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.
Experts point out that nothing encourages children to love reading more than when a parent sets the example. Children who see the adults in their lives taking time to read for pleasure are more likely to become enthusiastic readers themselves. So why not do the same thing for classical music?
One way to start children off with a love of music is to model exactly what that looks like: Play musical games together, dance and sing as part of regular family activities, attend concerts, and enjoy recordings of great music together.
But how can a parent demonstrate a love for classical music if he or she hasn’t had the opportunity to develop a taste for it?
Fortunately, a number of popular books—all written for interested adult laypeople by experts in the field—are available. The following list represents a sampling of fascinating books that can inspire a love of serious music while providing an enjoyable, educational read.
1. Experience the wonder
Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day by Clemency Burton-Hill offers simple, one-page summaries—each tied to a specific day of the calendar year—of the delights to be found in 365 different pieces of music. The 2018 book, published by Harper, brings this expert musicologist and media personality’s extensive knowledge of the subject within easy reach of anyone who has time to read one page each day.
The book offers a fun way to browse through Burton-Hill’s carefully curated selections as she provides fascinating snippets of information about each work, its composer, and its historical context.
While it makes a delightful browsing book, Year of Wonder can also be used as a personal tutor through a year of discoveries in classical music. Readers can look for online or hard-copy recordings of each work, making for an enriching multimedia listening and learning experience.
2. Glimpse fascinating lives
The Indispensable Composers: A Personal Guide, written by Anthony Tommasini and published by Penguin Press, is another 2018 title that provides a wide-ranging journey through the history of great music and exactly how its creators made it. Tommasini serves as the New York Times’ head music critic, and his encyclopedic knowledge of his subject is on vivid display in this book.
His assessment of each composer is easy-to-understand, free of jargon, and completely accessible, and is often accompanied by fascinating anecdotes and discussions of other cultural figures and of the author’s personal experiences in the world of music.
Even those who are unfamiliar with the ways in which, for example, Beethoven’s concertos or Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique revolutionized music will be able to grasp the significance of these and other big moments in the history of the classical music genre.
3. Catch the enthusiasm
A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera by Vivien Schweitzer, published in 2018 by Basic Books, brings the world of opera down to earth for even the most skeptical contemporary reader. Schweitzer, a former New York Times opera and music critic and pianist, offers readers a vivid romp through opera’s history and development, checking in on the most noted composers, performers, and performances along the way.
This lively book should dispel any stereotypes about opera being dull or beyond the comprehension of everyday people. Schweitzer ranges from the first opera known to have been composed—the early 17th century L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi—through great Romantic era pieces like Carmen by Georges Bizet to contemporary works by composers like Philip Glass.
The author provides us with riveting stories of the high—and low—moments in opera’s dramatic history, including the initial hostility of audiences toward Gioachino Rossini’s now-classic The Barber of Seville, and the rising and falling critical reputations of composers such as the near-contemporaries Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, bringing considerable wit and humor to the task.
4. Take a tour with an iconic guide
In 1984, beloved radio personality Karl Haas published Inside Music: How to Understand, Listen to, and Enjoy Good Music. Haas, who died in 2005 at age 91, had become an informal instructor in classical music for people all over the world through his program called Adventures in Good Music, broadcast by numerous public radio stations. Inside Music brings Haas’ distinctive blend of erudition and lively, pun-filled sense of humor to the fore, providing a friendly guided tour through the history and composition of great works. The book has been through multiple editions and remains in print under the Anchor imprint. Generations of readers have found it an indispensable first survey of its subject.
5. Enjoy a master class
The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold Schonberg, originally published in 1970, is another older classic widely read and loved by amateur and professional students of music alike. Still available in an updated edition published by W. W. Norton & Company, the book offers detailed but easily digestible biographical portraits of composers from the Baroque era to the minimalists, tonalists, and experimentalists of the 20th century.
The author additionally covers the lives and contributions of female composers such as Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, the sister of Felix Mendelssohn. This makes a welcome addition to our expanding knowledge of composers who have remained underappreciated for generations due to their gender.
Schonberg, who died in 2003, was another New York Times music critic, and the first person ever to earn a Pulitzer Prize for music criticism.
Since ancient times, archeologists have discovered relatively few musical instruments and fragments of musical instruments. Yet each one of them tells us something important about the musical heritage of humanity. Learning about each of them can play an important role in teaching today’s young students about the joys and possibilities inherent in making music.
