to help a fellow classmate.

As an El Sistema-inspired initiative, JAMM also supports peer mentoring at an early age.  We had our first opportunity this week continuing our work with the bow hold.  Mr. Xia explained that the bow hold is probably the most difficult skill to master - some will pick it up more quickly than others, but it's important that everyone learn it correctly.  The "perched pinkie" and bent thumb were usually the two culprits as Mr. Xia and I quickly traveled around the room checking each student's bow hold.  We are still using dowel rods as bows, but have added the BowMaster bow grip to help with finger placement.  Xia found them at a discounted price and plans to use them for the kindergartners' bows when they move to their real violins in early November.

As students "passed off" on their bow hold, they were promoted to teaching assistants who could travel throughout the room to help their classmates.  There was an excitement in the room as more students worked diligently at their bow hold to become an assistant while others enjoyed the undivided attention of one of their teaching classmates. 

This week also marked the last addition of parts to the paper violin:  strings and tailpiece!  Now we can begin rehearsing for our Paper Violin concert scheduled for the second week in November by putting bow to strings.  The song we practiced this week:  The Wheels on the Bus.  I watched the staff of La Rinconada use this song to build bow handling skills in the documentary, El Sistema.  I've also since learned that this song is used by many Suzuki teachers.  Here are the verses we plan to include and practiced this week:
  1. Wheels on the bus go 'round and 'round (bow circles the face)
  2. Windows on the bus go up and down (move frog above head and then back down to stomach)
  3. People on the bus go in and out (move bow toward and then away from body)
  4. Wipers on the bus go swish, swish, swish (rock bow back and forth like wipers using index and pinkie to push)
  5. Doors on the bus open and close (place bow on strings, bow away from body using only elbow and then bow towards ear)
  6. Horn on the bus goes beep, beep, beep (tap bow on strings for each "beep")
The kindergartners' favorite is the last verse, although you'd never guess with such intense concentration on their faces:

(left to right) Deep in concentration, kindergartners rehearse Wheels on the Bus for their upcoming concert

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Building Attention and Focus through Movement

Glacier Valley Kindergartners and 1st Graders "Flock" to Help Build Focus Skills through Movement
Glacier Valley Elementary School values collaboration among its staff and parents.  I am very fortunate to work with teachers who enjoy team teaching and integrating the arts across the curriculum.  In particular, the P.E. teacher, librarian and counselor often combine their classes on Fridays with the music classes to create a class called Humanities.  We began this class several years ago with the intermediate grades, which helped build community among all of the classes, as well as allow all four specialists to team and learn from each other. Topics covered during Humanities class include dancing, cooperative games, visual arts, conflict resolution and guest speakers from our community. 

This year we expanded our Humanities class to the Kindergarten and K/1 multi-age classes.  I think everyone thought we were crazy to try this with over 80 young students in the gym, but as you will see in the video clip below, it can be done!  The incredible teachers who make it happen are:
  • Rod Crist - Counselor
  • Susan Denton - Physical Education teacher
  • Susan Sielbach - Librarian and Arts Integration Specialist
This video documents an activity called "Flocking" which we learned from a dear friend and teaching artist, Ryan Conarro.  Ryan has worked with many of our teachers to integrate drama into the core curriculum, as well as directed the production of Tides and Tempest - a play that our 4th & 5th graders performed at the Kennedy Center when we won their National Creative Ticket award (given to only five schools in the nation each year).

Flocking is an incredible way to help build focus, attention, teamwork and eye-hand coordination through movement and supports the work we are doing with our kindergartners in their JAMM violin program.   Flocking is a technique in which a group moves in no set pattern or formation, but all perform the same movements simultaneously.   We describe the concept to the students as a flock of birds following the movements of its leader.  As we progress, students take on that lead role and can then pass the movement off to another student who is at the back or on either side of the "flock."  We haven't gotten that far in Humanities with our little ones, but Susie, Rod, Susan and I have begun passing off the lead position to each other and added scarves.  It's beautiful to watch.  Enjoy!

Thank you, Rod, Susan and Susie.  I look forward to our Humanities classes each Friday and learn so much from working with you!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Weeks 4 & 5: Making Bow Hold Exercises Interesting

Mrs. Steininger's Class Show "Mr. Fox" Bow Hold While Holding Their Violins
How do you make bow hold exercises engaging for children so that they'll practice them on their own?  Turn them into a story!

Storytelling is a very effective teaching strategy.  I witnessed Gustavo Dudamel use storytelling to help connect members of the National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela to a difficult passage that they were rehearsing in Mahler's Symphony No. 1 .  After hearing his story, the difference in their expressiveness was incredible.

The story I developed to help teach bow hold certainly is no masterpiece, but it draws attention to the important elements, especially those that students may overlook or find challenging.  

Here's the process of how our story evolved for bow hold:

Step 1:  Xia GuoHua shows me what the first step to a bow hold position looks like, emphasizing how difficult it is for kids to keep their thumb bent (see photo).  Then I imagine what it could become in a child's imagination.  I saw a fox!  Fortunately, there is an American folksong called Fox Went Out a Chilly Night that has many verses which translates into many opportunities for students to practice their bow hold position!

Step 2:  To introduce the hand position, I sing Fox Went Out a Chilly Night to the class.  Before doing so, I show them how to make a fox with their hand, specifically focusing on the position of the thumb, which now becomes the fox's jaw jutting out so that he can bring back enough kill to feed his family, "eight, nine ten."  His mouth also makes an "O" which the students will hear in the refrain of the song.

