If you’re a music educator, you may have encountered a student or two who showed signs of musical giftedness, but perhaps you struggled with how to address the special needs that accompany all that talent. While working with a highly gifted student presents some challenges, it can also be one of the most rewarding experiences of your career.
Whatever goals and challenges come along with working with a gifted student, a music teacher could not find a better role model to study than Dorothy DeLay, the 20th-century violin teacher whose life, career, and teaching methods have become renowned all over the world.
A legend during her lifetime
Dorothy DeLay’s approach to teaching music continues to be frequently cited and praised by experts. DeLay, who died at age 84 in 2002, taught a roster of notable pupils, including Itzhak Perlman, Sarah Chang, Kyung-Wha Chung, Nigel Kennedy, and Midori.
DeLay’s reputation was such that any pupil she accepted could with some degree of confidence expect to enjoy a distinguished career. Her connections among talent agents were well-known, and often, families of talented musicians went out of their way to persuade her to accept their children into her program.
She also had an encyclopedic knowledge of the way the music and performance worlds functioned, and she was a master of understanding what did and did not work on the concert stage.
The greater part of DeLay’s teaching took place at The Juilliard School in New York City, although in the summer she traveled to work at the Aspen Music Festival and School in Colorado, as well as at other venues throughout New England.
An unconventional nurturing of talent
DeLay, who was a student of psychology, strongly believed in developing a musician’s inner powers of concentration and attitude through a focus on gentle but consistent encouragement of individual strengths. This may have been particularly important to her because she herself had many teachers and musicians in her family.
Experienced teachers today who have learned from her methods emphasize the point that timing is everything. Working with gifted students in a music program centers on a delicate balance of educating them as much as possible as early as possible while guarding against creating a program so intense that it becomes self-defeating—or even physically or emotionally detrimental.
DeLay would often recommend to her students books on mental focus, such as The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by W. Timothy Gallwey. The tennis pro’s now-classic self-help book has helped people make positive changes in their lives far beyond the world of sports. Gallwey’s instructions for overcoming the self-doubts, equivocations, and fears that can destroy even the most talented person’s performance have had a lasting influence in business and the arts as well.
Applying Gallwey’s wisdom to teaching the violin, DeLay encouraged her students to become their own coaches and teachers, working through their problems themselves.
DeLay would also take pains to ensure that each of her pupils engaged in a range of other activities beyond studying their individual instruments. And even with her softer, looser style, DeLay did require her students to put in plenty of hours dedicated to their craft. She believed in giving her students her best, in order to help them become their best.
A gifted student who understood other gifted students
Dorothy DeLay was born in Medicine Lodge, Kansas, in 1917. She was a gifted child herself, learning to read at the age of 3. She became an excellent violinist by the age of 4 and performed in a local concert at age 5. She entered the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio at 16, and later matriculated at Michigan State University, fulfilling her parents’ wishes that she obtain a more wide-ranging education.
As a student at Juilliard, DeLay studied with, among others, Louis Persinger, who was the first teacher of legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin. However, she decided that performing was not for her—she felt she was simply too shy and too anxious about the quality of her performance.
Marriage, motherhood, and teaching
In 1941, DeLay married journalist Edward Newhouse, with whom she would have two children. She returned to Juilliard a few years later to become a teaching assistant to her old instructor, the revered Ivan Galamian, while still in her early 30s. She would soon become Galamian’s chief assistant.
DeLay eventually came to disagree with Galamian’s teaching methods. In 1971, she created her own series of classes at the school, and students were forced to choose between her or Galamian. Perlman was among the students who transferred from Galamian to DeLay. This put the finishing touch on a life-long breach between the two great teachers that began when DeLay transferred her teaching outside Juilliard to Aspen, rather than continuing at Galamian’s Meadowmount program.
According to former students, there could not have been a greater contrast than that between the motherly, nurturing DeLay—she often called her pupils “sugar plum”—and the more iron-handed Galamian.
Still, DeLay expressed respect for Galamian, even long after their feud had set in. Displaying her trademark psychological insight and sensitivity, she remarked that he came from a traditional Armenian background in which the father of the family delivered the word of law. She noted that dignity was, for him, a prime requirement, and spoke admiringly of how he worked to create a dignified, no-nonsense atmosphere in his classroom.
Earning her laurels
By the 1980s, DeLay had achieved her own international acclaim as a teacher. Her master classes were eagerly sought after by students from around the world. She received numerous awards, including the first-ever National Medal of Arts awarded to a teacher, which she earned in 1994. The following year, the National Music Council presented her with its American Eagle Award.
Dorothy DeLay believed in teaching students, not just subjects. In 2000, author Barbara Lourie Sand published Teaching Genius: Dorothy DeLay and the Making of a Musician, her book-length study of DeLay and her methods.
Much like The Inner Game of Tennis, Teaching Genius details DeLay’s technique of nurturing her students’ inner focus, as well as her gentle encouragement. The book shows how she worked to build students up and empower them with the knowledge that their talent mattered and that they could translate musical ideas into empowering experiences for their audiences. The music world remains in her debt.
Choral music has held a revered and beloved place in human societies since the beginning of recorded history. From medieval times to today’s children’s choirs, here are four things you need to know about choral music:
1. Choral music has its roots in religious music.
Most of today’s choral singing groups can trace the roots of their practices back to sacred music. The most popular example is probably the Gregorian chant that was a familiar part of medieval church services.
In Gregorian chant, groups of monks would participate together in singing the various passages of sacred music. The conscious blending of their individual voices created the powerful sound of a single musical presence. It still serves as the model for much modern-day choral music.
Gregorian chant, a form of the monophonic “plainsong” or “plain chant,” accompanied the recitation of the mass and the divine office of the canonical hours. It derives its name from the fact that it developed during the rule of Pope (later Saint) Gregory I, at the turn of the 7th century of the Common Era.