A number of contemporary musicians recreate ancient instruments according to the best-available historical and musical information. Such instruments may be displayed in a museum, brought to school as a learning experience, or played in a performance. Here are a few of those instruments:
Perhaps the ancient instrument that remains best-known to today’s audiences is the lyre. The stringed instrument was popular in ancient Greece.
In fact, some commentators have described the lyre as the instrument that best illustrates the traditional character of Greece. Like the piano today, it was typically a central part of a student’s musical education. An ancient musician would play the lyre alone or as an accompaniment to singing or a poetry recital.
The standard form of the lyre was two stationary upright arms—sometimes horns—with a crossbar connecting them. The instrument would be tuned by means of a set of pegs, which could be made of ivory, wood, bone, or bronze. Stretched between the crossbar and a stationary bottom portion were seven strings that varied in thickness, but which were typically all of the same length. A musician either plucked the strings by hand or used a plectrum.
Closely related stringed instruments included the kithara, which also had seven strings; the phorminx, which had four; and the chelys, fashioned from tortoiseshell. In fact, ancient writers tended to use these four instruments interchangeably in variant retellings of different myths.
A typical Greek myth states that the messenger god Hermes originated the lyre. Hermes instructed the sun god Apollo in how to play the instrument. Apollo became a master lyre player who in turn instructed the gifted musician Orpheus.
The syrinx, also known as the Pan’s syrinx, the Pan flute, or—in modern times—the panpipes, is a wind instrument associated with the shepherd god Pan, as well as human shepherds. It was considered a rustic—not an artistic—instrument.
The Greeks were likely the first to make use of the syrinx, which was made of between four and eight sections of cane tubing of different lengths, bound together with wax, flax, or cane. A syrinx player could produce a range of rich, low tones by blowing across the tops of the cane tubes.
Thousands of years of Greek art frequently show images of the syrinx. Artistic depictions of mythological figures such as Hermes, Pan himself, and the satyrs—half goat, half man—often show them playing the syrinx.
The sistrum was a percussion rattle known to be used by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. It enabled musicians to create a backbeat accompaniment to the instruments carrying the tune, particularly during religious ceremonies.
A sistrum could be fashioned from wood or clay, as well as metal. Its percussive pieces consisted of horizontally arranged bars and the moveable jingle parts assembled along them. The sistrum had a handle attached to this framework, and a musician shook it just like a rattle.
The sistrum was chiefly associated in Egyptian culture with the mother goddesses Hathor and Isis. Ancient artwork shows musicians playing the sistrum in statues and figures on pottery.
4. Aulos and Double Aulos
The aulos, a reed-blown wind instrument that resembles a modern flute, was among the most commonly used instruments in ancient Greece. Associated with the god of wine, Dionysos, it was a frequent accompaniment to athletic festivals, theater performances, and dinners and events in private homes.
Like the contemporary flute, the aulos consisted of several individual sections that locked into place together. It could be made of bone, ivory, boxwood, cane, copper, or bronze. It also featured several different types of mouthpieces, which could produce various pitches.
The ancient Greeks also made use of the diaulos—the double aulos—which was made by affixing two equal-sized or different-sized pipes together at the mouthpiece. If the two pipes were of uneven length, the resulting sound was enriched with a supporting melody line. The Greeks also sometimes used a strap made of leather to secure the pipes to a musician’s face for ease of playing.
With its deep, resonant sounds, the diaulos typically functioned as a support for all-male choral performances.
Among the oldest-known ancient Chinese musical instruments is the xun, a type of vessel flute that researchers believe dates back more than 7,000 years. Historians believe that the xun was among the most popular instruments of its time.
The xun was typically made of pottery clay and often featured depictions of animals. Offering a one-octave range, it was fashioned into the shape of an egg with a flat bottom and a number of fingerholes along its body. A player could produce sound by blowing across the top mouthpiece.
Examples of the xun have been excavated at archeological sites in various parts of China, with some of the later finds formed to resemble fruits or fish. Some of the more intricately decorated xun created over the centuries have become highly prized pieces in museums and private collections.
Ancient writings mention the xun, often accompanied by the chi, which was a side-held flute typically made of bamboo.
