Monthly Archives: June 2016

Playfulness Is an Attitude: A Practice That Revitalizes Teaching and Learning

Peggy D. BennettBy Peggy D. Bennett
Professor Emerita of Music Education at the Conservatory of Music at Oberlin College

With so many restrictions, constrictions, and curricular demands made of educators, your classes and lessons can seem not your own. It can feel as if your aliveness in your classroom has been systematically eroded. And, if you feel depleted of vitality, your students may feel that also. Reviving the passion and enjoyment in teaching and learning is key to offering your best teaching to your students. And, I believe that imaginative playfulness is an extraordinarily effective way to revitalize your energy, your passion, and your enJOYment for teaching.

Playfulness is an attitude. It is a twinkle in the eye and an open, encouraging (sometimes smiling) face to accompany open-ended questions: “I wonder what would happen if …” “Describe what you see …” It is a loosening of rules in order to welcome spontaneity and surprise. Playfulness is the tapping of imaginations as students contribute images and ideas for a rhyme, song, or instrumental recording. It is inventing ways to elicit imaginations and verbalizations as we lead children to study and perform music. It is demonstrating the inflected speech, conversational curiosity, and spontaneous delight that we would like to see in our students as well as ourselves. In short, playfulness can make music come alive for both children and teachers.

To play with nursery rhymes, consider asking these kinds of questions: “Why did that mouse run all the way up to the top of the grandfather clock?” “When the mouse looked down from the top of the clock, what did it see?” Questions such as these help prepare children to create a scene from their own imaginations as they explore the nursery rhyme “Hickory Dickory Dock.” Children can also be “plopped” into the story by giving them a first person voice as the scene unfolds: “Brandon, you are the little mouse. What caused you to run all the way up to the top of that clock?” “Katie mouse, when you looked down to the floor and spotted that cat, were you worried? Why not? How did you know that cat?”

Imaginative play with music masterworks helps children embrace them as beloved treasures and pave the way for listening again and again. Floating down the Moldau River with their friends on a beautiful boat and stopping along the way to describe what they see on the riverbanks can keep children engaged in “performing” Smetana’s symphonic poem about that river. “Oh, my goodness. Look at that crowd of people over there near the Moldau River. What do you think they are doing?” As Americans in Paris with the teacher as the Tour Guide, children stop when Gershwin’s music pauses and the guide tells them about a famous Paris bakery that makes delicious food. “What will you buy when we go into that bakery? … Oh, what kind of cake is your favorite?” The Americans in Paris can also encounter the wild Paris traffic as they try to cross a busy street with very fast drivers, drivers who are also amazingly safe and skillful because they rarely cause a collision.

Tapping into children’s imaginations through playful questions and story-making creates a unique experience with a song, rhyme, or masterwork. Stories give songs, rhymes, and instrumental works meaningful context, especially when the story is created (or partially created) by the children. The images and stories your students create are uniquely theirs for that song. Singing “Skip to My Lou” with “little red wagon painted blue,” one class may decide that the red wagon was painted blue because they didn’t have any more red paint. Another class may decide they painted the red wagon because blue is their favorite color. In answer to “Where are you taking your newly painted wagon?” Joshua may answer “to the store to get some candy.” Kaeli may answer “to my friend’s house so we can take our dolls for a ride.”

Follow-up questions and comments are especially important for energizing imaginative play. To follow up with Joshua’s trip to the candy store, you might ask “What is your favorite candy? … Oh, I like those, too!” “Do you plan to share it with anyone when you get home? … Is it your sister’s favorite candy, too?” “How much do you think it will cost? … That seems like a bargain to me!” With Kaeli, you might continue with “What is the name of your doll? … What an interesting name!” “Where did you get your doll? … Wasn’t that a nice birthday surprise!” “Where will you take your dolls in your wagon? … Be sure to be safe and watch for traffic as you take a trip around your neighborhood.” Frequently interspersing story-making with repeating the song, rhyme, or recording is critical to these questions energizing rather than bogging down the pace of the lesson.

Playfulness does not necessarily involve playing a “game.” But, when playfulness sets the tone for the plans we make, the questions we ask, the inviting facial expressions we display, the trust we show in venturing into a new way of interacting, and the spontaneous decisions we make based on students’ verbal, physical, and musical responses, teachers and students can regain vitality, their sense of liveliness for learning and teaching. And, when we infuse a song with context of meaning by giving it an imaginative story, we sing the song with meaning: we sing it more musically.

You may be wondering how you will find the time to be playful with music activities, given your schedule demands. My experience with infusing imaginative play into songs, rhymes, and classics has convinced me that a brief investment of story-making can transform our experience with the evolving study of the music. I most often hear an energized expressiveness in singing, speaking, and moving as a consequence of children’s creative responses to my open-ended questions. And, when I hear expressive, fluent singing and speaking of songs and rhymes, and see energized, sensitive movement to recordings, I know that we are making music musically.

Activities cited here are published by Alfred Music and may be found in:

Bennett, P.D. (2012). Playing with the Classics: Music Masterworks for Children, Volume 2.

Bennett, P.D. (2011). Playing with the Classics: Music Masterworks for Children, Volume 1.