The development of polyphony, the use of more than one voice or tone heard in a composition, brought composers the opportunity to expand on the range and types of compositions they wrote. When creating contrasting vocal parts, composers often drew on the talents of young boy sopranos to sing the contrasting trouble notes. This is because during this period in history, women’s voices were often forbidden in public performance.
2. Choral music eventually found a secular audience and begin to include lyrics and instruments.
As religious reformation and social secularization progressed, audiences outside sacred spaces enjoyed greater opportunities to hear choral music in performance. Once it flowed outside the monasteries and into the streets, its composers experienced greater creative freedom. They began to abandon the formalized structures common to sacred choral music, and to add instruments into the mix.
Composers also began to bring in human voices singing in chorus to enhance and add texture to familiar types of instrumental pieces. The addition of words enabled composers of instrumental music to address their audiences in new ways.
The Baroque period saw Italian composer and singer Claudio Monteverdi creating “polychoral” sacred pieces with multiple choirs and increasing numbers of instruments. The 16th and 17th century choral tradition also included the development of numerous motets, a form that evolved during the Middle Ages into a variety of types of religious and secular compositions.
3. Choral music was integrated into the oratorio and symphonic traditions.
The oratorio, a larger composition for orchestra, chorus, and soloists and typically based on stories from scripture, was born as composers expanded on the form of the motet. The oratorio form reached its apogee during the 1600s. The German composer George Frideric Handel, who worked extensively in England, perfected this type of music. Handel became, in fact, the father of the particularly English style of oratorio.
One exceptional 19th-century example of the integration of choral music into the symphony is the “Ode to Joy” sequence of the 1824 Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven. The large-scale choir’s singing of text by the lyric poet Friedrich Schiller lifts the mood into a soaring affirmation of humanity’s potential.
For many lovers of classical music, Gustav Mahler’s use of choral performance in his titanic symphonies represents the pinnacle of the form. Mahler’s Second “Resurrection” Symphony, as well as his Third and his Eighth, offer powerful musical interpretations of the nature of love, life, and fate enhanced by the voices of their choruses.
The Austrian composer, whose creative period straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, became known for his thundering, multi-layered sound. His Eighth Symphony earned the title of “Symphony of a Thousand” thanks to its gargantuan cast of voices and instruments. It is written for performance by a massive orchestra, a double chorus, a boys’ choir, and eight single solo voices.
4. Today, children's choral groups continue to delight performers and audience members alike.
Today, choral music in the United States continues to flourish, performed by a wide range of ensembles of all ages. Children’s choruses offer opportunities for young people to engage with music education, learn performance skills, and develop friendships based on a common commitment to creative work.
The Children’s Chorus of Washington is one group that represents the nation’s capital. Over the past 24 years, it has provided choral training and experiences to 2,500 youth and toured internationally.
The Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas is a mosaic of six individual groups of some 450 singers total. Under the auspices of the Deloitte Concert Series, it performs seasonal concerts at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center.
The Boston Children’s Chorus is composed of about 500 students from all over the greater Boston area. Almost half of them live in the city of Boston.
Children’s choruses typically hold auditions at designated times of year, and work hard to open opportunities to as many talented young people as possible. The BCC’s students, like those in Washington DC, Dallas, and many more communities around the country, are eligible to receive need-based scholarships to support their participation. In fact, about 80 percent of the BCC’s performers attend its musicianship programs on scholarship.
Teaching children to sing and play their country's national anthem—and those of other nations—can be a fun, effective musical lesson. National anthems can also serve as an effective means of connection between the arts and studies in geography and culture, at a time when educators are realizing the value of helping students build bridges between subjects.
Enriching the music curriculum through cultural geography
In units on patriotic songs, teachers have come up with rich curricula on the US national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and many other national anthems. Information on some of these is available through the National Association for Music Education (NAfME). The organization offers links to repositories of vocal and instrumental performances of these anthems, as well as sheet music and background summaries on hundreds of current and historic anthems.
In addition, several publishers offer engaging books for children explaining the origins and importance of national anthems. Also widely available are books for all ages containing sheet music of the world’s anthems. The book National Anthems from Around the World, prepared by well-known music publisher Hal Leonard, LLC, is just one example.
Thanks to the internet, recordings of these anthems in their original languages are only a few clicks away. Several versions are accessible on YouTube and Spotify. Public libraries are another rich—and free—source for streaming versions of the world’s national anthems.
Music is a truly universal language. On the other hand, a country’s national anthem presents its people’s viewpoint on their history and their hopes for the future. Let's take a look at a few contemporary national anthems and learn how the stories they tell demonstrate both the diversity and common experiences of the world’s peoples.
A poignant reflection on war
While it's notoriously difficult to sing well, “The Star-Spangled Banner” had become a time-tested American institution even before it became the country’s official anthem in 1931. President Herbert Hoover signed the congressional resolution declaring the song’s historic status on March 3 of that year.
Francis Scott Key famously wrote the words as a poem on September 14, 1814. Key drew inspiration from his sighting of a single American flag still flying over Fort McHenry in Maryland as the fort sustained British bombardment during the War of 1812. Key was an eyewitness to the attack, as he waited on board a ship only a few miles away with the friend he had just helped release from British captivity.
Key titled his poem the “Defence of Fort McHenry.” Years later, others set his words to the tune of the English drinking song “To Anacreon in Heaven,” composed by John Stafford Smith.
A royal and national hymn that went around the world
The country from which the United States gained its independence has its own time-honored anthem in “God Save the Queen” (sung as “God Save the King” during the reign of a male monarch). This anthem is also often used throughout the British Commonwealth.