Musicians usually employed the xun as a component of a traditional ritual ensemble. The xun was regularly used until about a century ago, and has recently experienced a revival. A contemporary version, with nine holes is used in some Chinese orchestras today.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is the home of countless artistic, historic, and cultural treasures from all over the world. Music educators, music students, and their families traveling to the city should all consider putting the Met’s vast collections of musical instruments on their day-trip itineraries.
The museum’s 5,000 instruments, with some more than 2,000 years old, come from all over the world. Curators have selected each one for its visual appeal and the quality of its sound, as well as for its importance in the entire history of humanity’s interactions with music.
Here are notes on only a few of the impressive items owned by the Met.
1. One of the first pianos
The highlights of the Met’s music collections include a grand piano dating from about 1720 in Florence, Italy, and constructed by Bartolomeo Cristofori. Scholars generally credit Cristofori with the invention of the piano, based on his functional hammered keyboard. The Met’s Cristofori piano is the oldest of the three known to be in existence, and it is fashioned chiefly from cypress wood and boxwood.
Cristofori’s design for his hammer mechanism was so well-constructed and musically flexible that no other inventor was able to devise a comparable one for 75 years. Many of today’s musicologists believe that the rich harmonies and tonal complexity of the contemporary piano trace directly back to his instrument.
2. A symphony in strings
The Met is home to a viola d’amore made by Giovanni Grancino in Milan in 1701. With the exception of the legendary violin-makers of the town of Cremona, Grancino is often viewed by musicologists as the foremost practitioner of his art working in the early 18th century.
The viola d’amore is one of the members of the viol family, which includes the violin. The Met’s example is created out of spruce, ebony, and maple woods, as well as iron and bone.
Grancino’s instrument features metal strings, a characteristic of early viola d’amores. Later pieces went on to use sympathetic strings. The metal strings were noted for giving the instrument its “sweetness” in sound.
Several other similarly shaped Grancino viola d’amores survive, with varying numbers of strings and in different sizes. In fact, his instruments were distinguished in part by the lack of standardization in their construction. Of the surviving pieces, one has four strings, two have five, and the Met’s example, in particular, underwent a reconstruction to restore it with its original six strings.
3. A bell that rings in ceremony and spectacle
A Japanese densho circa 1856 can be found among the Met’s collection. This leaded bronze ceremonial bell was used originally as a call to Buddhist prayer. With its depictions of dragon heads, flames, and a delicate chrysanthemum denoting the striking surface, this densho displays symbols common to many East Asian cultures. Japanese kabuki theater still sometimes incorporates the sound of a densho into performances.
4. A magical flute
An elegant little transverse (side-blown) flute created by Claude Laurent in 1813 also adorns the Met’s musical collections. Fashioned of glass and brass in Paris, the flute incorporates its designer’s skill as a watchmaker into its construction. Laurent employed various kinds of glass, as well as lead crystal, to create flutes in multiple colors.
Made from delicate white crystal, the Met’s flute features four brass keys. With his other flutes, Laurent followed Theobald Boehm, the early 19th-century inventor and musician responsible for the flute as we know it today, to fashion flutes with greater complexity in their keying arrangements.
After Laurent died, interest in his type of crystal flute fell away. Even so, his construction of keys affixed to “pillars” on the instrument remains a standard component of flute design today.
5. A guitar beautiful in sound and form
An intricately ornamented guitar constructed toward the close of the 17th century offers visitors to the Met a look at the care an instrument-maker from the past could lavish on one of his creations, from an aesthetic, as well as a functional, point of view.
Scholars attribute this guitar to Jean-Baptiste Voboam, who was one of an entire family dynasty of stringed instrument-makers working at a time when France was just beginning to come into its own as a source of fine guitar-making.
Whoever its maker may have been, its use of tortoiseshell, ivory, ebony, mother-of-pearl, and spruce make this guitar a particular pleasure to view.
6. A drum with many beats
A double-headed tánggǔ drum produced in 19th-century China during the Qing dynasty also adorns the Met’s collections. This lacquered example—fashioned from teak, brass, and oxhide—comes from Shanghai. Depending on where on the surface the player strikes the oxhide, the barrel of the drum will produce a rich variation of musical volume and tone.
This type of drum typically found its way into both Buddhist ceremonial activities and the performing arts. Today’s Chinese orchestras often make use of a modern-day form of the tánggǔ.
