The artistry shown in a violin performance is highly individual and subjective. Most musicians can achieve competence in playing the instrument. However, if you have shown the interpretative sensitivity, technical virtuosity, charm of personality, or striking originality of expression that moves them into a class by themselves.
Here are short biographies of four outstanding performers whose dedication and talent have moved audiences over the centuries.
1. Niccolò Paganini
Niccolò Paganini (1782 - 1840) is perhaps the first musician who can be considered a virtuoso of the instrument. He remains venerated by violinists and the general public alike. His charisma garnered him a cult-like following during his lifetime. His impact on the entire later history of how the violin is played, and how violinists perform on stage, cannot be overestimated.
Born in Genoa, Italy, Paganini debuted as a performer the year he turned 11. As a young man, he toured Lombardy while also getting entangled in a number of romantic escapades. At one point he pawned his violin to settle his gambling debts. Biographers record the story that a French merchant then gave him a Guarneri in recognition of his talents.
Paganini was also a gifted composer. His 24 Capricci for Solo Violin remain staples of the classical repertoire. From 1828 onward, he undertook tours of England, Scotland, and the Continent, amassing a personal fortune in the process. It was Paganini who commissioned the great French composer Hector Berlioz to create the symphony Harold in Italy, although the virtuoso considered the work unchallenging and never performed it.
Paganini’s technique called on a wide-ranging scheme of harmonics and his talent for playing pizzicati. He made up his own innovative methods for tuning and fingering, and displayed a genius for improvisation. A whole raft of legends grew up around this Romantic-era figure, including one that says he got his extraordinary musicianship thanks to a deal with the devil.
2. Jascha Haifetz
Jascha Heifetz (1901 - 1974) started his career as a violinist when he was 5 years old. He was soon playing in Berlin, Prague, and Warsaw and performing complex works that included Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. At age 16, he enjoyed a spectacular debut at Carnegie Hall.
The young refugee from Lithuania gave a performance that one music historian has called “like electricity.” Heifetz showed not only an almost unbelievable level of technical proficiency in his instrument, but an immense warmth of feeling and interpretation to match.
Heifetz obtained United States citizenship at age 24 and thereafter toured the world. He commissioned a number of violin concertos and himself became a noted transcriber of great works by Bach and Vivaldi into pieces for the violin. Later in life, he taught at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
Heifetz was one of the undisputed 20th-century masters of the violin. PBS showcased his legacy in a special broadcast in its American Masters series that called him “God’s Fiddler.”
3. Itzhak Perlman
Itzhak Perlman, born in 1945, often tops critics’ lists of the greatest living classical violinists. He has an instantly recognizable bold and exuberant technique. He has remarked that the best technique doesn’t reside in the ability to elicit notes rapidly from the instrument, but in the capacity to evoke rich and surprising tone and color.
A renowned teacher and composer as well as a performer, the Israeli-born Perlman has become a pop culture icon. Between the years 1977 and 1995, he racked up 15 Grammy Awards. He is also the recipient of a U. S. Medal of Freedom, a Kennedy Center Honor, and numerous other accolades.
Perlman has also made appearances on the children’s educational television show Sesame Street. In a 1981 segment, he movingly demonstrated the difference between “easy” and “hard,” walking onto the stage using crutches (the result of childhood polio) before taking up his violin to play a lively passage.
Perlman’s focus on teaching and philanthropy is exemplified in the Perlman Music Program he and his wife established in the 1990s. The program provides training and support to teen string musicians of exceptional promise.
4. Hilary Hahn
Hilary Hahn, born in 1979, is known for her dynamic, sensitive interpretations of works by a varied list of composers from Bach to Stravinsky. She began studying the Suzuki method at age 4, made her orchestral debut at age 11 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, performed on her first classical recording at 16, and has gone on to receive numerous international awards, including two Grammys before she turned 30.
In 2015, she received her third Grammy for her album In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores. In hundreds of live solo performances, she has been accompanied by the world’s premier orchestras.
Hahn has spent her career making classical music accessible to younger audiences. She has performed for films and with alternative rock groups, and has cut a string of successful classical albums, always with a warm and personal approach. Hahn’s popular social media accounts, a signature component of her educational mission, feature running commentary from the point of view of her violin case as it travels with her around the world.
In 2010, American composer Jennifer Higdon received a Pulitzer Prize for the violin concerto she wrote specifically for Hahn. Higdon created a piece combining technical virtuoso flourishes with deep, meditative flow, which she tailored to Hahn’s immense lyrical range and ability to negotiate complex changes in meter.
Every young musician deserves to know more about the fascinating talents who came before them, and today’s publishers offer a rich variety of musical biographies designed to captivate and inspire children.
Read on to learn how the recent spate of musician biographies are standing out.
Getting to know great talent in a whole new way
The Who Was/Who Is series of junior biographies makes learning fun with clear, easy-to-read text and illustrations bursting with pizzazz. This series, published by Penguin Workshop, has quickly achieved cult status among elementary-age readers, as well as teachers, librarians, and parents.
While many of the biographies in the series cover presidents, scientists, and explorers, many others focus on noted singers, composers, and instrumentalists.
For example, young readers can explore the life of Aretha Franklin, a gospel singer born in segregated Memphis, Tennessee, who used her talent to go on to become the one and only Queen of Soul. Franklin exerts a cultural and artistic influence that continues to transcend her death in 2018.
