10/20/10 Music Literacy at CLCS
Hello MIE Blog! My name is Ezra Weller, and my internship at the Conservatory Lab Charter School (CLCS) is now entering its third month. CLCS has integrated music into its curriculum since its beginnings in the 90s, but the program this year is brand new. Run by former Abreu fellows Rebecca Levi and David Malek, the program is modeled on Venezuela’s increasingly famous music program, El Sistema.
In tribute to El Sistema, Rebecca and David chose to emphasize music literacy (learning to read, write, and speak music) as their program’s main goal. Just like learning any language, we wanted to start with speaking before moving on to reading and writing. One of our goals was to emphasize rote learning, singing, and improvisation at the very beginning. After two months with the kids, now seems like an excellent time to pause and reflect.
The wind students (four trumpets, six flutes, four clarinets) have learned “Hot Cross Buns” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” by ear, and are nearly there with “Ode to Joy.” The students can both play and sing their parts in fixed solfÃ©ge and have performed this music successfully as a wind ensemble for the school and even for WGBH. In the trumpet studio (where I spend most of my efforts), we have covered strategies for matching pitch and often play the “sing what I play” game to test the students’ ears.
So we have successfully been focusing on ear training. Part of our “speaking first” goal, though, was to hold off on music notation until the ear training concepts were mastered. While we have not introduced traditional notation, we have been using a rhythm and pitch chart that essentially fills the same role. This chart has not exactly been a crutch for the program, but it does represent something of a compromise to our original idea.
A side note here is the idea of melodic memory. Without use of the chart, the students must remember melodies on their own, and so they are confronted by issues of form and long form memory internally. By giving them the chart, we are giving them the option are never learning the melody in such an intimate way. Unfortunately, the pressure of looming performances has necessitated the use of the chart for now.
Moving on to improvisation: with the trumpets, fellow teacher Chris Schroeder and I have been including improvisation elements into our exercises. For example, we might draw a hill-shaped curve on the board and ask the students to sing the pitch contour of the shape, then buzz it on their mouthpieces. After giving them a few more shapes, we ask the students to come up individually and create their own shapes for the rest of the class to execute. The kids love doing it, and it definitely reflects the idea of “speaking,” not just mimicry.
Its to soon to say how eliciting creation from the students now will effect them later, but I look forward to seeing them continue to develop.