I’ve always considered music to be an essential part of education. It does not get the credit it deserves in forming the mind and character of children when schools simply call it a “special”, an extra activity in addition to the “more important” academic subjects.
I began teaching general music to grades PreK-8 this past August, and I have seen even more how music teaches many things that other subjects cannot do. Many of these things are social, especially in the manner of how people must literally work together, doing the same thing, in the same manner, at the same time as one cohesive unit. This is how sailors and train track layers of old were able to work so efficiently. The songs they sang kept them working systematically and rhythmically, in addition to raising morale and maintaining motivation. (I discuss several other skills learned in music class in my post, Why Are You Teaching Math in Music Class?)
Another way music involves social interaction is through giving students an opportunity to things that are unique. In fact, some of the national standards for music education focus on giving students choices about how to respond to music and opportunities to organically invent their own music and movements in response to music. Since everyone is so different, kids learn how to give space for others to be themselves as well as take appropriate space to be themselves.
One favorite activity of my elementary classes is a singing/dancing activity called “Walk, Daniel, Walk.” In this activity, the students form two lines with an aisle down the middle. The kids in the lines sing “Walk, Daniel, walk, Daniel” then, “the other way, Daniel, the other way, Daniel” while one child walks down the aisle, then turns around at the right time and returns to the starting place.
I quickly adapted this game to allow for more individuality and instruction. Instead of “Daniel”, we used the names of the individual students, which required some rhythmic adjustment. Instead of making each child walk, I allowed them to decide what movement they would make down the aisle. Sometimes we sang something like, “Skip, Veronica, skip, Veronica.”
This week, since Halloween was coming up and the school was making a big deal of it, I decided to adapt this game some more. Another story song we did in one class contained the line “goblins dance”, so I planned to have the students sing “Dance, Goblin, dance!” The kids had another idea. “Mrs. Savage,” they asked, “can we use the names of our costumes?” Great idea! We sang, “Dance, Glinda, dance!”, “Dance, SWAT cop, dance!” and so forth. After giving a turn to all the students who wanted to dance down the aisle, we still had a couple of minutes left in class. I knew giving second turns to some students would make others feel left out because I didn’t have time for all the second turns, so I adapted the game again. I had the kids each dance in their own space while we all sang a general “Dance, Goblin, dance.”
That’s when I saw the miracle take place.
While several students danced independently, a small group of girls and a small group of boys spontaneously joined hands and improvised a circle dance together. This by itself is not too remarkable. However another boy, who has had social difficulties this year, decided he, too, wanted to join the boys’ circle.
Watching him approach the group, I internally geared up for a conflict. The boy was seeking to join the very boys he had not been getting along with; I anticipated they would not let him in, and that this boy, frustrated, would begin to scream, as was his pattern. But they let him in. Not only that, this boy, often overwhelmed in the less-structured environment of music class (compared to the desks-in-rows of the regular classroom), ended up holding hands with the boy that previously had been his arch enemy. In that moment, they became unified, responding together to the music.
The two groups dancing in a small circle gave me an idea for yet another adaptation for the song. I gathered the entire class into a large circle, holding hands. We circled together in one direction and then changed direction when the lyrics reached “the other way,” a difficult skill, especially in a large group. As they joined up to the large circle, the two boys continued to hold hands.
I won’t claim that music class was the sole factor in helping these two boys join together. Their classroom teacher has been working very hard to help these youngsters with their social relationships. I also cannot promise that this newfound peace will last. I can say, though, that music class provided them an opportunity to put those skills into practice as they improvised a response to the music and to each other.
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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.