How - and why - I help children understand classical music

Australian Broadcasting CorporationCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

June 09, 2015

When your job consists of teaching and hanging out with seven- and eight-year-olds, there are many moments of unexpected fun — like joke writing during our morning snack break. (Ask my kids the one about a ghost's favorite fruit.) Even so, Wednesdays from 11:00 to 11:30 a.m. are dependably the best part of our week. This is reserved sketching time: the students imitate blue herons by John James Audubon, the paintings of Sandro Botticelli, and recently, Vincent van Gogh.

Early in the year, I established the rhythm of listening to classical music while they sketch. We've cycled through Mozart's piano sonatas, Vivaldi's Four Seasons, and Haydn's "Surprise" Symphony. This music fosters an atmosphere of calm diligence, which is lovely; no teacher would argue with me about that. Classical music, though, was not written to be background noise. We listen actively to these timeless works, some for the first time, and discuss what we are hearing. The conversations we have as the students sketch are a delight.

I wanted to introduce my students to the world of classical vocal music — which is, for me, the height of music arts. As a singer, I've spent years in choir rehearsals and voice lessons. Christmas was approaching. I decided to use Handel's Messiah for our next sketching time, but I had to consider the execution.

When I played the King's Singers for a group of second graders last year, you'd have thought I was showing stand-up comedy. The trained singing voice can be difficult for the untrained ear to understand. Kids (and some adults) tend to treat things they don't understand as jokes: if they don't get it, it must be of little value and therefore ridiculous.

Before we listened, I took time to explain the significance of Messiah and noted that many people listen to it every year at Christmastime. I also talked with the students about how hard musicians work in order to sing this way and gave a quick synopsis of the soprano aria I was going to play. They listened with grave seriousness. We made observations: she could sing loud and soft, low and high, slow and very fast. No laughing whatsoever.

The next week, they asked to listen to Messiah again. Since I had made my own opinions of the piece clear, I was suspicious of flattery, but the students engaged in the music openly and honestly. In the Wednesdays leading up to Christmas break, we worked through a significant portion of Messiah. The students contemplated recitatives, arias, and choruses with generous minds.

We discussed the definitions of the words soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, and distinguished new sounds, like that of the harpsichord. We noticed how the choir and the soloists took turns singing and text painting: how Handel wrote the music to sound like what the text says, so we can know what the words mean even if we can't understand what they are, as in the chorus "All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray."

The students were probably feeding at least a little bit off of my enthusiasm — but isn't that alright? We all discover our passions at the feet of instructors invested and passionate enough to extend a little of their fire to us. Maybe that transferred spark ignites, and maybe not. The important thing is that we experience it. Then we get to choose: yes or no? My students could choose yes to fractions, insect life cycles, the Battle of Marathon, Vincent van Gogh, or George Frideric Handel. They could just as easily choose no.

I don't use music in the classroom as a sort of aural sedative (though the thought has crossed my mind on certain days when the moon is full). I use music in the classroom as an invitation to a realm few of my students have visited. I get to play Messiah's majestic overture and watch their eyes, hear their impressions, and answer their questions.

The music is new for them, and their world expands. I listen with them, as if for the first time, and it is new again for me.

Allison Wall is a fiction and essay writer currently living in the Twin Cities. As a semi-retired intermediate musician, she is always on the lookout for ways to combine music with writing.

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