Most of the biographies of musicians in this series cover talent from the second half of the 20th century and beyond. Bob Marley, Dolly Parton, Selena, Pete Seeger, Stevie Wonder, and the Beatles are only a few of the figures in popular music whose biographies join Franklin’s.
But the series additionally explores a bit of the more-distant musical past with a book on the phenomenal jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who rose to fame in the 1920s. It also transports readers to the world of classical music through its biography of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Each of these titles gives a wide-ranging overview of its subject’s life and work, providing all the basic information a student would need for a beginning report.
An added element of fun in this series comes from the eye-popping cover art—each book’s subject is depicted in caricature with an oversized head set against a colorful, action-packed background. So immediately recognizable are these covers that the books are affectionately known as the “Big Head” biographies.
Learning about composers can be fun
The Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Composers series, published through Scholastic’s Children’s Press imprint, offers light-hearted but informative looks at some of the great Baroque, classical, and contemporary masters.
Written for the grade-school market, this series combines primary source reproductions of historical documents with engaging, color-packed cartoons. The mix of humor with report-ready information and stirring anecdotes about the composers’ lives makes the entire series a winner.
Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, Ludwig van Beethoven, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, George Gershwin, and Duke Ellington are only some of the composers represented in this series, each with their own 40-page biography.
Turbulent times unite a young pianist and a president
Books on individual musicians can fascinate both children and adults, as evident by the recent spate of creatively designed, richly illustrated biographies. Many focus on the highly talented black, brown, and female composers, singers, and musicians that were previously neglected by history and who are now receiving much-deserved attention as our understanding of their contributions fills in the gaps in humanity’s diverse musical heritage.
In Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln (Atheneum, 2019), renowned author Margarita Engle teams up with award-winning illustrator Rafael López to present the true story—in lilting free verse and fanciful washes of color—of a child prodigy on piano who became a young composer and a popular performer in her native Venezuela. In 1862 revolution forced her parents to escape with 8-year-old Teresa to the United States, where very few people spoke her language. And this new homeland was fighting its own divisive war.
But Teresa’s love of music sustained her. In the US, people called her “Piano Girl,” and she became famous for her ability to interpret any genre of music. When she was only 10 years old, Teresa received President Abraham Lincoln’s invitation to play at the White House.
The book itself, according to Kirkus Reviews, offers a “concerto for the heart,” as Teresa tries to lighten the burdens of the wartime president through her art.
A sweet voice too soon silenced
In Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills (Random House, 2012), the acclaimed author-illustrator duo of Renée Watson and Christian Robinson bring the story of one of the world’s greatest singers to life.
Florence Mills was the daughter of former slaves. Born just before the turn of the 20th century, she first graced the stage at age 5 and became a celebrated performer in Harlem nightclubs and on Broadway. Known for her sweet, soft voice, she captivated audiences until her untimely death at 31.
In 1926 Florence won a lead role in Blackbirds, a musical that would take her on an international tour and provide her signature tune (“I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird”) and her nickname.
But Florence also experienced the deep racism endemic to the era. During her short life, she fought for the rights and creative freedoms of African-American performers, and generally supported the cause of civil rights. So beloved was she that, after her death from an infection following surgery, tens of thousands of mourners filled the streets of New York City outside the church where her funeral took place.
The book offers a moving and gorgeously illustrated account of how this multi-talented performer pursued her dreams, thrived despite injustice, and touched the lives of millions.
A modern-day personification of New Orleans’ exuberance
“Trombone Shorty” needs no introduction to many contemporary music lovers. A New Orleans-born trombone player, bandleader, singer-songwriter, and New Orleans Jazz Fest headliner, 34-year-old Troy Andrews became a maestro of the horn as a young child. His skills are so renowned that a popular club in his Tremé neighborhood was named Trombone Shorts in his honor when he was just 8.
Andrews picked up his nickname early, when he was still only half the size of his instrument. His nickname serves as the title of his picture book autobiography, illustrated by award-winner Bryan Collier and published in 2015 by Harry N. Abrams.
Andrews’ book welcomes readers with “Where y’at?” in true New Orleans fashion. He details his early life as a budding African-American musician in a family of musicians, as well as how he grew up making and playing his own instruments out of items from junk heaps until he started patiently learning how to play a dilapidated old trombone he found one day.
Andrews’ true story, coupled with Collier’s dynamic pictures that embody the rhythms of New Orleans jazz, will provide plenty of inspiration to children and grown-ups alike.
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.
For many young children, the percussion instruments are the most fun to play and learn. Striking, shaking, or clanging these instruments produces an immediate response that the child can hear or sometimes even see. This easily grasped one-to-one correspondence between the child’s actions and the instrument’s sound is a big part of the appeal.
Playing a percussion instrument is also valuable because it helps people of all ages improve their physical coordination, dexterity, and motor skills. In addition, percussion instruments give music students the chance to let loose creatively in ways that few other instrument types can equal. Researchers have even learned that drumming and practicing other percussion instruments can reduce stress and even improve the immune system.
For all these reasons and more, percussion instruments are justifiably popular with student musicians, professionals, and audiences around the world.
The following is a closer look at a few members of this truly global family of musical instruments. This list focuses on some of the more seldom-discussed instruments in the percussion family, and thus omits the piano and the many types of acoustic and electronic drums that are popular in the U.S.
