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Teaching Form through listening examples
But sometimes you need to mix up your music listening examples. We're not doing our kids justice if we only stick to classical. We need to engage students with music that is culturally relevant and prepares them for a lifetime of music-making. I mean, my ultimate goal is not to graduate symphony-ready musicians! I don't care if my kids go on to study music in college and my goal isn't to get them to become professional music anything. Honestly, I want to instill in my students a love for music and I want them to leave our school system feeling like they are empowered to join in the music-making process for the rest of their life. Yes, it would be great to have a student go on to get a music scholarship to college, I hope that some do! But, I would be just as happy if a student came to me in 20 years and told me that they are part of their local church choir or play in a little band with their friends on friday nights. With that in mind, I want to engage them with music that is compelling and ensnares their curiosity while still teaching them solid content. The great thing about using the example of Pharrel's Happy song is that the students already have a prior knowledge, they've got buy-in because they enjoy the song, and the transitions between sections are just ridiculously clear! Oh, and the lyrics are super upbeat and encouraging to boot! It's an amazing song!!
Finding Form in "Happy"-- Must use Movement!
It became clear that I would need to use some movement to help us work with this song. It's such a peppy song and students naturally start to move whenever they hear it. Why try and suppress that? Why not harness that energy and excitement and use it to add more clearly defined sections for the song?
I teach in a school where the population is about 90% Mexican immigrants. We have the largest population of English Language Learners (ELL) in our district, something that creates some unique problems. One of the things to know about ELL students is that you shouldn't push them too quickly or force them out of their comfort zone too frequently. They've got so much pressure and so much to learn and it's scary when you're immersed in a language that's not your own! They're tentative and tend to not take too many risks in the beginning. Well....this does not make improvisation easy! We have to give lots of support (visual, reinforcement, encouragement) to get them to move an inch... but when they do, they really move quickly! That said, the movements I detail below are pretty basic. Feel free to get a little more creative with your students if they can handle it!
The Process - Warning: Critical Thinking Ahead!
I decided that for the A section we would do something really easy to encourage the movement but not stress my ELL kiddos out too much. For the A section they only had to sway back and forth to the steady beat. If they wanted to snap or scoop with their shoulders or move their feet that was up to them. They got to make that choice. My only requirement was that they somehow move back and forth to the beat. I modeled this and showed them some variations on what they could do and then we moved on.
A' - VERSE TWO or A "prime"
The second time you hear this section (ABA) you could (with older grades) identify that there are some elements that are different. I like to say "same music, different lyrics" when I talk about multiple verses. I also point out the "yeah" background singers at the end of each phrase to show that there's something different. When I want to get really involved in the form identification I tell them that it's something we call A' or "A Prime." All that to say... "It's something a little bit DIFFERENT. Not so different that it deserves its own Letter/section but different enough that your actions cannot be EXACTLY the same." If they were just swaying back and forth with feet planted during the first A, then this time they have to add in a new element. Move your feet, snap your fingers, move your head, shake your hips, wave your arms, etc. Just do something that mimics this new section in that you add a little bit of a change. It needs to resemble what you did before but be a little different. A'
B - CHORUS
For this section we listened to the words and heard that he says "Clap along if you feel..." and so we decided that we should clap here. Instead of just standing and clapping I added another element to try and add some definition. We would clap out a square: 1. clap high left 2. clap high right 3. clap low left 4. clap low right. This helped us later to talk about for beats a measure and even lead to discussion about how many measures went in a phrase, etc. (hint: listen for the background vocals up high, they define the phrase) But that's for another lesson....
C - BRIDGE
This is something totally different than what we've heard before. I love to stop the song and say things like "Have you heard this before?" "Does this sound like A or B?" We identify that it's different material and talk about some of the elements we hear. Ultimately we decide that this should be a "freestyle" section and that you can do whatever you want. We move on.
We worked through the whole song and identified all the parts and then came to the world's shortest ending. I asked if they heard a "coda" which I usually identify as "the ending music. It's not really long enough to have its own form-identifying letter and not long enough to name it as its own part of the song." They don't really hear a coda but an abrupt end. Viola. We're done!
Critical Thinking-- It's worth taking the time!
When you take the time to listen and identify elements, compare music/actions to what you've already heard, ascribe movements that you think match the music, make connections between outside ideas and the music (bridge/bridge) you build the students critical thinking skills. This process is sort of like the typical whole class "think aloud" strategies that critical thinking pedagogs talk about. It builds into the kids the skills needed to stop and identify on their own and to notice musical changes. Guided listening and aural skills are NOT easy to teach to little ones. Any scaffolding and support that you can give them will help exponentially as they grow. Incorporating these easy critical thinking techniques help so much!
Great critical thinking questions/prompts for this song:
Raise your hand when you hear something different.
Have you heard this music before? If so, what does it sound like?
Hmmm. This music is similar, but what's different or what's new?
What are the lyrics saying? How can that inform our actions?
What about this music makes you think we should move this way?
What are some actions you can think of that would match this music/these lyrics?
How is this different from what we did before?
How can you change this action to make it fit better?
If we called the last section B, what do you think we could call this section?
We're at a new section of music. Is it similar to something you've heard? Is it new?
This song is about being happy. Do you think this is a good face to make (look sad/angry)?