The song’s origins are obscure. The Oxford Companion to Music lists several early variants. Some authorities credit Henry Purcell or any of several other 17th century composers. Many music historians cite composer and keyboardist John Bull, who died in 1628, as the song’s likely author. Others point to a passage in an old Scottish carol as remarkably similar to the current version of the anthem.
In any case, the earliest known printing of the unattributed lyrics to “God Save the Queen” appeared in 1745. The song soon appeared on the English stage and found its way into the work of composers George Frideric Handel and Ludwig van Beethoven. American composer Samuel F. Smith borrowed the tune for “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” which appeared in 1832 and has become an unofficial second national anthem for the US.
A paean to the “True North”
Canada’s national anthem, “O Canada,” was first publicly performed in 1880. Its title in the original French, as written by Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier to music by Calixa Lavallée, was “Chant national.” A special government committee approved the song as the country’s national anthem in 1967, and it was officially adopted in 1980.
The song’s lyrics celebrate the beauty and strength of this country of the “True North,” and express the hope that, through the help of God and “patriots,” it will remain “glorious and free.”
Born in revolution
France’s national anthem, the marching song “La Marseillaise,” literally calls citizens to arms in defense of freedom in the fight against tyranny. Amateur composer Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle came up with the song overnight in 1792, at the height of the revolution that overthrew the French monarchy. The song’s current popular name arose after troops from the port city of Marseille adopted it as a particular favorite.
The beauty of the land
Some national anthems focus less on military or sovereign power and more on the natural beauties of the lands they represent. Australia’s national anthem, “Advance Australia Fair,” exalts its people’s home “girt by sea,” with its “beauty rich and rare.” Similarly, the Czech Republic’s national anthem’s title translates literally as “Where Is My Home?” The song’s simple, meditative music and lyrics convey the loveliness of the country’s landscape of pine trees, mountain crags, and flowing streams.
A symbol of national reconciliation
Other countries’ national anthems focus on their diversity and hard-won unity. South Africa’s national anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” is based on a 19th century hymn originally written in Xhosa that later became the anthem of the African National Congress. In the early 1990s, during the dismantling of apartheid, the country declared two national anthems: “Nkosi” and the Afrikaans apartheid-era anthem “Die Stern van Suid-Afrika” (“The Call of South Africa.”)
When the country won the 1995 Rugby World Cup, both songs were sung together. Today, South Africa's national anthem combines shorter versions of both songs into a single national hymn, with lyrics in five languages: Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English.
When students of any age are learning about music, they will find their studies enriched by learning about the history of different musical forms. The following survey of medieval Western music can serve as one doorway into this topic for young musicians, as well as for adult learners interested in the musical history of Europe.
Defining an era beyond the stereotypes
The stereotypical view of anything “medieval” conjures up images of dank, fusty monasteries, brutal warfare, and stagnation in the arts and sciences. However, this is far from the truth. The Middle Ages in Western Europe were years of great creativity in the arts, sciences, and exploration.
Authorities differ on which time span precisely defines the Middle Ages. The most generous reckoning begins the period at the fall of the Roman Empire in the late fifth century and ends it in the late 15th century AD.
A world centered on prayer
The medieval period was characterized by the central place of liturgical music as both high art and a daily companion for the nobility and common people alike.
The practice of singing psalms and setting prayer to music dates back much earlier than the Middle Ages, into the beginnings of human history. While much of this ancient religious music was performed a cappella, instruments often lent their voices to the mix, enhancing the sound.
The medieval Christian church took many of its cues from ancient Jewish sacred music, in forbidding the participation of women’s voices after the late sixth century AD and limiting or curtailing instrumentation.
In the church, mass was the chief occasion for the performance of this music, sung by priest, congregation, and choir. The choir typically filled an “answering” function, responding to the themes of the main part sung by the priest.
The human voice as instrument
The long tradition of prayer through song reached a pinnacle in the development of Gregorian chant, a variety of plainchant, during the ninth century AD. Gregorian chant is still often used today in Catholic ritual. This style of plainchant puts the religious text at the heart of the composition. The human voice is the only instrument used.
The music of Gregorian chant is described as monophonic—it consists of one melody, sung in unison. The chant serves to frame the words of the prayers, rather than to overpower them. The majority of Gregorian chants originate in the Latin Vulgate, the version of the Bible in widespread use in medieval Europe.
Although most Catholic congregations today celebrate mass in the community's vernacular language, traditional Gregorian chant holds an honored place, both esthetically and liturgically, in modern Catholic culture. Its popularity with both religious and secular audiences is attested by the many recordings now available.
Hildegard von Bingen – a composer of mystic devotion
Hildegard von Bingen, later Saint Hildegard, was born in Germany at the close of the 11th century and died near the end of the 12th. This abbess, mystic, and prophetic visionary is considered one of the first and most talented female composers. Her monophonic works are characterized by soaring lyricism and a deeply felt spirituality.
St. Hildegard set dozens of her own poems to music, assembling them into a collection entitled Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum. She was also a scholar who wrote widely on science and medicine and traveled as an itinerant preacher.
Numerous musical ensembles have produced recordings of St. Hildegard’s surviving compositions in recent years, and contemporary audiences continue to find them musically and spiritually rewarding. Contemporary collections of her music have titles that reflect her mysticism: Canticle of Ecstasy, Music for Paradise, and A Feather on the Breath of God are only a few examples.
Moniot d’Arras – exemplar of the trouvère esthetic
One enduring tradition that flourished particularly in the later Middle Ages was that of the secular romantic balladeers and traveling entertainers known as troubadours and trouvères. Lutes, citterns, and other stringed instruments frequently accompanied these musicians' compositions, although their vocals often stood alone.
The city of Arras, France, in northern France was noted as a center of the delicate and refined trouvère style. The trouvères’ style evolved roughly in tandem with that of the troubadours, although the trouvères typically composed lyrics in their northern French dialect, and the troubadours drew from the vernacular native to southern France, the langue d’Oc.
