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by Anna Golden, Studio Teacher

From the Middle School’s jam sessions and Exploratory projects involving audio stories, handmade instruments, and construction of a telegraph machine, to the youngest preschoolers’ “Monster Song” composition, the inquiry into music and sound—this past year’s umbrella project looked different in every classroom. One Middle School student worked throughout the year on a series of projects about the birds on the Stony Point grounds, including a guidebook and CD of birdsong recorded around campus. She then helped Preschool students observe and draw birds as part of their own ongoing bird investigation. Early in the year, Middle School students explored the James River with composer Erik DeLuca, composing poetry inspired by the river soundscape; later, they shared their experience with the first and third grade classes, leading to more poetry writing. Inspired by the poem “The Hundred Languages of Children,” third and fourth graders shared ideas about using music as a language across disciplines, composing music as part of science learning as well as using music to respond to literature.

Our school’s philosophy is based in part in listening to and close observation of children’s ideas and intentions. Many teachers began the year by asking students for their view of what music is then followed the students’ direction. For instance, the second grade decided that their definition of music included the music of nature, which led them to create sculptures representing the sounds of spring, fall and a winter night.

Teachers considered several research questions as they prepared to provide thought-provoking materials and experiences in their classrooms. Can music and sound develop as a language? How can music work in our particular curriculum? Would parts of traditional music instruction fit into this school’s progressive program, with its emphasis on collaboration and construction of knowledge? In what new directions might progressive music education go? What tools and techniques must be taught in order for children to use music to express ideas across disciplines, as they do with drawing or construction?

During the course of the year, teachers found definitive answers to some of their questions. In many cases, children did use music as a language to express ideas about literature, history, and science, as well as feelings and interpersonal learning, as in the Forest Room (ages 2-3) “Monster Song” and the Meadow Room (ages 4-5) “Bad Guy” music. Providing access to instruments and time to play with them, as well as holding many performances and demonstrations in classrooms at all levels, allowed students to develop facility in playing and composing music.

Teachers found that it may not be necessary to teach a method of notating music: even the youngest children were motivated to devise their own music notation systems (for example, the two-year-olds used blocks and symbols). Still, older children may want to learn to write music in the accepted manner. This was true for the oldest preschoolers at the beginning of the year, and by the end of the year, the older four-year-olds, too, were asking how to write “real music notes.” Teachers are beginning to understand how to support students in composing music, providing scaffolding where necessary and stepping back when children know what they want to do. The experience garnered during this year’s umbrella project provides a strong foundation for our continued practice and reflection as we develop and expand the role of music in our program.

Read more here, and be sure to visit our umbrella project blog to see news about this year’s project—Tinkering!