Bennett, P.D. (2010). RhymePlay: Playing with Children and Mother Goose.

Activities may also be seen at SongWorks for Children: A Video Library of Children Making Music

Let’s Duet!

Jeanine M. JacobsonBy Gayle Kowalchyk and E. L. Lancaster

Playing the piano can be a lonely activity. Students typically have a private lesson each week and then must practice by themselves at home until the next lesson. We once interviewed a transfer student whose mother asked, “Is there any way you can take piano lessons without having to practice?” A closer look at the student’s after-school schedule revealed the real nature of the mother’s question: Her daughter was involved in dancing, cheerleading, and competitive diving. Every time she had to “practice” these sports, she was with a group of her friends. Piano practice simply was going to be “no fun” because she would have to practice by herself. Therefore, could she just skip the “practicing” part of the whole deal?

In situations like this, piano duets can be a real “pupil saver” and “lesson saver.” In addition to developing musicianship and ensemble performance skills, duets also increase our students’ sight-reading abilities, musical understanding, rhythmic awareness, and listening skills. And perhaps, most importantly, they provide a social outlet for students.

We are big believers in the benefits of piano duets in the teaching curriculum. A long-standing tradition in our studio was that February was Ensemble Month. Each year, after the winter holiday break, we assigned every student a duet. This created a “kick start” to the New Year. During the months of January and February, students received three private lessons and one group lesson each month. The private lessons were used to hone their individual duet parts, and the group lessons provided the opportunity for the duet partners to rehearse together. Finally, at the end of February, a duet performance class was held where the students could show off their ensemble and musical skills with one another.

The music written for piano duet (one piano, four hands) is extremely diverse and ranges in difficulty from beginner to concert artist. It includes music written for pedagogical purposes, music for social occasions (especially popular in the 19th century when pianos outnumbered bathtubs in homes), concert pieces, and transcriptions. The first known keyboard duets were written well before the piano was invented!

Bringing ensemble playing into the lesson is as easy as opening up the first level of the method book. Today’s educational composers understand the benefits of ensemble playing and often incorporate teacher duets into the lesson book at the beginning levels. From the very first lesson, Premier Piano Course provides an optional teacher duet for every piece in the Lesson Book. In addition to creating a steady rhythmic background, the teacher duets supply harmony and a variety of music styles so that the student’s ear is developed from the beginning as well.

As students progress, however, they can experience the joy of playing duets with their peers. Finding easy-level duets that with equally difficult primo and secondo parts can be hard. Keeping this in mind, we asked eight of America’s favorite supplementary composers to write easy duets that begin at the 1B level in Premier Piano Course. Each level contains music by Dennis Alexander, Melody Bober, Tom Gerou, Carol Matz, Martha Mier, Wynn-Anne Rossi, Mike Springer, and Robert Vandall. You can imagine that with this variety of composers, there is a wide range of styles in each volume as well. From lyrical ballades to jazzy, toe-tapping pieces, these books have it all and are now available in Levels 1B, 2A, 2B, 3, and 4.

“Switcheroo Boogie” by Melody Bober from Duet 1B is a fun boogie-woogie piece. Not only will audiences enjoy its infectious style, but they will be delighted to see that the players trade places as they are playing the duet! Preparing the “switcheroo” carefully is critical to its execution and the success of the performance.

In measure 21 of both parts, the performers begin to move. At this measure, the primo player stands up and circles behind the bench. As the primo player is doing this, the secondo player is moving up the bench while playing measures 21-24. Each player must be in his/her new place by measure 25! It is helpful to mark this measure with a red arrow so that their eyes can find the new starting place easily. Also, choosing an appropriate tempo is crucial to executing this part of the piece. While it is marked “Lively,” a tempo that is too fast will make it difficult for the primo player to get up and around the bench in time to be seated for measure 25. (See attached examples.)

Switcheroo Boogie

It is also helpful to mark on the score who is responsible for turning the page. During the performance, it is easy to be excited and forget this important detail. We sometimes even mark “No turn” on a part just to remind one performer to let the other person turn the page. In this piece, it is easier for the secondo player to turn the pages. When the secondo is thoroughly comfortable with the part, it may be possible to play the RH Middle C in measures 29 and 31 with the LH thumb, giving the player more time to turn the page with the right hand.

Many musical skills such as balance and shaping phrases can be reinforced when playing duets. A helpful rehearsal technique is to have students play only when the melody is in their part. This becomes a great listening activity as well. The lyrical “Reach for the Stars” by Dennis Alexander in Duet 2A is a perfect piece for working on this concept. First, students must determine exactly what the melody is. Next, they go through the score and mark each melodic entrance with an “M.” Finally, they play the piece together, but only the sections marked with an “M.” This allows them to see and hear where and when they have the melody. (See attached examples.)

Switcheroo Boogie

Another helpful rehearsal technique is to number all of the measures. Typically, measure numbers appear at the first measure of each line. Filling in the remaining measures saves time in the rehearsal by helping students pinpoint exactly which measure needs their attention.

Duets can be used as supplementary material for any method or course of study. In addition, they make excellent repertoire selections for group lessons, ensemble classes, recitals, or “monster” concerts. Students will be motivated by music-making with their friends while developing skills in ensemble performance.