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Laurie Niles

May 7, 2005 at 6:34 AM

Today as I stood with my violin in front of a class of 20 first graders, I realized I was about to speak the first words that many of these little six- and seven-year-olds had ever heard about Beethoven.

Weighty responsibility!

I was back to help Mrs. Rose Walker introduce Classical music to the kids, as they'd just completed their unit on Baroque. Mrs. Walker is the fabulous – and ambitious -- teacher my daughter had last year at McKinley School. Under her guidance, my daughter and her classmates each wrote a book on “The History of Western Music,” including one-page written and illustrated biographies on Machaut, Palestrina, Vivaldi, Handel, Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The books also had some introductory lessons on note reading, instruments of the orchestra and more. This year Mrs. Walker aims to get to the Romantic Period and beyond.

“Last year we just ran out of time,” she said apologetically, “this year I'm going to do better.”

Better!? This woman is a hero! I'm just happy she continues to teach this topic to the children at our little American public school, as she is in no way required to do so. I'm also happy she continues to use me to help in the effort. It's so important, and as a professional violinist, it's so easy to help make it into something the kids will remember.

Today I came in first thing in the morning, and the kids gathered on the floor in their spots on a colorful alphabet rug. Mrs. Walker informed me that she had not yet told them anything at all about Mozart or Beethoven, so I was getting the first pass at it.

For my part, I came with what I have in my head, plus a recording of Beethoven 7. It just does not take a whole lot more than that.

After making them say, “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart” a few times, I told them that Mozart started playing instruments and writing music when he was about their age, and even younger.

“I play the piano!” blurted out a little boy.

“Okay then, I want everyone who plays an instrument to raise their hand, and when I point to you, tell me what instrument,” I said. Up went most of the hands in the classroom. The school, which started just three years ago, is meant to be a performing arts school, though it seems to have a bigger emphasis on doing plays than making music. I took this show of hands to be a good sign! Most played the piano, with one violin, a trumpet, drums, and a guitar.

I explained to them that Mozart's music tends toward the sunny, with only the occasional and brief peek into the dark side. “Whenever it starts to get sad, it usually turns right around and gets happy again.”

After making them say “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” a few times, I played about the first page of the violin part. Though this piece can start to seem like hack gig music to us, it is wonderful in a demonstration. Many of the kids had heard it before, and now they could associate it with Mozart. Before I played the “Romanza” movement, I explained that this was slow, but not really sad, music. When I finished, a girl raised her hand and said, “I heard it! I heard the part where it started to get sad but then went back to being happy!”

Really! Thinking it over, there is a place like that. Kids can be awfully bright.

Next came my Beethoven moment, when I realized I was about to make a first impression on them. I told them that he was a great composer, that he wrote many wonderful things for piano and for symphony orchestra, then I said with some drama:

“But something very sad happened to Beethoven.” Suddenly, 20 pairs of young eyes fell upon me with rapt attention. “In the middle of his life, he started to go deaf. You you know what deaf means?” They did. “After a while he could not hear at all. Here is a man who loved music so much, it was his whole life. He didn't even get married. And he couldn't hear it any more. And do you know what he did, after he couldn't hear at all?”

It's rare when you can hear the cars on the streets going by outside in a first-grade classroom, but here was one of those moments.

“He still heard music in his head,” I said. “And he still kept writing it down so that other people could play it and hear it, too. Do you know what else? When he was totally deaf, he wrote the biggest symphony that had ever been written, for a big orchestra and even a choir, and it was all about JOY.”

I felt compelled to add, “If I had lost my hearing and couldn't hear music any more, I probably would have written a symphony about how sad I was, or how mad I was.”

Then I played for them the Ode To Joy, and they all knew it. They just did not know it was Beethoven. They ought to know now!

After that, I took them on a stroll through the slow movement of Beethoven 7. As I did last year, I told them the beginning was like a heartbeat, then I had them tap softly on their hearts, to the music. Then, somehow, we just ended up listening to the entire nine-minute second movement, as I narrated everything that was about to happen. “Here, it sounds like the heartbeat, but with somebody tip-toeing around in the background,” I said, singing along with the violin spiccato and also tip-toeing. “But here comes the elephant, get ready!” I said, anticipating the entrance of the winds at the end. Really, the weirdest stuff came to me as I was talking to these kids, but it all seemed to work!

As I left, Mrs. Walker decided to go with the momentum and read them a kids' book on Beethoven called, “The Heroic Symphony.”

I do think they will remember enough to recognize these composers' names as they come up during their lives, and hopefully they will become interested enough to want to listen to classical music. It's up to us, fellow musicians! Share our love of this music with the next generation!

From One-Sim Lam
Posted on May 7, 2005 at 8:07 AM
That is a lovely experience to be able to bring out children's musicality out. I would love to have a chance to be able to do that, thanks for sharing it with us Laurie!
From Ben Clapton
Posted on May 7, 2005 at 9:10 AM
Laurie, you inspire not only the smallest children that you talk to, but also the oldest adults who reads your blogs. To have so much fun in teaching music to others is what it should be about. I think all music teachers could learn something from your lessons. :)
From Jessica Smith
Posted on May 7, 2005 at 5:02 PM
Thank you Laurie.
From Amy F.
Posted on May 7, 2005 at 7:51 PM
It's great that you go and do that for kids! I wish I would have had that experience at such a young age, although I got into music through other means. Keep it up!!! :)
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on May 8, 2005 at 1:57 AM
I'd order a quantitative analysis to tell me the percentage of Leo in early Wolfgang.
From luke pattterson
Posted on May 8, 2005 at 7:16 AM
Awww i got all tingly reading this.
From putch panis
Posted on May 9, 2005 at 8:09 AM
Gee Laurie, you make me wish you were my music teacher when I was this young. Thanks for sharing the experience :)

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