Creating Storytellers in your General Music Classroom
By NAfME Member Greg Wilfrid
The art of storytelling pervades our culture throughout history. Storytelling is a way to better understand humanity, nature, history, the arts, and the world around us. Our modern society, however, might not be doing this folk art justice. Stories are far easier to reach than ever before in history, and in some cases, are told in under 140 characters – but the human element of storytelling does not transmit itself through tweets, texts, and screens.
I understand the risk of sounding like an old coot, making claims such as this. As a twenty-six year old music educator in an era of education increasingly dominated by technology initiatives and advances, holding fast to an ancient art can be a tricky sell. However, when incorporating simple storytelling and weaving it into my music lessons in an organic way, children immediately become transfixed, focused, and attentive – and remember the music!
As I went on through the First Steps in Music lesson template, I realized how easily and organically I could transition between activities and keep students engaged.
A few years ago, when planning a First Steps in Music class for my classroom, I was trying to figure out a way to incorporate short, simple songs that didn’t have a built-in game or activity, but still held artistic and musical value. I began semi-jokingly weaving a story about Buster Brown (fingerplay rhyme: “Buster Brown, riding to town / riding a horse, leading a hound / hound barked, horse jumped / and threw Buster Brown right over a stump!”) traveling around, visiting students’ houses and learning songs from them through different story lines (“I just came back from Hawaii!” “Hawaii? What’d you do in Hawaii?” “I met some amazing people, heard some neat stories, and learned an awesome song called ‘Epo E Tai Tai E!” etc.). As I went on through the First Steps in Music lesson template, I realized how easily and organically I could transition between activities and keep students engaged. To this day, I have students who, as they enter my classroom door, ask every week (Really. Every. Week.): “Are we gonna do Buster Brown today?”
There is no great mystery to it. I listened to recordings and watched videos of some of my favorite storytellers. I am very fortunate that my parents introduced me to quality storytellers at a young age: Jay O’Callahan, Shel Silverstein (seriously, is there a better example of an emotive storyteller than Shel Silverstein?), and more, and I drew on experiences from musical folk storytellers such as Pete Seeger. I model my storytelling after these quality examples and begin crafting 40-minute long, interactive stories – stories that include pitch exploration, echo songs, action songs, circle games, beat keeping and motion activities, arioso, and all of the elements of an early general music class, keeping students performing, responding, creating, and connecting all the while.
The storytelling can’t end with me – what good is a folk art that isn’t passed on to the next generation? I tell the same song tales to fifth graders as I do to kindergarteners – but I give them helpful hints for how to tell a story to a younger brother/sister/cousin/kid you got stuck babysitting. With my older classes, we explore creating musical soundtracks to Kindergarten-appropriate books using Garageband. We spend a unit brainstorming what makes a quality book for a Kindergartener, what kinds of sounds would fit in that book, and then the students explore Garageband, creating a soundtrack and reading clearly and expressively, as if to a younger child. Some of my favorite moments with these fifth graders is watching them read a book to me as if I was their Kindergarten-aged brother or sister – what joy those little siblings must have when their big brother or sister reads to them like that!
Children remember things better when they’re tied to a specific memory.
If storytelling is going to be a part of the culture of this generation of children, technology obviously has to play a role. However, we cannot simply just throw an iPad in front of every child and have them do some weird, bright, loud, clunky activity with squishy sound effects for every correct answer and say, “Look at how technology is helping our children learn!” Through using Garageband to support the artistic and musical storytelling of these children, we can use technology as a support for something already inherently artistic and beautiful – not the foundation.
Children remember things better when they’re tied to a specific memory. The call-response song, “Did You Feed My Cow?”, certainly holds enough weight on its own for kindergarteners, but what life that song takes on when it is permanently tied to being “Emily’s farm” or “Andrew’s farm,” from that trip Buster Brown took last fall! The musical activity serves its educational purpose – the story and the experience provide something bigger to support the musical education of our students.
For a great example of musical story-telling, watch Shel Silverstein-“Boa Constrictor, Sara Cynthia and Unicorn”
About the author:
Greg Wilfrid teaches Elementary General Music and Choir at Louis Toffolon Elementary in Plainville, CT. He is the Youth Music Ensemble Director and chair of the Music Ministry at First Church of Christ Congregational in West Hartford, CT. He performs regularly around the northeast with other music teachers in The Jolly Beggars, a traditional Celtic folk band, and Elm City Sound, a reggae/ska band.
He has presented in sessions at CMEA conferences and NAfME Division conferences about the first years of teaching, collegiate sessions, and storytelling/improvisation in the elementary music classroom.
Greg presented at the 2015 NAfME National Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. Register for the 2019 NAfME National Conference, taking place in Orlando, Florida.
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