The boom of the timpani
In Sergei Prokofiev’s classic Peter and the Wolf, an imaginative musical romp through the instruments of the orchestra, the crash of the timpani announces the arrival of the hunters.
Timpani, also known as kettledrums, entered the Western musical world during the Middle Ages, imported by returning Crusaders and Arabic warriors arriving in western and southern European ports. Timpani came to be used in connection with trumpets to herald the arrival of aristocratic cavalry troops onto a battlefield.
Timpani consist of large, round, copper-bodied drums shaped like half of a sphere. Their drumheads consist of sheets of plastic or calfskin stretched tight across the opening. A player produces sound by striking the instruments with sticks or mallets made of wood or tipped in felt.
Timpani can be tuned to produce a variety of pitches when their drumheads are loosened or tightened via an attached foot pedal. In a typical orchestra, a single musician will play four or more timpani in a range of sizes and pitches. Playing the timpani calls on all the performer’s skills of attention and sense of pitch, since a typical orchestral piece calls for multiple tuning changes.
The xylophone’s flexible range
The xylophone’s early history lies in Asia, most scholars believe, before it spread to Africa and then to Europe. The instrument’s name derives from an ancient Greek word that refers to its wood-like tones.
The common denominator among the many types of xylophones available today is that the typical xylophone consists of a set of keys, or bars, organized in octaves, like piano keys. Affixed beneath the keys are a series of resonators, or metallic tubes, which produce the sound. Xylophones can be simple toys for the youngest children or sophisticated, multi-octave orchestral instruments.
The xylophone player strikes the keys with a mallet. Mallets are produced in varying degrees of softness or hardness; changing the pitch of the xylophone involves using a different type of mallet or changing the way one strikes the keys.
The xylophone’s close relatives in the percussion family include the larger and more mellow-toned marimba, the smaller and jingly-voiced glockenspiel, and the vibraphone.
The Jazz Age vibraphone
Invented in the 1920s, the vibraphone is distinguished by its metal keys and resonators and by the addition of little spinning discs, or fans, in its interior. These small discs are electrically powered and are arranged under the keys and over the resonators.
A player uses felted or wool-tufted mallets to strike the keys. He or she tunes the vibraphone by means of a motor that turns a rod connected to the discs. The resulting sound is the type of shifting, sliding pitch that’s referred to as vibrato when produced by the human voice.
The vibraphone has found extensive use in the popular jazz repertoire of artists such as Lionel Hampton. The instrument’s first appearance in an orchestra was in the 1937 Alban Berg opera Lulu.
The cymbals – the orchestra’s alarm clock
The crashing of the cymbals in the orchestra makes everyone take notice. A set of these ultra-loud percussion instruments consists of a pair of large discs, ranging in size from 16 to 22 inches in diameter. These discs are typically fashioned of spun bronze.
A player hits the cymbals together, or in the case of suspended cymbals, strikes them with a mallet. In general, larger cymbals produce lower sounds.
The waterphone’s New Age appeal
The waterphone is a newer innovation in percussion. Patented in the 1970s and based on a Tibetan water drum and other instruments, the waterphone consists of a bowl of water, a resonator, and a series of differently sized metal rods. A player uses a mallet, bow, or his or her own fingers to produce sound by striking the rods.
The vibration causes the water to shift in the bowl, thus altering the shape of the resonance chamber and creating a whole range of gliding sounds and echoes. Musicologists have described the waterphone’s sound as mysterious and otherworldly, and the instrument is noticeable in many television and film soundtracks.
The triangle’s thousand-year-old lilt
The triangle is a simple steel bar bent into the shape of an equilateral triangle, with part of one corner left open. The player strikes the instrument with a simple steel rod.
In use at least since the Middle Ages, the triangle often featured an attached set of jingly rings until the early 19th century. As European audiences of the 1700s demanded music in the Turkish style, Western musicians paired the triangle, the cymbals, and the bass drum into an ensemble with the aim of replicating the popular Turkish Janissary sound.
The triangle’s piercing pitch is audible even over the sounds of a full orchestra. Accordingly, classical composers tend to use the triangle sparingly, often to add punctuation to a composition.
According to the National Association for Music Education, there are a few important qualities that make for an outstanding music teacher. These include strong communication skills, an understanding of how to make learning the rudiments of music worthwhile, the ability to command respect, and a capacity for forging emotional connections with students.
Any list of the world’s notable music teachers throughout history would include the following talented individuals, who were also accomplished composers. Read on to learn about their lives, their music, and what they taught their students.
Antonio Vivaldi – Leader of a girls’ orchestra
By the time of his death in the mid-18th century, Italian composer and priest Antonio Vivaldi had authored hundreds of pieces of church music, concerti, operas, and other compositions. Best known today as the composer of The Four Seasons series of concerti, he exemplified the Baroque sensibility. His music is filled with complex, bravura passages that highlight the solo capabilities of individual instruments.
Vivaldi was also a teacher, working at several different schools of music over his career. When he was just 25 years old, he became master of violin with the Ospedale della Pietà, a Venetian school for orphaned children. While serving in this capacity over some 30 years, he managed to compose the bulk of his major creative works.