One monk, Moniot d’Arras, earned widespread recognition as a composer in the early 13th century. While much of his output was focused on liturgy, many other pieces extol the culture of chivalry and courtly love between a nobleman and his lady. These were often the main subjects of troubadour and trouvère compositions.
The sacred and the secular
The traditions of the troubadours and trouvères were part of the larger growth of non-sacred medieval music from about the 13th century onward. The ballade, the rondeau, and the virelai were the three leading types of secular compositions in France at this time.
Guillaume de Machaut – lyricist supreme
Guillaume de Machaut, considered today one of the towering figures of medieval European music, was born at the beginning of the 14th century and is thought to have lived well into his 70s. He wrote in both French and Latin.
Machaut composed one of the first polyphonic treatments of the mass, a development moving away from the monophonic plainchants. Polyphonic music features two or more independent melodies. Machaut's dozens of motets demonstrate the full flowering of this type of music.
In 1337, Machaut became the canon of the cathedral at Reims. He wrote poems and musical compositions, with experts today viewing him as a master lyricist and versifier working in the then-current Ars Nova (polyphonic) style. Machaut also used and reworked the courtly love theme, creating beautifully constructed poems that blend technical virtuosity with lyricism.
When children listen to, study, and perform music with a strong sense of rhythmic motion, the exercise brings together a number of important brain activities. Savvy music educators have a number of tips and tricks for teaching rhythm and beat, with a few of them discussed below:
1. You’ve got rhythm, or is that the beat?
Part of learning to develop rhythm is knowing the difference between the rhythm and beat. It’s not only kids who can become confused between the meaning of the two. Here is a simple explanation.
The beat of a piece of music is the regular pulse you can feel underneath its tune. One good analogy: Think of the beat like the ticking of your watch. One way to find the beat is to pay attention to how you find yourself snapping your fingers or tapping your foot along with a composition. That’s the beat. The underlying beat stays the same, regardless of the length of the individual notes in the composition.
On the other hand, the rhythm is contained within the time value of the notes themselves. Many music teachers who work with young children teach them that the rhythm is “how the words go.” Rhythm can be fast or slow, and it can change or alternate its pace. But the underlying beat is unchanging.
2. Start simple.
Traditional nursery rhymes are an excellent way of teaching the difference between rhythm and beat.
One way to do this is to teach children a simple rhyme, like “Baa baa, black sheep, have you any wool?” You can begin by reciting the rhyme aloud in an engaging way, making the beats obvious as you sing by tapping your foot or striking your knee.
A few choruses of chanting the rhyme with you should help to make children confident about the words and the beat. Once children are very sure of the way it goes, you can ask them to help you “catch” the words of the rhyme as they speak them.
As you clap to each individual syllable in the rhyme, they will begin to hear themselves clapping out the rhythm of the piece. Some students may want to dance along to the rhythm, instead of only clapping. Whatever movements they want to make can be helpful in improving their understanding.
You can also take advantage of the fact that many music educators have posted free, downloadable resources online. They include worksheets for mapping out the difference between beat and rhythm.
3. Reinforce the idea of beat and rhythm with movement.
Another simple activity that can help students to grasp the concepts of “beat” and “rhythm” on a neurological level involves simply asking them to turn their heads to look first in one direction and then in the opposite direction, as they clap to the beat and the underlying the rhythm.
4. Help instrumentalists learn about rhythm.
Children who are learning to play an instrument have an additional challenge in front of them in that they will need to translate how their bodies respond to rhythm into the musical notations on a page. Often, students confuse rhythm and beat when trying to interpret a piece of music.
A helpful strategy in this case can begin with having the students place their fingers against their throats and feel their pulse. When they have become acclimated to this steady, basic beat, you can ask them to begin counting notes in two’s and three’s along with the beat.
You can then introduce an activity in which they clap along while you play a tune on the piano in a fashion similar to the aforementioned nursery rhyme activity.
5. Learn to measure music with words.
Some experts note that beginning music students often experience difficulty in grasping the concept of half notes. While the time-tested method of counting beats across a measure of music involves numbers, teachers often find that substituting words or sounds for counting the beat can put the rhythm into better focus for students.
It may also be helpful to distinguish different types of notes with words denoting how fast or slow the tempo is. For example, quarter notes can be said to “walk,” while eighth notes “run.” Using rhythm syllables is another effective way of teaching the concept of note duration. In a method that is analogous to using the solfege syllables (Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do) to teach pitch, a set of rhythm syllables provides students with short, made-up words that represent tangible “hooks” on which to hang the values of individual notes.
The typical way of teaching rhythm in American schools is to begin with these rhythm syllables. Once students have mastered them, they can move on to the substitution of numbers to signify notes’ value.
6. The Kodály Method brings it all together.
The methods of renowned mid-20th century Hungarian composer, musicologist, and educator Zoltán Kodály remain popular with music teachers the world over. Music teachers have taken his basic concepts of music instruction and developed them into a comprehensive method. This graded series of steps in learning musical concepts is applicable not only to young children, but also to beginning music students of any age.
Kodály believed in teaching music through what he called “direct intuition.” The first concept in the Kodály system of teaching music to young children involves getting them to understand the concept of beat at an innate, physical level, as well as understanding the difference between the beat and the rhythm.
To teach rhythm, the Kodály system uses the syllables “ta” and “ti-ti” as its base. These syllables designate, respectively, quarter notes and eighth notes.
Teachers using the Kodály Method often play guessing games by clapping the rhythm of a popular song’s opening notes and challenging students to “name that tune.”