Here's the first verse:

The fox went out on a chilly night,
He prayed for the moon to give him light,
For he'd many miles to go that night,
Before he reached the town-o, town-o, town-o
He'd many miles to go that night,
Before he reached the town-o.
(For the rest of the lyrics)

Each time we sang "town-o" the students opened the fox's mouth, making sure his jaw made the "O" shape.  During the song, Mr. Xia moved throughout the group using a black marker to draw a line on each child's thumb and middle finger for exact placement of the "fox's mouth."  This was their first experience with bow hold position.  Instead of making it a rote exercise with no connection, we activated their imaginations: a fox with a song to accompany him! 

Step 3:   Xia would now like them to practice placing a pencil directly on the black line of the middle finger and then move thumb off and on the pencil several times, checking to be sure that the joint is bent.  Have them do this several times!  Arghh!! How are we going to make this interesting?

Answer:  Create a commercial for Mom or Dad, which we practiced over and over again to our young musicians' delight!  Here's the script:
  • The pencil became a bone (which came from the last verse of the song - "and the little ones chewed on the bones-o."
  • The student taps the pencil or "bone" against the line on his or her middle finger 16 times (to support rote counting beyond 10 in their classroom). At that point, the bone stays glued to the middle finger and the child exclaims, "It's not nice to tease Mr. Fox.  Let him have his bone."  And then the "fox gnaws on his bone" 16 times using his thumb lifting on and off the pencil.  
  • If the thumb joint is not extended, the child points to Mr. Fox and says, "Behave, Mr. Fox" and corrects their thumb position.
  • If the thumb joint is correctly bent, the child says, "Take a bow, Mr. Fox."
Step 4:  Mr. Xia would like our kindergartners to place the remaining fingers (in a specific order) on the pencil.  Again, creating a story helped make it meaningful for kids.  I explained that once the fox had his bone he needed to head home quickly to feed the rest of his family, so ....
  1. He clamps down on the bone with his other tooth (ring finger)
  2. Then he points ahead toward the direction home  (index finger)
  3. And, he keeps one ear perked, in case the farmer follows him (pinkie on top of pencil)
Kim Poole, who volunteers in the classroom, wrote this rhyme to help the kids remember the order:

The fox taught me how to hold my bow
He clamps it in his jaw just like so

He adds another tooth so it won't be loose
My pointer goes up toward the head of the goose
My pinkie curls up to make an ear
So if the farmer's coming he can hear

Step 6:  They are ready to move on to their dowel rod bows!  (see photo below)

Other exciting news this week:  we've added fingerboards and bridges to the paper violins.  We're almost there!
Jamal proudly models his bow hold!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Drumming as Part of the Curriculum

Kindergartners and 1st graders from Mrs. Peters' class pose with their drums donated by Remo and World Music Drumming
Thanks to the generous support of Remo Belli of Remo Drums and Will Schmid of World Music Drumming, JAMM was gifted enough drums to outfit an entire classroom of students. World Music Drumming embraces many of the principles of El Sistema, including group ensemble, use of complex repertoire and folk music from the Americas and joyful music-making.

This past summer I attended three World Music Drumming workshops while making my way back to Juneau. They included Drumming Up the Fun for 3 - 8 year old children, Kids Choir and Drums and Level 2 Drumming. All of the workshops gave me skills, strategies and lesson ideas to meaningfully integrate drumming into the music and school curriculum.

When students entered the music room this year, colorful drums lined the walls. We started out the year drumming to help build ensemble skills, introduce complementary rhythm patterns and reinforce active listening, while focusing on the lead drummer. Although I have drummed with my students in the past, this year was the first time I tried it with kindergartners and it was incredible to watch!

I use a strategy, I term "Levels." Each time the class accomplishes a skill, we move on to the next skill level. The important note here is that they must still maintain all of the previous skills mastered. In one 40-minute kindergarten class, the students reached Level 12!

Here's the process:
  • Level 1: Strong standing position (hands are initially behind their backs so they aren't tempted to hit the drums at random)
  • Level 2: Echoing the lyrics to a song (you first need to know how to sing the song before you can accompany it on the drums)
  • Level 3: Enunciating the lyrics (aka "Vegetable Mouth" - "words are much more exciting when you say them like crunchy vegetables in your mouth")
  • Level 4: Smiling while saying the lyrics
  • Level 5: Mouthing the words while teacher sings
  • Level 6: Singing the lyrics
  • Level 7: Sitting at the drum: edge of seat, flat feet, straight back and hands on your knees
  • Level 8: Clapping the last note of my drum rhythm (which signals stop) while I chant it
  • Level 9: Clapping the last note of my drum rhythm while I play it on the drum
  • Level 10: Placing that last note of my drum rhythm as a low tone on the middle of the drumming and "freezing."
  • Level 11: Practicing steady beat (not easy for these little guys!)
  • Level 12: Playing your own rhythms, but stopping together on the drum signal
After each skill, I announce, "Take a bow, you have reached Level __ in drumming." From singing to holding a steady beat, the class is determined to reach higher levels of skill mastery. By the end of the lesson, they had reached Level 12. These levels are not written in stone and are often created as the lesson evolves, which is why I sometimes forget the corresponding number (you'll see this in the video below). The students are pretty good at keeping tally. In the video, I've documented the Levels process in an edited version.  Also take note of the tremendous focus, control, eye-hand coordination and delayed gratification of these young musicians, as well as their pride and joy.