At the Ospedale, the boys were taught skilled trades, and the girls learned music. Vivaldi’s leadership of the girls’ orchestra and chorus brought international fame to the school. The group performed at religious services and often at special events intended to make an impression upon powerful visitors. The girls performed, however, concealed behind a set of gratings, supposedly for the purpose of safeguarding their modesty.
Antonio Salieri – Villainous or defamed?
Thanks in part to Milos Forman’s movie Amadeus, the dominant image of Antonio Salieri is a jealous villain who helped to drive his rival Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to an untimely death—or possibly poisoned him. But recent investigations have shown that there was likely far less substance to the feud between the two men.
Newer biographies and recent performances and recordings of his music, including an album by Cecilia Bartoli, are beginning to show us that Salieri was a talented composer, with a personality that may have been cantankerous. Newer research also shows that he was viewed by contemporaries as a generally friendly, industrious, and occasionally even humorous man.
Salieri’s creative output includes several operas in multiple languages, as well as chamber music and works for sacred occasions.
Only six years Mozart’s senior, Salieri would live to the age of 74 and eventually see his powers as a composer dwindle, though he took on a roster of exceptionally gifted pupils. These included Ludwig van Beethoven, the German operatic composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, Franz Liszt, and Franz Schubert. Historians recount the story of how Salieri spotted the seven-year-old Schubert’s talent and began teaching him the basics of music theory. After Mozart’s death, Salieri even instructed Mozart’s young son.
In 2015, a short composition created jointly by Mozart, Salieri, and a third composer was unearthed from the archives of the Czech Museum of Music. The following year, a harpsichordist in Prague gave the work its first public performance in 230 years.
Nadia Boulanger – A “hidden figure” in music
Nadia Boulanger earned international fame as a conductor and teacher of musical composition. Born in 1887, she was the daughter of Ernest Boulanger, a renowned voice teacher at the Paris Conservatory. She studied at the conservatory with composers Charles-Marie Widor and Gabriel Fauré, then began a career teaching both private lessons and classes. At age 21, she received a second place honor in the Prix de Rome competition for a cantata she had composed.
Boulanger’s sister, who died young, was also a talented composer. In fact, after her sister’s death, Boulanger deemed her own work as a composer to be of no further use and stopped creating entirely. However, she continued to both promote her sister’s work and to teach others. By the early 1920s, she was working at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau.
Boulanger went on to become the first female conductor to work with the New York Philharmonic and other American orchestras. She taught in the Washington, DC area during the Second World War. In 1949, she earned the position of director of the American Conservatory.
Boulanger’s first American student was Aaron Copland, and she later taught Virgil Thomson, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, and a host of other noted composers. She lived to be 92 years old, but never in her long life wrote a textbook outlining her ideas on music theory. Rather, she exerted a strong and nurturing personal influence on her pupils. She worked to give them an in-depth understanding of the technicalities of music while enhancing their individual gifts of composition and expression.
Zoltán Kodály – The centrality of the voice
Zoltán Kodály, one of the best-known 20th century Hungarian composers, was also a scholar of the folk music of his country. Along with his contemporary Béla Bartók, he became one of the foremost collectors of traditional Hungarian songs. Kodály’s own creative compositions include the massive Psalmus Hungaricus, first performed in 1923 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the joining of the cities Buda and Pest.
Kodály was also a contemporary of Boulanger and studied with Widor in Paris. He achieved renown for establishing the building blocks of what is today known as the Kodály Method, used by music teachers around the world.
The Kodály Method works with the understanding that young children learn music best by doing, and that the body of traditional songs and dances of their own countries should form the core of their musical education, supplemented with the folk music of numerous other cultural traditions.
Kodály’s system additionally puts great emphasis on the power and flexibility of the human voice as the first musical instrument. His method stresses singing as the best way to develop musical understanding and skill.
Folk songs in the classroom offer numerous ways to build a strong and engaging music curriculum.
Recent surveys by the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) show that its members are in near-unanimity in favor of teaching American heritage folk songs as a major part of the music curriculum.
Zoltán Kodály, an early 20th-century Hungarian musicologist and music educator, held folk songs in the highest esteem as musical teaching tools. Today, teachers around the world make use of folk songs either through lessons based on the Kodály method or informally, as a means of enhancing the music curriculum and the study of other subjects.
At the heart of the Kodály method is instruction in singing, movement, and playing musical instruments, with folk songs as the core content. This helps children to learn the traditional songs of their own cultures, and develop an appreciation for the richness of other cultures as well.
Read on for some more interesting ways to use folk music in the classroom and beyond.
Simple examples to inform music lessons
Folk songs, with their simple, repetitive musical phrasing, can serve as excellent means for teaching the basics of musical notation, harmony, tempo, rhythm, pitch, and artistic expressiveness.
A wealth of classroom uses
Folk songs also afford an opportunity to enrich STEM- and STEAM-focused learning. They can be used in physics classes to illustrate the science of sound, in art programs in conjunction with an activity involving making musical instruments, or as examples of various points in American and world history.
With their catchy, easy-to-remember lyrics and rhythms, folk songs have become key components of popular repertoires for school bands, choral groups, and dance troupes.
A springboard for creativity
Because they’re highly adaptable, folk songs can accompany any number of games or playground activities. They encourage movement and the physical joy inherent in music.
Children can enhance the experience themselves by creating their own dances and games to accompany the songs. They can write pastiches that employ similar themes, or update the songs’ historical themes in amusing ways.