A large number of researchers believe that, for people of any age, listening to music while performing tasks at home, work, and school can have a beneficial effect on learning, productivity, and satisfaction. Here are a few facts about this effect:
1. Music improves productivity when working on repetitive tasks.
One team at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom found that playing background music while engaging in repetitive tasks—think spreadsheets, counting objects, and reading email—not only makes time go by more pleasantly, it serves to boost productivity. The authors of the study note that this held true for their test subjects even when they were in the midst of a considerable amount of ambient industrial noise.
2. Music is most effective when it is considered pleasant or neutral by the listener.
A University of Miami music therapy professor discovered that when people hear music that they personally find enjoyable, they tend to start feeling better. Her test subjects—people who worked in information technology—reported finishing their assignments more quickly when listening to music they liked. Additionally, she discovered that the elevation in mood her subjects experienced propelled them on to come up with better ideas and insights related to their tasks.
She concluded that personal choice regarding musical selections is extremely important to the effectiveness of that music in heightening mood and productivity. She went on to observe that over-stressed individuals tend to come to over-hasty conclusions about work tasks. On the other hand, individuals who were able to select their own music could see multiple possible solutions to a problem.
Some investigators have discovered, however, that music we neither strongly like, nor strongly dislike, may be best for workplace productivity. A group of Taiwanese researchers at Fu Jen Catholic University found that extreme reactions—positive and negative—to music made it more difficult to maintain concentration.
3. Music triggers the release of dopamine in the brain.
Biology tells us that the act of listening to music we enjoy releases hormones called dopamine into the brain’s reward center. This is the same reaction we experience when we look at a beautiful scene, drink in the scent of a rose, or eat a delicious meal. One physician at the Mayo Clinic who has studied the way people at work gain focus from listening to music notes that it takes less than an hour a day to achieve the mood-lifting and mind-opening benefits.
4. Music is most effective at increasing productivity when it is instrumental.
One point seems to be consistent across a variety of research studies: the best music for concentration and productivity is wordless. Words that we can understand tend to distract the brain, since they pull us in the direction of trying to make sense of them.
One study found that almost half of office employees in the test group were distracted by human speech. Trying to tune out the background noise of others’ voices won’t work if the music has lyrics. It will merely cause the brain to shift its focus.
5. The tempo of Baroque music may facilitate concentration and learning.
The tempo of a piece of music has a strong impact on how well it facilitates concentration. Numerous studies have shown that music from the Baroque period in particular—think Bach, Vivaldi, Georg Telemann, Henry Purcell, and Jean-Philippe Rameau—aids learning and concentration, which contributes to longer-term retention of new information.
In fact, authors Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder wrote the book Superlearning 2000, an update to their earlier title Superlearning, to further outline exactly how to use the steady, even beats of Baroque music to learn foreign languages, new vocabulary, and a host of other facts, figures, and real-world skills. Fans of the Super-Learning books say that the techniques and helpful resources the authors offer have helped them speed up their learning, recall much more of what they have read, and fully engage both hemispheres of their brains.
Ostrander and Schroeder, who began putting the book together in the 1970s, drew on then-revolutionary research by top psychologists and neurologists. These scientists had discovered that listening to Baroque music in particular was capable of increasing the powers of a person’s concentration and memory. They posited that this was the result of the regular mathematical formulas that lie at the heart of the Baroque tempo.
6. Baroque music may facilitate the production of alpha waves in the brain.
The 50- to 80-beat-per-minute tempo of Baroque, researchers have learned, is comparable to an adult’s resting heart rate. This makes it ideal for stimulating the production of alpha waves in the brain. These alpha waves are known for inducing a mood of deep but focused relaxation.
When human beings are in an alpha state—with their brain waves’ frequency measuring from 9 to 14 hertz, or cycles per second—they are far from being passive or inattentive. A person in an alpha state is calm but alert, and is extremely receptive to taking in and processing new information.
Most of our daily lives are spent in the active beta state, with brain waves of between 15 and 40 cycles per second. This means the alpha state represents a significant reduction in our normal rhythms, giving us more time and space to notice things we may not have noticed before.
Most experts date the Baroque period in classical music from about 1600 to 1750, putting it between the polyphony of the Renaissance and the era of Classicism (the period after the mid-18th century distinguished by the works of composers such as Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert).
Compositions from the Baroque period are typically marked by their grandiosity and drama as well as the numerous ways in which composers used the technique of counterpoint to express musical themes and ideas.
Developments in the music of this period parallel those in the other arts—for example, massive and ornate buildings such as St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and the Caserta Royal Palace in Rome. Venetian Baroque-era churches, built with two opposing galleries, were ideal for the performances of two ensembles of musicians playing at the same time.
A complex form
The concept of two voices or groupings in contrast with one another is a central idea in Baroque composition. Concertos (known in Italian as concerti grossi) featured a solo instrument or voice playing or singing along with a full orchestra. They were a favorite among Baroque composers.
Baroque music tends to emphasize a bass line set against a melody. A cello, for example, might deliver the bass, while a vocalist sings a melody.
The technique of counterpoint is central to the development and performance of Baroque music.
Simply put, counterpoint is the art of combination. A composer working with counterpoint will juxtapose two or more separate melodic lines in a single composition. In counterpoint, individual melodic lines are known as “parts” or “voices.” Each part or voice has a distinct melody.
The term “counterpoint” is sometimes incorrectly conflated with polyphony. Polyphony refers to the presence of at least two individual melodic lines in a composition. Although counterpoint evolved out of polyphonic music, counterpoint is a much more complicated technique. True counterpoint involves a complex handling of the several melodic lines of a composition to fashion an acoustically and emotionally meaningful and harmonious whole.
The organ and the harpsichord are perhaps the instruments audiences most acquaint with Baroque music. During the Baroque period, these instruments offered two keyboards, allowing the musician to transfer from one to the other to create the rich blending of the contrasting sounds.