Learning to play the piano is the beginning of a great adventure for young children, who will make many musical discoveries that will enrich their lives. Some may go on to make music a career, and they will always remember their first exercises at the keyboard.
For generations, parents, experts, and educators have recommended simple pieces of piano music from the classical keyboard repertoire that are the most suitable for these early learners. Those on this list are a few of the most often recommended, both for their innate beauty and their value as learning tools.
1. Ludwig van Beethoven: Für Elise
The short piece “Für Elise” (“For Elise”) is one of the most instantly recognizable of the world’s simplest piano compositions. Listed in the Beethoven catalog as “Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor,” for the youngest students it is anything but a frivolous throwaway piece. Educators often suggest it as a practice piece based on its clear melodic line and pleasing harmonics.
Beethoven’s original manuscript for this piece likely does not refer to an “Elise.” Some scholars believe that the obscured first title read “Für Therese” (possibly referring to a young woman who spurned the composer’s marriage proposal). “Elise” may have come about as the result of a transcription error.
2. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata No. 16 in C Major
Mozart’s Sonata No. 16, known as “Sonata semplice,” or “Sonata facile,” is only “facile” because it is easy for beginners to play. He created it as a solo piece just for young beginners at the piano. It is a perennial favorite because it affords them the chance to perform a piece by this notoriously difficult composer with confidence.
The catchy melody and easy progression of the musical parts of this composition make it relatively simple to understand and to perfect for beginners. In performance, it typically takes about 14 minutes total.
3. Johann Sebastian Bach: Minuet in G Major
Bach’s wife, Anna Magdalena, left behind a notebook that contained this short harpsichord piece, which she had carefully hand-copied. Her notebook consisted of pieces by major composers of her time and before, a list that naturally included her husband. But some scholars today attribute this particularly lovely little piece not to Bach, but to fellow composer Christian Petzold.
Whoever the original composer may have been, Minuet in G remains a favorite of students and their teachers. It immediately leaps out of the air with a sprightly beginning, offers simple and easily distinguished variations, and ends with a sweet and definitive conclusion.
4. Robert Schumann: “Einsame Blumen”
In the original German, “Einsame Blumen” means “Lonely Flowers.” Schumann wrote this simple, melodic piece for his wife, Clara. She was also a distinguished pianist and performer.
The piece is part of the larger Schumann collection of piano miniature compositions entitled Waldszenen (“Forest Scenes”), Op. 82. Each one is a small tone poem that, in loving detail, offers an image of wilderness romanticism. “Einsame Blumen” is an excellent choice as a teaching vehicle for young beginners. Additionally, it remains a staple of the concert repertoire due to its soft, soothing quality and its gentle musical transitions.
5. Frédéric Chopin: Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28, No. 4
Chopin was a virtuoso pianist, but he composed a number of pieces that are easy enough for young beginners. These include the haunting, simple melody and spare harmonies of this Prelude in E Minor.
Music teachers often recommend that students new to Chopin start with learning his preludes, as they are the simplest and most accessible part of his oeuvre. This particular prelude is typically considered among the easiest piano pieces for a beginner to execute. This is due in part to its easy, distinctive melodic line for the right hand, accompanied by the series of basic chords for the left.
6. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: “Italian Song”
Tchaikovsky was not himself particularly known as a virtuoso of the piano. His collection in Op. 39, “Album for the Young,” reflects his focus on teaching young beginners through relatively simple compositions. “Italian Song” is perhaps the best-known of these, offering a lively, lilting, picturesque melody with a strong through-line.
Other compositions in “Album for the Young” are even simpler: “The Sick Doll” and “Morning Prayer” are typically ranked by music educators as highly suitable for young beginners. Other pieces in the collection are somewhat more difficult, and are perhaps better adapted for the needs of more skilled players.
7. Erik Satie: Gymnopédie No. 1
Satie, well-known as an early 20th century avant-garde French composer, created his series of “Gymnopédies” in 1888. They have stood the test of time among the simplest and loveliest beginning piano melodies. Additionally, the fact that they are meant to be played at slow tempos enhances their value to the youngest students.
Today, Gymnopédie No. 1 is instantly recognizable from its frequent use in film and television as a slow-paced mood piece. In fact, a number of critics have cited it as one of the most relaxing pieces to have ever been composed.