A way to strengthen memory and memorization skills
Their easy-to-recall rhythms and refrains make folk songs excellent tools for training the memory, as well as helping with recall. For instance, in adults with dementia and other cognitive disorders, the simple, familiar lyrics and melodies of traditional folk songs can bring about pleasant and soothing associations with their childhood.
Refining children’s ear for language
Folk songs can help children to expand their vocabulary through the use of rare and unusual words. Students may not immediately understand some of the dated language in a song, but once they learn the new words, they will have added to their store of language, as well as to their ability to express themselves and communicate within a new framework of ideas.
A number of researchers have drawn a strong connection between learning folk songs and learning the finer points of English grammar and syntax. Thanks to the memorable patterns of rhyme, rhythm, and repetition found in folk songs, this learning technique can be especially useful and meaningful for English language learners.
Additionally, folk songs can help listeners to mirror and model correct word pronunciation and accent, while repeated singing or listening to a folk song will continue to reinforce the grammar and articulation of that particular song.
A web of historical connections
Through folk songs, students learn not only about their musical heritage, but about the historical events that have shaped this heritage—and their own lives. These songs connect children to generations of people—in their culture and in others—who have come before them, and whose lives made the world what it is today.
On its website, NAfME lists a number of American folk song genres that have developed over time, each deserving a closer look from teachers and students. These include African-American spirituals, Shaker tunes, songs of the Civil War, and work songs sung by railroad workers, seamen, and cowboys. Each can provide an intimate insight into what the lives of a wide range of Americans were like.
A few historical examples
Teachers who devote time to teaching some of the history behind folk songs have found that it often piques their students’ interest in learning more about the historical topics addressed. Children often enjoy hearing about the origin of a song and its history as played, sung, and danced to by various peoples over time.
Some teachers find that folk songs are a good fit with material geared to meeting state core educational standards. For example, many states’ official state songs are folk songs comprising multiple historical references, and as such are culturally, musically, and historically a part of every American child’s history.
For example, “Yankee Doodle,” sung during the American Revolution by British and Colonial soldiers alike, is the state song of Connecticut. The official state gospel song of Oklahoma is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” attributed to the former slave Wallace Willis, who, upon seeing Oklahoma’s Red River, is said to have been reminded of the Jordan River and the Bible story of the prophet Elijah being lifted into heaven in a chariot.
The song “Shenandoah,” also known as “‘Cross the Wide Missouri,” is said to have originated with the French adventurers and fur traders, called voyageurs, who traveled along the Missouri River in the early days of the European push westward in North America. The song references a voyageur who fell in love with a Native American woman. It later was widely adopted by American sailors. Its mysterious references and simple, haunting melody have kept it at the center of the American folk song corpus for generations.
Recordings of songs like “Shenandoah” can additionally serve to acquaint children with great singers in the American popular canon, such as Paul Robeson. In the 1930s, Robeson recorded a number of versions of the “Shenandoah” tune. Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Waits have also recorded their own versions. Comparison of the various versions of the song could be particularly instructive for older students studying vocal interpretation.
The study of an instrument is a long-term commitment. Students will need to feel comfortable with their choice and dedicated to getting the most out of their studies. With hard work, focus, and diligence, however, learning to play an instrument can be a way to enrich a child’s life well into adulthood.
The following seven tips can help parents, educators, and children identify the instrument that will be the best and most enjoyable fit.
1. Consider the child's age and development.
First, consider the child’s age. For particularly young children, consider the physical and developmental demands of each instrument. Children of this age may not have the physical strength, dexterity, or muscle fluency to manage certain instruments.
2. Consider the piano and the violin, particularly for younger children.
Expert teachers typically recommend the violin and the piano for children under 6 years of age. Both of these instruments serve as excellent building blocks for learning music theory and practice. They also assist with learning to play additional instruments.
The Suzuki Violin Method is one of the teaching practices that focuses specifically on the qualities of the violin as a young beginner’s instrument. Learning violin is made easier for younger children because the instrument can be fashioned in very small sizes. This makes it simpler and more intuitive for a child this age to manage fluidly and naturally.
The violin is also an excellent choice of instrument for teaching young music students to play in tune. Another advantage is that the act of bowing provides a kinetic manner through which students can learn the concept of musical phrasing. And, because the violin has no keys or frets, a young player can concentrate completely on the sounds he or she is creating.
The piano offers its own plusses as a first instrument. A child learning to play the piano picks up foundational skills of musicianship by becoming proficient in harmony and melody at one and the same time. Piano students gain experiential knowledge that will help them to better understand music theory.
3. Consider the child’s physical abilities and limitations.
An instrument’s design and its fit with a child’s physicality is also an important consideration. If a child’s hands are relatively small, for example, he or she may not have the finger span to become an accomplished pianist or a player of a larger stringed instrument.
For woodwinds and brass instruments, make sure that the embouchure—the place where the child places his or her mouth to produce sound—is a good fit. Keep in mind that some students take time to learn the best way to address this. The oboe has a double read mouthpiece and the French horn has a slender tube mouthpiece. As a result, these instruments present particular challenges regarding their fit against a player’s mouth.
For children who need orthodontic help, it can be better to select a stringed or percussion instrument. This is because blowing through any sort of embouchure may be uncomfortable or even painful.