A centuries-old technique that continues
Composers of the Classical period were usually steeped in the techniques of Baroque composition from their early years. Some, like Mozart and Beethoven, would go on to employ counterpoint extensively in their own later works, written well into the Classical era.
Counterpoint continues to find favor today among musicians, composers, and even mathematicians, who have devoted much effort to explaining its symmetry and intricacy in terms of numerical relationships.
The supreme artistry of Bach
Numerous critics and teachers have found the Brandenburg Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach to represent a pinnacle of the development of the concerto grosso form, and of the Baroque style itself.
Bach created these works over the span of the second decade of the 18th century, one of the happiest periods of his life. The six compositions masterfully weave together the component threads played by a smaller orchestra and by several solo groups.
Music scholars point out that the scale of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 features so many soloists that it is more of a symphony than a concerto, in fact. Bach brought in oboes, horns, a bassoon, and a solo violin. And the third of these concertos features performances from no fewer than three cellos, three violas, and three violins. Unique among these concerti, Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 features not even a single violin; instead, it focuses on lower-voiced string instruments.
Three centuries after their composition, the rich-toned, lilting Brandenburg Concertos remain among the most popular and beloved works in the classical repertoire.
The art of fugue
Bach was a master of the fugue, and many musicologists revere his late work The Art of Fugue as one of his most significant creations.
A fugue is a piece of music—or a part of a larger composition—that offers finely tuned and mathematically pleasing use of a central theme (the "subject") and numerous restatements and reconfigurations of that theme. In a fugue, the subject is taken up by other parts that are successively woven together.
A fugue begins with an exposition, introducing the listener to the central subject. The subject then plays out in different parts, becoming transposed into various keys that serve as “answers” to the essential statement of the subject. A fugue can unfold over as many statements, restatements, and key changes as the composer would like, and can be as short or as long as desired, as well.
Baroque composers worth knowing
Gramophone magazine, one of the world’s premier authorities in classical music criticism, recently put out its 2019 edition of the Top 10 Baroque composers.
Bach heads the list, with the Gramophone team noting that he continues to enjoy a status in music equivalent to that of Shakespeare in literature or da Vinci in the visual arts. The publication particularly recommends Bach’s St. Matthew Passion as a supreme example of his musicianship and of the Baroque style.
Next comes Antonio Vivaldi, whose lavish, ornate compositions echo the culture of his native Venice at the time. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is perhaps the best known of his works today. This lilting, exuberant hymn to the beauty of earth’s changing seasons is known for its exquisite craftsmanship.
George Frideric Handel’s lively, upbeat Baroque compositions are other essentials for anyone becoming familiar with the era. His towering oratorio Messiah remains a not-to-be-missed composition for both music lovers and those devoted to the Christian faith.
The experts at Gramophone additionally nominate English composer Henry Purcell, composer of Dido and Aeneas and other operas, to this select group. Claudio Monteverdi, remembered as a bridge between Renaissance polyphony and the early Baroque style, also made the list, as did Domenico Scarlatti, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Georg Philipp Telemann, Arcangelo Corelli, and Heinrich Schutz.
Antonio Vivaldi, born in Venice in 1678, achieved fame during his lifetime as one of Europe’s greatest composers. His works have continued in popularity over the centuries—his “Four Seasons” and other richly textured concerti, as well as his operas, are still beloved by listeners all over the world. Vivaldi’s influence on the development of Baroque music, particularly on the emerging form of the concerto, cannot be overstated.
Even scholars, however, often overlook how he opened doors for the participation of women in music. Here are a few facts about Vivaldi’s work with an extraordinary group of Venetian female musicians, and how they themselves achieved renown for their gifts in an age when few women and girls had such an opportunity.
“The Red Priest” and the orphanage
Vivaldi worked with the church and orphanage of the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice sporadically from 1703 to 1740. An ordained priest nicknamed “Il Prete Rosso” (“The Red Priest”), most likely due to his vivid red hair, Vivaldi soon ceased to administer the sacraments and concentrated on his work as a composer and teacher.
At the Ospedale, he served as a violin master and, later, a concert master. He also composed large numbers of works to be performed by one of the world’s most accomplished—and largely unknown—musical groups: a chorus and orchestra made up entirely of orphaned girls and young women.
The long history of the orphanage
The Ospedale was a creation of the Middle Ages. Founded by a 14th-century Franciscan priest as a charitable home for orphans, it took in both boys and girls who had lost their families to famine, plague, and other horrors that were common in the Europe of that time. It was attached to the Church of Santa Maria della Pietà, which also served as a public hospital.
Throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period, such institutions—a combination hospital, orphanage, and musical conservatory—flourished in Venice. The Pietà was one of four major ospedali that made the city a must-visit musical destination until the fall of the Venetian Republic at the close of the 18th century.
Marketing a music school
The Ospedale needed a continuous supply of generous patrons in order to feed, house, and clothe the increasing number of children within its walls.
Its most creative—and best remembered—marketing effort involved establishing a girls’ choir, composed of its orphaned singers and musicians. The school would test each child at around age 9, to see if she had the needed flair for music. If a girl showed promise, the school made sure that she would have access to the finest musical education possible. (Researchers believe that many of the girls were not, in fact, orphans at all but the illegitimate children of noblemen, thus providing an additional explanation for the lavish expenditure of funds on a fine musical education.)
Giving young women performers a voice
Beginning in the 1600s, the Ospedale’s girls’ choir performed in religious pageants to which the population of Venice was invited. By the following century, the fame of this orchestra was such that visitors from all over Europe traveled to Venice to hear, incidentally providing significant new revenue streams for the church and orphanage.
Some of the young women performers became legendary, earning nicknames based on their talents. There was “Maria of the Angel’s Voice,” for example, and “Laura of the Violin.”
