Tag Archives: children

Using Jazz to Teach Children Literacy, Math, History, and More


Excerpted from Jazzy Fairy Tales, A Resource Guide for Introducing Jazz Music to Young Children

By Susan Milligan and Louise Rogers

Jazz is a play-centered approach to music, and we know that young children learn best by playing. Jazz is improvisational, fun, and playful. Jazz is creative and social. Jazz is easily accessible to both teachers and children. You don’t need to be a trained musician to make jazz part of your program and you don’t have to take time away from skill building in other areas. Children learn literacy, math, music, small and large motor skills, visual arts, and social studies while they are having fun with jazz—and jazz is a developmentally appropriate way to infuse your classroom with the joy of music!

Children love to hear and tell stories. Children tell their own stories as they pretend-play by themselves. When they play together, they create collaborative stories. When you tell or read stories to young children, you get their immediate attention. As the stories unfold, children become invested in the characters and plots. Stories are their gateway to learning. Skills are acquired almost effortlessly.

Stories allow children to focus and enter into learning experiences. For example, children can learn to sing the blues almost instantly within the context of pretending they are characters who are sad. They “become” the character. It makes sense to them to sing the blues because the blues reflect what the characters are feeling. In a like manner, children can learn to sing a scale as they pretend to be characters that are “climbing” stairs in their story. Because the stairs are going up, up, up, it is easy and natural for the pitch of their voices to go up, up, up, too.

Did you know that incorporating jazz and storytelling into your classroom can help build a foundation of many necessary skills? Jazz and storytelling:

Build Music Skills

  • Vocalization
  • Pitch
  • Rhythm
  • Listening skills
  • Recognizing patterns
  • Singing together
  • Understanding that written notes represent sounds and rhythms

Build Literacy Skills

  • Telling a story sequentially
  • Listening skills
  • Phonemic awareness
  • Rhyming
  • Tapping out syllables
  • Understanding characterization
  • Understanding stories and adding to stories told by others
  • Understanding and following oral directions
  • Listening respectfully without interrupting others
  • Speaking audibly
  • Speaking to dramatize an experience
  • Taking turns speaking
  • Understanding that written notes represent sounds and rhythms

Build Math Skills

  • Echoing patterns
  • Rhythms
  • Fractions: whole, half, quarter and eighth notes

Build Socio-Emotional Skills

  • Acquiring language for building empathy
  • Sharing and identifying feelings, emotions and experiences
  • Connecting to other people
  • Listening to each other
  • Solving problems together

Build Small and Large Motor Skills

  • Dancing, body movement
  • Fast and slow
  • Loud and soft
  • Hand movements

Jazz is playing with music within a structure. Storytelling is playing with words and ideas within a structure. If you can incorporates some simple jazz basics, such as scat singing (a jazz language used by singers when trying to make their voices sound like instruments), and basic rhythmic patterns and movements, and join them to storytelling, the result can be a powerful teaching tool for young children. You do not take away time from building academic skills when you bring jazz and storytelling into the classroom. Quite the opposite, you help children learn in a most enjoyable and accessible way.

00-36596The content of this article is excerpted from Jazzy Fairy Tales, a resource guide and CD designed to bring jazz music into the classroom. The activities provided may be used to supplement an existing program or to provide a ready-made, easy-to-use, all-encompassing music curriculum. The Appendix includes music theory terms, jazz terminology, standard blues form, and notation (melody with chords) for most of the themes and songs.

The Word: Teaching Composition Using Little or No Theory

Vince Gassi
By Vince Gassi

Creating music is fun. Creating music that others enjoy is even more fun. The Word is a very simple project that students at any level can have fun with today. It doesn’t require any theory and you don’t have to be a composer to introduce them to the wonderful world of creating music.

Assign a descriptive word, such as evolution, time, or plasma, to each student. Be creative. Choose words that are evocative. The clearer the concept, the easier it will be for students to generate ideas. The mission, should your young composers decide to accept it, is to create a one to two minute piece based on their word. The only rule is to have fun being creative. Encourage them to push beyond the limits of their imagination. By thinking beyond the obvious, to imagine options they had not previously considered, they will be taking the first steps to developing a critical skill that will serve them in everything they do.

They can use MIDI software or real instruments. Either way, they will be creating a soundscape. Anyone can quickly learn how to load an instrumental sound in applications such as Cubase or Logic. With a few simple instructions, and a little experimentation, your students will be editing and combining sounds in a jiffy.

It is critical that you thoroughly convince your students that there are no wrong answers. I cannot over-emphasize this enough. Students are often inhibited by the desire to give their teacher the “right” answer. They are afraid of being wrong and may be thinking “I’m not a composer” or “I don’t know what to do”. This fear shuts off pathways in the brain that lead to the generation of creative ideas. Be patient. They’ll need lots of encouragement to not give up. Their first efforts may not seem like much, but you must see them as potential gems, so be effusive in your praise. Assure them that high marks are guaranteed before they start.

Outline the following steps in the creative process: conceptualization (what’s the story or main idea; a written description may help as the concept will evolve as students continue through this process), brainstorming (generation of ideas often through improvisation), experimentation (playing with or modifying your ideas), refining and polishing (repeated listening, clipping and pruning). (By the way, Brainstorm is a great word to use!!)

No computers? No problem! At my middle school, I arranged the percussion instruments in a circle. We didn’t have much, just a bass drum, snare drum, cymbal, and bells. After teaching the proper grip for sticks and mallets, I demonstrated how a group of students could construct a soundscape. Soft hits on the bass drum (two seconds apart) establish an ostinato. A cymbal roll (soft mallets) begins quietly and gradually gets louder. Bells strike Bb and F at regular intervals like a clock chiming. Other instruments, such as rattles, shakers, and tambourines are added gradually. The possibilities are limitless. Stress that composition is essentially organizing sound to create a dramatic effect. Don’t be afraid to add winds, brass, strings, and voices. All groups should include one of each. Sustained clusters,random pitches, spoken words, repeated syllables, whispers, finger snaps, and tongue clicks can all be effective. Remember, this process can last one period or one week. It’s up to you.

Demonstrate how to create a graphic score. Draw a timeline from left to right across the top of the page (landscape) and list the instruments down the left hand side. Sustained notes can be indicated with a horizontal line, shorter notes with X’s at the desired timecode. Let the notation be whatever is needed to clearly indicate the composer’s intent. Each group could even have a conductor.

Use the opportunity to discuss instrument choices and the use of musical elements such as tempo, rhythm, volume, etc. A culminating activity could include performances for other classes. Call it “Two-Dollar Tuesdays” and raise funds for your growing MIDI lab (which will become popular as The Word literally gets out about the cool things happening in your course). My senior students invited the English class from across the hall. The English students welcomed the diversion and completed an evaluation rubric which included comments on the how well the music depicted the word. All comments must be positive. Peers must find something that worked to share with their composer colleagues. Positive feedback definitely builds confidence. One more thing; it never hurts to invite your principal.

As your students feel up to the challenge of engaging in more ambitious projects, you can introduce more theory. Learning theory as needed is much easier than trying to digest books full of it with no concrete end in mind. As you develop other great projects, your students, by repeatedly going through the creative process, will mature and begin to think of themselves as composers.