4. Consider which instruments the child enjoys listening to.
Sound is an important quality as well. A child should enjoy the sound her instrument makes. Otherwise, he or she may be reluctant to continue practicing and playing it.
Experts point out that it is unrealistic to believe that, over time, a child will come to like the sound of an instrument he or she dislikes. Such a child may, instead, neglect lessons and resent practicing.
This is particularly important for parents to remember, because band directors sometimes encourage children to take on specific, less-popular instruments simply because one is needed in the ensemble.
5. Consider the child's temperament.
A child’s personality is another good indicator of the best instrument to select. For example, an outgoing child who enjoys being the center of attention will likely gravitate to an instrument that offers greater potential for front-of-the-band performance and solos. These instruments include the flute, saxophone, and trumpet. All are made to carry a central melodic line, rather than to play supporting roles.
6. Consider the social implications of the selected instrument.
One factor sometimes swept aside by adults can have a big impact on children. This factor is the social image of an instrument, and what that says, by implication, to peers about a child’s own image and personality.
Many children gravitate toward the instrument they perceive as having the most status among their peers. Unfortunately, that instrument may not be the best fit. Adults should encourage each child to take a fresh look at the instrument that actually seems best for him or her.
7. Consider your budget as well as any maintenance commitments.
Practical issues of cost and maintenance will also be on most parents’ lists when choosing an instrument. Take some time to go over a realistic timetable of maintenance with a child’s music teacher. A piano, for example, is one of the most expensive instruments, and needs to be tuned twice annually by a professional.
Remember that many music vendors offer monthly payment programs. A trial rental may also be a good option until a child is certain that he or she really likes an instrument. Some schools will facilitate free long-term loans of instruments for their band members.
It may also be worthwhile to explore options provided by nonprofit groups. For example, Hungry for Music supplies children in financial need with donated and carefully refurbished instruments.
A 2016 piece in The Atlantic echoed numerous other recent articles noting that increasing focus on academic standards and testing in schools has led to a declining focus on character building and empathy. While parents and teachers are becoming more aware and concerned about this problem, music offers many solutions.
Here are seven ways music education can promote social harmony:
1. Developing compassionate citizens.
Renowned music educator Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, who originated the Suzuki method, understood that learning to play a musical instrument could be a significant part of learning to develop into a caring human being and a good citizen. In fact, many music teachers view the Suzuki method as being in a class by itself for this very reason.
Experienced teachers also note that the same skills acquired when children study music lead to the development of positive character traits such as tolerance, respect, and a sense of perspective. Working together to study and perform a piece of music fosters a sense of common purpose and encourages collaboration with other people who come from a variety of backgrounds and possess a range of viewpoints.
2. Getting people in touch with their emotions.
In their book Music Matters: A Philosophy of Music Education, published by Oxford University Press, David Elliott and Marissa Silvermann discuss the emotional component in music. This is a perennial topic in any discussion of music, going back to the days of the ancient Greeks. Both Plato and Aristotle commented on the ability of music to evoke either positive or negative emotions in listeners.
Neurologists and psychologists focused on the power of music agree. In fact, sophisticated new research studies show how musical notes and chords can produce corresponding emotional states in listeners.
3. Counteracting bullying.
In fact, a 2015 article in Psychology Today magazine even suggests some music is a possible antidote to extreme antisocial behaviors such as bullying and bigotry. The article points out that learning to play a musical instrument beyond the level of bare technical proficiency draws on a host of emotional skills and sensitivities.
In order to produce the most pleasing sequences of sounds and reach the hearts of audience members, a player needs a certain level of emotional maturity and expressiveness. A range of talented musicians have opined that music can deepen and broaden an individual’s perspective. As a result, he or she can grow beyond early prejudices and begin to view other people with greater comprehension and appreciation.
For example, the late jazz musician Paul Horn was once quoted as saying that music is an extremely useful way to bring people together in greater peace and mutual understanding, easing the burden of communicating across personalities and cultures. Numerous other musicians have specifically noted music’s power to overcome even the strongest racial and cultural prejudices.
4. Reducing violence.
A group made up of musicians, producers, and others based at the University of California, Los Angeles created a collective performance space for the expression of a wide variety of world music instruments and genres. They called their collective Westwood Village Entertainment Group. It has worked to facilitate a welcoming environment for a diverse group of musicians, performers, and audiences.
The idea emerged out of one young ethnomusicologist’s experiences growing up in a crime-filled neighborhood in New Jersey. The young man found escape through learning to play African drums. Now, because of WVEG, he and his fellow musicians hope to foster a sense of community and welcome.
5. Reminding listeners of relevant events or eras.
The canon of popular music is filled with deeply moving, inspirational pieces that seek to heal the rifts and prejudicial attitudes that arise between people. Examples include Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” as well as Curtis Mayfield’s “We Got to Have Peace” and the classic hymn of the Civil Rights era, “We Shall Overcome.”
6. Reducing bias and promoting empathy.
One study, published in Psychology of Music, centered on a social experiment with elementary school children in Portugal. Their community is composed of lighter-skinned people descended from families with long histories in the European country as well as darker-skinned people whose heritage lies in the African island nation of Cape Verde.
Over a period of several months, the researchers introduced one group of young students to songs from Cape Verde in addition to their regular lessons in European Portuguese music. A control group did not receive exposure to the Cape Verdean songs.