But of the hundreds of girls who lived at the Ospedale, only a few dozen at a time had the talent necessary to become members of the orchestra and chorus.
Vivaldi’s compositions for the school
Vivaldi became the most famous of all the renowned instructors of the Ospedale’s girls’ orchestra and chorus. He composed numerous cantatas, concertos, and sacred works specifically for his pupils to perform.
One stellar example: He created “Gloria in D Major,” one of the finest compositions in the entire repertoire of sacred music, for the group. The girls sang this piece while situated high up in the top-most galleries of the church, where they would be concealed from the curious stares of tourists and the rough-and-tumble public. The fact that they were afforded an additional layer of protection by a latticed grille only served to enhance the atmosphere of lyrical majesty and mystery of the Gloria in performance.
Vivaldi built the Gloria’s dozen small movements into a joyous praise song for God and God’s creation, with the music depicting moods from deep melancholy to bursts of happiness.
A deeply moving novel
In 2014 American author Kimberly Cross Teter published a young adult novel, Isabella’s Libretto, a work of historical fiction based on the girls’ orchestra at the Ospedale. Isabella, the novel’s protagonist, is an abandoned infant taken in by the orphanage. She grows to be a gifted young cellist with dreams of one day performing a work that she hoped Vivaldi would create especially for her.
But Isabella is also a free spirit and an annoyance to the Ospedale’s head nun, who sets out to tame her by requiring her to give cello lessons to a new pupil whose burned face testifies to her escape from the fire that killed her family. Isabella finds the grace within herself to rise to this challenge, even as the passing years school her in the bittersweet changes that adulthood brings. Her favorite teacher marries and leaves the orphanage, reminding Isabella that any girl who leaves is bound by the Pieta’s rules from ever performing music in public again.
And Isabella herself must weigh her love for her art with her growing preoccupation with thoughts of a young man who seems to want to pursue her. Her struggles with her decision about which future she wants for herself make for compelling reading and will draw in empathetic readers.
A resplendent picture book
Stephen Costanza’s 2012 jewel-toned picture book Vivaldi and the Invisible Orchestra mines the same fascinating ground to tell the story of the Ospedale for younger readers. In this treatment, orphan girl Candida becomes a transcriber of Vivaldi’s emerging works, creating sheet music for the use of the performers in the “Invisible Orchestra”—so called because the female players performed from places of concealment.
Candida’s value goes unappreciated, until the day a poem she composed finds its way into the sheet music, and her own creative gifts receive their due. In the author’s imagination, Candida’s sonnets provide Vivaldi with the inspiration he needs to produce his “Four Seasons,” perhaps his most famous and beloved work.
The Ospedale today
The Church of Santa Maria della Pietà still bears a nickname signifying it as “Vivaldi’s Church,” even though construction on its present building on the Riva degli Schiavoni was not finished until decades after his death. Today, the church stands adjacent to the Metropole Hotel, which was built up around a portion of the older Ospedale that had housed the music room.
The present church, constructed in the mid-18th century, recently underwent renovation after having fallen into disuse and disrepair and has reopened for concerts.
Today, the church’s social welfare outreach program is still in operation, serving its community with early education programs for young children and parents in crisis.
Additionally, a museum exhibiting some of the items associated with the centuries-old Ospedale is situated nearby.
Teaching the basics of music doesn’t always have to take place in school. While formal music education programs are vital for giving children an appreciation of music as one of the quintessential human activities—and are certainly needed when children hope to pursue a musical career—parents and families can provide numerous informal opportunities to develop their children’s musical gifts.
Music has an innate and immediate appeal to almost all children, so get creative and make it one of the focal points in your family life. The following suggestions, advocated by a variety of music teachers and family educators, can help point you in the right direction:
Turn “trash” into treasure.
Use ordinary items found around your home, office, or yard to produce interesting and captivating sounds.
For example, you can start an entire percussion section with a few kitchen and garden tools: Pots and pans, lids, watering cans, metal or wooden spoons, empty jugs, unbreakable bowls, water glasses, and other items can produce a wide variety of tones. Try banging the sturdier items together, or beat them with spoons or ladles to make an impromptu drum set.
Fill a series of glasses with different levels of water and gently strike them with a spoon. This latter activity is a wonderful chance to create your own STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) lesson, as you and your child see firsthand how the amount of water in a glass affects the speed at which sound waves travel and therefore the pitch of the resulting sound.
Other items that can produce a variety of sounds for your child’s enjoyment include that bubble wrap you were about to throw away, pens and pencils, or even crumpled-up newspaper or wrapping paper.
Making his or her own musical instruments together with adults can add to the fun of a child’s musical education. In addition, reusing items that you would have thrown away can help your family gain a greater appreciation of the need for recycling and purposeful spending.
Numerous websites, put together by parents and teachers, offer lively selections of ideas and directions for making a rich array of simple instruments. An old box that may once have held tissue paper can be fitted with rubber bands to fashion a simple guitar. Plastic Easter eggs can be decorated and filled with dry rice, beans, or peas to become wonderful shaker instruments. A paper plate with jingle bells attached to it with string becomes a tambourine. And balloon skins stretched over the tops of a series of tin cans can become an exceptional set of drums.
After you create your own instruments, practice them together. See how many sounds you can coax them to produce, and even try writing and performing a musical composition using only the instruments you have made. Experiment together while emphasizing to your child that improvisation and exploration are more important than “perfection.”
Connect with real musical instruments.
If you can buy or borrow real musical instruments, bring them into your home whenever possible. Young children are likely to be especially tactile, so let them experience what a drum set, a clarinet, or a flute feels like in their hands. A visit to a local museum that has a music exhibit, or to a music store or university music department, can also provide this experience.