Learning to play a musical instrument can open up many exciting new adventures for a child and their family. To further encourage your child’s interest and enhance their learning, why not visit one of the following museums on your next family vacation? Music-focused museums can help your child appreciate their chosen instrument even more and see its place in the rich tapestry of humanity’s musical heritage.
1. The Met in New York shows how art sounds.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City needs no introduction as an art museum, but it is often overlooked as a rich source for learning the history of musical instruments.
The Met’s world-renowned collections include some 5,000 instruments from all over the world, with some dating back more than 2,000 years. The focus is on demonstrating how musical instruments have developed across cultures and throughout the centuries.
“The Art of Music Through Time,” housed in Gallery 684, is filled with objects, audio and video commentary, and related artworks that provide a multisensory illustration of the power of music. Meanwhile, the André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments house hundreds of instruments from Western and non-Western traditions. These include a group of Stradivari violins and the oldest known piano still in existence.
There’s also “Fanfare,” an exhibit that centers on 75 specific brass instruments—“brass” interpreted as any tubular instrument played via a mouthpiece—that range from ancient hunting horns to a plastic vuvuzela manufactured to commemorate the World Cup of 2014. In addition, the Organ Loft houses the Thomas Appleton Organ, constructed in the first third of the 19th century and one of the earliest American working pipe organs.
2. An acclaimed musical instrument museum in the desert.
The widely praised Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix, Arizona, is home to more than 13,000 instruments—about half of them on display at any given time—from almost every country in the world. The museum works with the goal of acquiring instruments of every time and place, with a special emphasis on folk and tribal instruments.
One entire gallery is dedicated to modern popular music. In this Artist Gallery, the objects on display honor artists from Pablo Casals to John Lennon, and Elvis Presley to Taylor Swift. Many of the museum’s installations feature audio or video recordings of iconic performances, while the Experience Gallery gives families a chance to actually play some of the world’s representative instruments. In addition, the MIM hosts regular performances that highlight a range of musicians and styles from around the world.
3. A cultural treasure being rebuilt in the Great Plains.
The National Music Museum in tiny Vermillion, South Dakota, has received accolades from the New York Times as one of the most important music museums in the world. It curates some 15,000 instruments, representing every part of the world and almost all of its cultures and time periods.
The museum’s collections include a viola made by the renowned Andrea Guarneri in the mid-17th century, and one of the earliest grand pianos ever constructed. Its walls also house a wide range of fascinating musical exotica, including stringed instruments crafted to resemble peacocks and harmonicas shaped like goldfish. High-tech exhibits rely on iPod Touch technology to play performance recordings of the instruments on display.
Currently undergoing a major reconstruction and expansion, the National Music Museum is set to reopen in 2021. It continues a lively current dialogue with its fans on Facebook, often offering video clips and pictures of some of the pieces in its collection.
4. See Mozart’s piano in Prague.
The Czech Republic loves and honors music and musicians. In the 1780s, for example, the capital city of Prague opened its arms to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and he conducted the world premiere of his opera Don Giovanni in its Estates Theatre. So it makes sense that Prague is the site of one of the world’s finest museums of musical instruments.
Located in a former historic church in the Lesser Town near the Vltava River, the Czech Museum of Music is a constituent part of the county’s National Museum. Within its walls are displayed some 400 musical instruments, each with extraordinary artistic and cultural value.
An architecturally stunning atrium provides a lovely location for a journey through “Man-Instrument-Music,” the museum’s permanent exhibit, which delves into the many connections between people and instruments over time. On view in the exhibits are a variety of stringed and wind instruments. A grand piano that Mozart once used is just one of the extraordinary objects on display.
Museum goers enjoy a heightened experience as their journey through musical history is accompanied by musical recordings played alongside the instruments in the exhibits. The museum additionally hosts regular concerts and special exhibitions.
5. Brussels houses musical treasures in an architectural wonder.
The Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels, Belgium, is another among the premier museums of its kind in the world. Housed in a restored, half-Neoclassical and half-Art Nouveau building complex, it houses a collection of more than 1,000 instruments ranging over four audio- and video-enhanced galleries that cover a variety of historical and contemporary periods.
The Brussels museum is part of the Royal Museums of Art and History, which makes its Carmentis online catalog, listing each of its instruments, publicly accessible. One fun feature of its website, at www.mim.be/en, is the Instrument of the Month.
The Musical Instruments Museum also encompasses a concert hall and a rooftop restaurant terrace with stunning views of Brussels.