Before the study, all of the children surveyed displayed a moderate amount of bias against darker-skinned individuals. By the conclusion of the study, however, the children who had been exposed to the music of Cape Verde demonstrated significantly lower levels of such prejudice. The control group showed no change in their negative attitudes.
The researchers in this study theorized that, for the children involved, learning to like the music of Cape Verde translated over into learning to like the other children whose families came from Cape Verde.
This aligns with a principle identified in psychological research. The idea is that a feeling of similarity or having common interests with another person tends to increase empathy for that person. The researchers further theorized that songs may be particularly valuable tools for fostering feelings of commonality and similarity, and thus of empathy.
7. Strengthening interpersonal relationships.
A 2015 article in Music Educators Journal makes a similar point. Its authors posit that the collaborative experience of making music with others involves activities such as synchronization, group problem-solving, imitation, and call-and-response.
All these activities tend to have a positive influence on interpersonal relationships and on individuals’ abilities to work successfully in groups, and thus, on the development of empathy. According to experts, the themes of music are the themes of human life itself. Therefore, learning to make music makes us more human.
The brass family of musical instruments takes its name from the material with which they are made, and their booming, brassy sound makes a big impact.
The brass instruments that most young students will encounter are the French horn, tuba, trombone, and trumpet. They might also meet the cornet, which is very similar to the trumpet, and the sousaphone, closest in style to the tuba. The euphonium and the baritone are less well-known—their size and range fall somewhere between the trumpet and the tuba.
Buzzing mouthpieces, valves, and pipes
Musicians play brass instruments, as they do members of the woodwind family, by pushing their breath into the instrument. But, unlike the woodwinds, it is not a vibrating reed, but a metal mouthpiece shaped like a cup, that amplifies the sound and drives it forward as the player’s lips buzz against it.
Today’s brass instruments consist of a long stretch of tubing or piping that flares out toward the end like a bell. In order to allow for better and smoother handling and playing, the instruments’ pipes are configured into twists, curves, and curlicues of various types. Attached to the pipes are a variety of valves that allow the player to open or close a range of apertures along the pipe’s length.
When a player presses down on various combinations of valves, he or she can vary the sound, loudness, and pitch.
The clear, strong sound of the trumpet
The trumpet and the cornet are the smallest and highest-pitched members of the brass family. The differences between the two are miniscule, and their sounds are almost indistinguishable, although the trumpet’s shape is slightly longer and slimmer. Beginning players typically find that neither is an improvement on the other.
The trumpet is easy to maintain and to store, with only two body pieces to take apart between one band practice and the next. The instrument’s valves and slides need occasional oiling.
The earliest prototype of the trumpet we know today appeared in approximately 1,500 BC. Early artisans began to decorate the horns they fashioned from animal tusks, and eventually from ceramics and metal. But the trumpet remained largely a one-note hunting, ceremonial, and wartime accessory until the latter part of the Middle Ages. It was then that musicians began to realize its artistic possibilities.
Baroque composers began to incorporate the trumpet into their compositions, impressed with its clear, ringing tone. By the close of the 1700s, Viennese musician Anton Weidinger had added keys to the instrument, giving it the capacity to produce a complete chromatic scale in all registers. The invention of valves replaced the keyed system, and by the second decade of the 1800s, the first working brass instrument valve ushered the trumpet into the modern orchestral age.
Makers of early musical recordings were so taken with the strong, bold sound of the trumpet that they featured it often, and superstar players such as Louis Armstrong made it an indelible part of the American musical experience.
Learning to slide with the trombone
The trombone’s long slide piece increases the length of its tubing and changes its pitch, making the slide analogous to the valves found on other instruments. Like the trumpet, it ends in a bell-shaped piece, but has a larger mouthpiece than the trumpet.
The trombone is relatively more challenging to play and to care for than other brass instruments. It’s important to take particular care of the slide and treat it gently—if it is damaged, the instrument becomes unplayable. The trombone’s two-piece structure makes it easy to assemble and disassemble, and, like the trumpet, it simply requires occasional oiling and greasing.
Students who have good pitch will be able to know exactly how far to extend the length of the slide to produce a desired tone. Students who are unsure of pitch may have more difficulty in controlling the trombone’s pitch.
The trombone arose as a byproduct of the development of the trumpet in the 1400s. Until hundreds of years after its invention, musicians and composers in the English-speaking world called it the “sackbut.”
From cor de chasse to French horn
The model for the French horn was based on ancient horns used for hunting. Its name is a bit of a misnomer, since most of the major developments in the instrument took place in Germany. Like its relatives, it was developed during the late-medieval period, when musicians’ experimentation created a variety of new horn types.
Seventeenth-century alterations in horn formations produced a model with a larger flared bell, the first recognizably “French horn” type of instrument. This model was originally called the “cor de chasse” and then the “French horn” in English.
Complete beginners are not usually capable of attaining great proficiency in playing the French horn, and so should proceed with caution before settling on it as a band instrument. But for a student with an excellent grasp of pitch and solid prior musical training, it can be a good choice. Like other brass instruments, the French horn is comparatively simple to store and to care for.
The big and beautiful tuba
The tuba, the brass family’s largest instrument, is also its deepest. It can play both accompaniment and melody, adding surprisingly nuanced and beautiful tones.
Students can obtain tubas of various sizes; it’s important for each musician to identify the size that’s right for them. Younger players who struggle with the full-sized tuba may find that the baritone is a more manageable instrument, at least at first. The tuba’s care is similar to that of other brass instruments, and it consists of at most three pieces.