Investigate whether your community offers musical instrument lending libraries, which are designed to provide access to music education for all people, regardless of income. Such libraries are available in some locations in the United States, but residents of Canada are especially fortunate.
Toronto, for example, recently initiated a musical instrument lending program through its public library system. Library patrons can check out violins, guitars, drums, and other instruments, free of charge.
Bring live and recorded music from as many cultures and time periods as possible into your home. Practice your listening skills, and see if you and your child can recognize the sounds of the different instruments in a composition. Encourage your child to catch the beat by clapping, tapping a foot, or creating a dance in time with the music.
Hit the books.
Bring home a variety of music-themed books, including picture storybook classics like Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin, written by Lloyd Moss and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman; or The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin, with pictures by Marc Simont.
Older children will also find plenty of music-themed fiction in titles such as Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis and The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White.
Your local bookstore or public library will likely offer all of these, and many others, as well as informational books about music and biographies of great musicians.
Unite music and art.
You can also look for coloring books that feature images of musical instruments or music performances. Additionally, a simple internet search using the keywords “musical instruments” and “coloring pages” will yield many free images to download and print for your child to decorate. Creating visual representations of musical instruments and concepts will provide a multi-sensory experience that can deepen your child’s connection to the related art of music.
In 2017, about 40 million people in the United States attended at least one musical theater production, according to data published by Statista.com. This level of enthusiasm puts this timeless art form near the top of the charts among all types of live performing arts.
Here are only a few insights into the rich history of musical theater, as it developed in the ancient and early modern world, and as it evolved in the United States in particular:
Its roots go back to antiquity.
Musical theater as American audiences know it today traces its beginnings all the way back to antiquity. Most historians believe that it first developed in classical Greece in about 500 BCE.
At that time, performers in open-air amphitheaters began to weave dance and musical performances into comedy and drama performances. By the days of ancient Rome, it was commonplace to incorporate multi-instrumental music along with singing, dancing, and special visual entertainments, into stage shows.
Its medieval spiritual predecessors include minstrels and religious ceremonies.
The European Middle Ages saw the proliferation of strolling players who performed in musical productions. In England during the latter part of this era, for example, traveling minstrels performed musical pageants in torchlight procession.
Medieval churches were also important sites for the development of a format that would influence musical theater, with religious services often presented in this type of framework. During the Renaissance, masked performers performed comedies and dramas against backdrops painted to evoke various kinds of scenes.
It shares numerous elements with opera.
Perhaps the most direct line leading from past eras’ performing arts presentations to the contemporary musical was the development of opera during the early modern era. By the 18th century in Western Europe, opera had become a highly sophisticated way of telling a story via music, making use of orchestral music and individual and choral singers.
Even today, the classical operatic tradition shares numerous elements with musical theater: Both tell a story through song, both feature individualized characters, and both are comprised of a variety of songs, joined into a continuous narrative with non-musical lines, written to convey emotion or to move the story forward.
Its development is uniquely American.
The beginnings of musical theater performances in the United States began even before the American Revolution, with operas from the Old World often performed in the New. After the U.S. achieved independence, its own new types of musical theater traditions flourished. Burlesque, characterized by extravagant costumes, wild plots, and over-the-top satirical characters, became enormously popular.
American musical theater as we know it today grew up in the new nation alongside the Industrial Revolution. By the later years of the 19th century, ordinary urban life had been transformed.
The proliferation of railroad and streetcar travel, electric street lighting, improved sanitation, and higher-paying jobs for average people in factories and offices had a huge impact on country. People could now enjoy greater freedom and speed of movement as they navigated safer cities, and they had more disposable income to spend on entertainment.
Its official beginning could be considered the opening of The Black Crook.
In 1866, New York City was the site of the first performance of a modern-day musical, with the debut of The Black Crook. This production held audience members' interest for the more than five hours it took to perform it on stage.
The Black Crook was an action-packed musical concoction that made it to the stage only due to chance and the canny idea of one local entrepreneur who had a problem to solve. He had booked two separate productions, one featuring a silk stocking-clad ballet troupe from France, and the other a story whose well-used plot involved the theme of selling one’s soul to the devil.
A fire destroyed one of the two theaters, so the enterprising booker combined the two shows on one stage into a music-and-dance-filled melodrama. The Black Crook ran for close to 500 performances, and was recently revived on Broadway for its 150th anniversary.
Its modern character was cemented with “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
Composer, lyricist, librettist, and impresario George M. Cohan is often credited by theater historians as laying the foundation stone of the distinctively American musical theater in the early 1900s. In Cohan’s work, for the first time on any real scale, American audiences saw American stories depicting American values, traditions, and viewpoints.
Cohan’s formula for writing musical theater won popularity among his successors in the form. This simple rubric involved using any storyline, no matter how wild and improbable its plot or character motivations, as a means of leading into engaging musical and comedy numbers.
The extravagance of the early 20th century American musical was marked by large-scale, extravagant opening and closing numbers, featuring lines of chorus girls and other performers, singing and dancing together in often elaborately staged productions. Using this formula, writers and composers might fabricate an entire flimsily connected plotline simply as a means of showcasing the skills of popular individual performers.
Its defining characteristics have changed with the times.
Until the major cultural shifts that came with the Vietnam War and an era of questioning and protest, this American musical tradition thrived. Before the late 1960s changed public tastes, composers such as Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers, along with lyricists like Oscar Hammerstein II and Lorenz Hart, created musical comedies and dramas with richly evocative scores, clever lyrics, and the punch of personality that have made them beloved classics in both stage and film versions.
For parents interested in teaching their children more, the six-part PBS documentary entitled Broadway: The American Musical offers older children, teens, and adults a detailed and engaging history of the 20th century American musical theater. The series is available in DVD format through major retailers and as a separately published book.