The Juilliard School, which is housed at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on New York City’s Upper East Side, is an educational institution that has helped to further the skills, talents, and careers of numerous young musicians and other performing artists from around the world for generations.
Over the years, The Juilliard School has expanded its programs to include a broad array of performing arts curricula, and it now serves as Lincoln Center’s professional education division. It offers undergraduate degrees in music, drama, and dance, as well as a master’s program in music. Its current total enrollment stands at approximately 1,400 students.
The following are a few interesting facts about the Juilliard School:
1. Distinguished alumni
Designed as a place to nurture extraordinary talent, The Juilliard School has produced scores of distinguished graduates who include legendary pianist Van Cliburn; cellist Yo-Yo Ma; conductor Leonard Slatkin; contemporary actors Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, Samira Wiley, and Michael Urie; and Jon Batiste, bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
2. A turn-of-the-century American conservatory
The school began as the Institute of Musical Art in 1905, when it took up residence at the corner of 12th Street and Fifth Avenue.
Founder Dr. Frank Damrosch was the godson of the 19th century composer and musical prodigy Franz Liszt. Damrosch, then the head of the city’s music education program for public schools, worked with a focus on providing American music students with access to the same quality of instruction that was common in the best European conservatories.
When the institute opened its doors, it did so with a student body that was five times as large as originally expected, leading to a sudden need for expanded quarters. In 1910, it relocated to a space close to Columbia University.
3. A benefactor’s legacy
In 1919, Augustus Juilliard died, leaving a will containing the largest single bequest to further music education that was unseen up until then. Juilliard, who made his fortune in the textile industry, was thus immortalized in 1924 through a new institution called The Juilliard Graduate School, funded by his bequest under the auspices of the Juilliard Foundation.
Two years later, the graduate school merged with the Institute of Musical Art. The new combined school would be renamed The Juilliard School of Music in 1946.
4. Expansion beyond music
The school, as constituted after 1926, came under the direction of a single president, John Erskine, a popular novelist and a professor at Columbia University.
In 1937, Ernest Hutcheson, a widely known composer and pianist, took over as president, followed in 1945 by William Schuman, a distinguished composer.
Schuman began an effort to increase the school’s reach by offering not only music courses, but a new dance division, as well. The Literature and Materials of Music program, a pioneering curriculum in the art of music theory, also became a core component of the school during his tenure.
5. An iconic string quartet
It was also under Schuman’s direction that the school established its own in-house quartet, the Juilliard String Quartet, in 1946.
The Boston Globe has called the quartet the most important ensemble of its kind ever to be founded in the United States. Today, its members not only champion and exemplify the classical tradition, but they consistently work to expand the repertoire of newer works performed. Its 2018-19 season features works that include a newly commissioned piece by renowned Estonian-American composer Lembit Beecher.
Quartet members served as master instructors during their touring seasons, working with students in classes and open rehearsal formats. The group also hosts a five-day-long Juilliard String Quartet Seminar, annually in May.
In 2011, the quartet received a National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences lifetime achievement award, the first ever presented to a classical ensemble.
The Juilliard School today also hosts a broad array of other performances, including those by its orchestra, wind ensemble, and members of its Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts.
6. Becoming part of Lincoln Center
In 1968, when Peter Mennin served as Juilliard’s president, he oversaw the creation of a drama studies program headed by powerhouse actor and producer John Houseman. In that same year, under Mennin’s direction, the school rebranded itself with its current name, The Juilliard School, then relocated to its campus to Lincoln Center in 1969.
During Dr. Joseph W. Polisi’s tenure as president, Juilliard added new curricula in historical performance and jazz, as well as several new drama and liberal arts tracks and community engagement programs. Damian Woetzel, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, became Juilliard’s president in the summer of 2017.
7. A rich history captured on film
A documentary on the history of the school, which was produced by PBS, features the remembrances of current and former alumni and instructors. In 2018, the documentary became available for streaming online.
Titled Treasures of New York: The Juilliard School, the hour-long film includes comments from world-renowned figures in the arts such as violinist Itzhak Perlman and trumpeter and music educator Wynton Marsalis. The film captures the school’s rich history of teaching, learning, and performing, from its inception to its relocation to Lincoln Center.
