Thursday, September 16, 2010

Welcome Back, Middle School!

I wish I could say Fall was in the air, but at least it has been beautifully sunny for our first weeks of Middle School. Today students will find out their advisors and advisee groups for the year, so the school is simply buzzing with excitement. Good luck to all the morning class teachers...

The first week of school was spent reclaiming my teaching space, which involved hefting a lot of heavy equipment into the loft, setting up the new digital piano (woot!), and reorganizing. The space is now being used for a morning math class, so that’s an extra incentive to keep it clear and clean. My rather firm “keep out unless you have a teacher’s permission” sign is now complemented by a beautiful name sign made by David. Thanks, David!!
As usual, I’m teaching 3 electives this trimester: First-year Music Rotation (required of all 1st-years), Ukulele, and a new class called Musicians’ Workshop.
They get younger every year.
I’ve been kicking off Music Rotation with the same listening exercise and debate since I started teaching it. One of my goals as a music teacher is to open students’ ears to the huge variety of music in the world, and recognizing that while the existence of music is universal, the way you interpret it is heavily influenced by your culture and experiences. We listened to ten excerpts from around the world, from Bob Marley to Tuvan throat singing. After sharing our first reactions to the music, the whole class worked to come up with a definition of music that we could all agree on. That is much harder than it seems! Some of the things these 10-year-olds were arguing about included whether music requires instruments (because if it makes music, it’s an instrument, right?), whether music you imagine in your head can be called sound or even music, and whether nature sounds can be considered music if there isn’t a human there to hear it as music. Finally, I shared with them composer Edgar Varese’s famous definition, “Music is organized sound.” That led to a discussion of what the words “organized” and “sound” actually mean, which led to... well, you get the idea.

Since those first two lively classes, we’ve been reviewing our drumming skills from Lower School and learning new rhythm games and hand drum techniques.

Middle School ukuleles are back! 6th period is our ukulele elective, and students have just received (and decorated) their very own ukuleles. So far we’ve learned to tune our ukuleles (an ongoing process, and one we get to practice quite a bit as the new strings stretch out), the names of the strings, the C, F, and G7 chords, and several songs including “Kookaburra,” “Simple Gifts,” “Black Socks,” and “You Are My Sunshine.” We also just started learning the C scale, a gateway to finger-pickin’ fun.

I’m very excited about my 7th period class, Musicians’ Workshop. You may have read my blog entry about composition in the classroom. I’ll be bringing a lot of composition into the Lower School and MS 1st-year rotation this year. Musicians’ Workshop a class for older Middle Schoolers, focused on creative composition. Our first exercise was for each student to become a “key” on an instrument by coming up with a short, repeatable sound or rhythm. Then each student had a turn as the composer, in which they used hand signals to “play” the keys of their instrument. Much fun was had! We then listened to four very different pieces of music: a Bach cello partita, a song for flute and cello, with both players singing while playing, by Persian-American composer Reza Vali, Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel,” and U2’s “Beautiful Day.” We noticed similarities and differences, and that the pieces from the same genre actually had less in common than the pieces from different genres. Again, we’re working to open ears, but at a more detailed and thoughtful level.

We’re now working on our first composition assignment, in small groups. Stay tuned for some audio clips!
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