Unlike its cousins, the tuba’s origins lie not in ancient or medieval times. Drawing on previous valved band instruments, two Berlin-based musicians filed a patent for the tuba in 1835. Johann Gottfried Moritz and Wilhelm Wieprecht provided their new instrument, set in the key of F, with five valves. Later variations include the Wagner tubas, small-bore models created specifically to fit composer Richard Wagner’s requirements in his large-scale opera The Ring of the Nibelung.
According to the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), early learning music programs should include numerous opportunities for exploration through listening, singing, dancing, and other kinds of movement. In addition, teachers should provide the opportunity for kids to actually play musical instruments.
Both learning how to play an instrument and learning about music assist young children in developing critical thinking skills and empathy, and promote positive socialization. By making music together, young children also get the chance to experience a wide range of cultures, learn new words, and develop vital senses involving body and spatial awareness, as well as fine and gross motor skills.
Every child has the potential to make music and to develop a lifelong appreciation for it. The key is to provide a rich range of developmentally appropriate musical experiences that allow for participation. In a general early childhood classroom, teachers should emphasize fostering a wide and deep appreciation for music, rather than on training children to attain performance-level proficiency.
Here are a few insights, gathered from the NAfME’s website and a range of other parent and teacher resources, about the specific instruments, practices, and activities that can make sharing music with young children especially vibrant and meaningful:
1. Select music literature for the classroom with a focus on quality.
The selection of music literature in an early education music classroom should acquaint children with high quality works of classic status or perennial value. These can include traditional folk tunes, the works of the classical music repertoire, and world music produced by a range of different cultures over time.
2. Look for age-appropriateness.
Professional educators note that it is vitally important to calibrate the types of materials and activities in an early childhood music classroom to children’s developmental age. Children become bored and will not engage if the material is too complicated or goes over their head.
3. Set up for fun.
Teachers can have a container of rhythm instruments, such as maracas, tambourines, shaker eggs, handbells, and other percussion instruments ready for impromptu group music-making. They can also stock a basket with accessories such as scarves, feathers, ribbons, and other things that kids will enjoy swirling, twirling, and dancing with.
If the classroom can accommodate it, a microphone is a great way to instill self-confidence in young performers who love to sing. And a quiet listening corner filled with choices of classical, jazz, and world music recordings can offer young children the opportunity to further expand and refine their musical tastes on a self-directed basis.
4. Add some real instruments.
Teachers, music educators, and parents tend to recommend certain types of instruments as the most appropriate for young children to become acquainted with at home or in the classroom. These include bells, the xylophone, drums, the piano, and the guitar.
5. Sound the bells.
A set of color-coded desk bells can be an easy and fun way for young children to learn about the variety of notes and tones. Their clear, simple tones are easy to distinguish from one another.
Bells are easy to play—there are no keys, strings, or anything else to manipulate. An additional advantage is that a typical set of desk bells is tuned to the C-Major scale. Because young children typically understand color long before they can connect the name of a note to a sound or tone, it’s much easier to teach them that the blue bell sounds a certain note than it is to describe it as the “C” bell.
In addition, bells are far easier to master at a young age than most other instruments, thanks to the fact that a set of desk bells typically consists of no more than eight notes.
6. Beat the drums.
Drums are another favorite with young children, with good reason—they’re simple and easy to understand and to use, and offer the immediate reward of sound. Bongo drums are a good choice for young children’s drums, particularly in the classroom, because of their smaller and more manageable size.
Although they don’t help with the development of pitch, playing drums builds coordination, and the associated sounds and movements help kids acquire a sense of rhythm. Another advantage is the limited number of sounds a drum can make, a factor that introduces a welcome predictability and familiarity for the youngest students.
7. Pound the xylophone.
A color-coded xylophone is a great way to give a young child an appreciation for notes and pitch. Its clear pitch and lengthy, sustained sounds help with pitch recognition. Some xylophones provide a way to remove and rearrange their components, giving a teacher or parent the flexibility to limit a child to only a few notes at a time for instructional purposes.
8. Strum the guitar.
Parents and teachers can purchase small, relatively inexpensive guitars designed especially for young hands. A guitar has the advantage of being portable; a young child can wear it throughout much of the day at home or in the classroom, which allows him or her to make up a song or sing a tune whenever the feeling strikes.
Thanks to the many guitar-playing icons of popular culture, the instrument can also seem “cool” and “grown-up” to a young child. In addition, there’s a wealth of resources available for teaching and making music with this popular instrument.
There are a few potential drawbacks to the guitar, however. It requires a bit more coordination, time, and practice to produce something that sounds like a melody. The notes on a guitar can also be confusing for young children, as there are multiple ways to produce the same note—for example, there are several middle C’s. In contrast, on the piano, there’s only one.
9. Learn the magic of the piano.
A number of music educators recommend the piano as an excellent choice for a first instrument, even for preschoolers. Though more complex than the drums, the piano offers a distinct and organic way of teaching relationships among notes, chords, and types of musical compositions.
The piano also offers an immediate reward, in that there is a one-to-one correspondence between a child’s actions (hitting a key) and the emergence of sound. The instrument can also teach fine motor skills and help a child develop an appreciation for subtle distinctions in pitch.