8. An even stronger international footprint
The Tianjin Juilliard School in China is projected to open in the fall of 2019. The school’s creators envision it as incorporating all of the elements of a true 21st century music conservatory on an international scale.
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.
The universality of music as an art form—and as a cultural treasure—has become a cliche. However, as music teachers know, that cliche represents an important truth about the way in which music can expand horizons, facilitate understanding, and contribute to a broader appreciation of the heritages of all the people in the world.
Children who learn that there are others much like themselves who make music, dance, and sing together just as they do, can be a powerful motivator for them to learn more about other cultures. And when they participate in positive programs that introduce them to cultures other than their own, they learn to become more tolerant and accepting of other human beings.
In addition, participation in multicultural musical activities exposes children to a wider variety of sounds, intonations, and rhythms than they would ordinarily experience at home.
Educators point out that the process of teaching children music from a rich variety of cultures should begin in early childhood with an emphasis on broad participation. And any good early childhood music program will typically incorporate rhythmic movement activities and opportunities to develop social skills.
Studies validate multicultural music experiences.
Research has shown that when children hear music from other cultures, they develop the ability to perceive fine distinctions among sounds. This is just the type of experience that helps them to acquire and build on vital early language skills. They also learn the art of listening and increasing their ability to concentrate.
Experts assure anxious parents that hearing music in multiple languages—just as in the case of learning a second language—actually helps young children to improve their primary language skills.
World Music Day honors many traditions.
In fact, there is an entire day dedicated to the celebration of listening to, performing, and enjoying music from all over the world. World Music Day, which is observed in a multitude of ways in numerous countries, occurs on June 21 of each year.
The observance began in France, as Fête de la Musique, in the early 1980s. Since then, it has served as a means of promoting free access to music for everyone in some 700 cities worldwide, and it is supported by organizations such as Musicians Without Borders.
A treasure trove of recorded music.
Teachers and parents who want to focus on offering a multicultural palette of musical experiences can begin with one of the many well-reviewed recordings for children. These include the series published by Putumayo, which provides high-quality CDs of representative musical compositions from a wide range of cultures for children of all ages.
Putumayo’s children’s catalog, which is available online, includes the classroom favorite and Parents’ Choice award-winner World Playground. The label’s other selections include Kids’ African Party, which also offers an aid to learning with a list of instruments and musical genres that are distinctly African.
Other Putumayo titles include Cuban Playground, Italian Playground, and other “Playground” CDs featuring musical styles from New Orleans, Brazil, France, and the Caribbean. The albums are joined by several “Dreamland” collections, featuring multicultural songs suitable for quiet family times.
A classic American performer interprets the music of the world.
Ella Jenkins is a performer beloved by generations of parents and children. Jenkins, an African-American singer and actress, has worked since the 1950s to deliver definitive renditions of a wide range of folk songs for audiences of children. Her albums are available on the Smithsonian Folkways label.
Jenkins’ classic Smithsonian Folkways albums include Multi-Cultural Children’s Songs and More Multicultural Children’s Songs. Children can enjoy songs from these albums that teach common greetings in many languages, including Swahili. Other tracks include renditions of beloved songs depicting the cultures of Israel, China, Australia, Germany, and many other nations.
Smithsonian also publishes Jenkins’ early albums Call and Response: Rhythmic Group Singing, which introduces listeners to West African music, and Adventures in Rhythm, which teaches awareness of rhythmic concepts in music from the very basic to the more complex.
A bilingual educator offers multiple ways to learn music.
José-Luis Orozco is another musical artist with an international catalog that spans decades. A teacher with a master’s degree in education, Orozco has made a career of sharing the joys of music in Spanish and English with children and their families. He performs throughout the Americas to promote the value of bilingualism and multicultural understanding.
Orozco’s albums include Caramba Kids, De Colores, Esta es mi tierra/This Land Is Your Land, and numerous others. His website also offers educational kits that can enhance classroom music and cultural programming.
Putting traditional American classics in a global frame.
Another Smithsonian Folkways artist, Elizabeth Mitchell, offers recordings anchored in her early work as a teacher of young children in New York City. Her classes consisted of children who spoke a wide range of languages. Mitchell discovered that music could serve as a bridge among cultures. She has since gone on to immerse herself in the American and world folk music traditions. Her highly accessible albums include You Are My Little Bird, which features interpretations of American Appalachian and other folk melodies appropriate for all ages.