Monthly Archives

June 2017

{Music Lessons for Kids} Finlandia // Sibelius

This is one of those pieces you don’t know you know. At least part of it, anyway. Let’s go to Finland.


Time for some geography. Stick with me, I promise we are going somewhere.

Picture in your mind’s eye that top portion of Europe. You know, where those three countries are all close together and everyone is blonde.

Got it?

Okay, now look at a map.

See how Norway and Sweden share a border? And Finland is across the water? Note Finland’s borders. Finland borders Sweden at the top, but straight down the eastern side, it’s all about Russia. And Finland and Russia haven’t always gotten along.

See, Finland used to be a Russian state. This is shocking, yes? I mean, out of all the times I have thought about Finland (which is at least 2, in my whole life), I have just assumed they have always been their own thing.

Not so, and here’s how it went down.

As the 20th century dawned upon these Northern lands, the Finnish people had been eating a lot of borsht, if you know what I mean. Russia was not exactly a kind landlord, and the Fins were ready for their 1776 moment. It was time to raise the Finnish flag, and a classical music composer would be a big part in his country’s march to freedom.

Enter Jean Sibelius.

Jean was a famous composer already, and he decided to write a very secretly nationalistic piece of music. Remember: Rebellion was brewing. He named it “Finlandia,” but only on the sly. That title was a little on the obvious side for a group of people planning their exit from oppressive rule. So he called it things like “Happy Feelings at the Awakening of Finnish Spring.” #forreal

Here’s where it gets dicey. The Finnish press needed cash to promote their agenda of freedom to the Finnish people. So they staged a little concert of Sibelius’ “Happy Feelings,” but it was secretly a fundraiser for the brewing rebellion. The piece quickly became representative of the resistance movement. A rallying cry for freedom.

From what we now consider “classical music”  – cool, right?!

The Fins were on their way, but it would take many more years for them to fully gain their freedom. Luckily for them, a little world event known as the Russian Revolution worked in their favor. The Russians suddenly had bigger fish to fry, what with the assassination of the entire royal family and all (remember when we talked about Rachmaninoff fleeing his country?). The Fins squeezed in a Declaration of Independence, and Finland, as we know it, was born.

Kristi, I thought you were a music teacher? Can you get to the point please?

Ah, yes! Glad you asked. First, we listen:

Finlandia is an incredible piece of music. The opening portion is powerful and rebellious. You can hear the Finnish cry for freedom, no? And the middle portion (go to the 6:09 mark) might just sound really familiar to you. It is the tune for the beautiful hymn “Be Still My Soul,” which happens to be one of my favorites.

And if I may segue hard from Finnish history to encouraging lyrics, I present my favorite verse:

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.

(The words to “Be Still My Soul” were written by a woman, incidentally. And the translation to English was done by a female as well. Rare and notable for the time!)

And here is a modern version of these gorgeous words and Sibelius’ stunning tune. This is the power of great music. It can be re-interpreted over and over, for new generations:

Can you stand how all over the place this post is? There is so much to say and so many ways to use this piece to teach our kids history, geography and theology. It’s all so much, and it makes me really happy. This is why I love what I do. Sign up for my newsletter — subject integration ideas coming this Friday!

Blessings my friends!


{Music Lessons for Kids} Stars and Stripes Forever // Sousa

How is it mid-July already?!?

If you are on a year-round homeschooling schedule, I have music lessons going all summer. Here is what we have covered so far from our Summer Playlist:

Okay, in the spirit of the month of patriotism, we move on to today’s lesson!

John Philip Sousa is an American musical treasure. Fitting for the future composer of all things patriotic, he was born in Washington D.C. His parents, however, were of Spanish and Portuguese descent – which I find fascinating! Here was a man raised with strong influences from other cultures, yet he went on to contribute greatly to crafting truly American music.

John’s father was a musician and quickly recognized great talent in his young son. In an effort to prevent him from running off to join a circus band, Papa Sousa enrolled little Johnny as an apprentice in the Marine Corp Band, a move that would strongly impact his son’s future.

John Philip moved up through the ranks (literally) until he became the United States Marine Band Conductor. Also a prolific composer, Sousa wrote 137 marches. His most famous is the piece that was eventually christened the National March of the United States: Stars and Stripes Forever.

Take a listen:

Sousa composed the piece on Christmas Day, 1896. He had been vacationing in Europe with his wife and received news of the death of his band manager during the voyage home. Moved and inspired, Sousa created the new music in his head and committed it to paper once he landed on American soil. Stars and Stripes Forever was well-received and quickly adopted. Just one year later, it was named America’s National March by an act of Congress.

Literature Integration Idea: I love using picture books with my young students to bring classical music to life. One of my favorites is John Philip Duck by the amazing children’s author Patricia Polacco. Edward’s pet duck enchants the guests of the famous Peabody Hotel by waddling to Sousa marches, thereby earning his name: John Philip Duck. Tie this great book into the lesson and bring the story of Sousa and his marches to life for your kids!

Finally, in a sharp seasonal contrast, enjoy what happens when a creative arranger considers the spirit of this most patriotic piece and marries it to familiar holiday tune:

Enjoy this very American piece of music!



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{Music Lessons for Kids} Music for the Royal Fireworks // Handel

How is your summer going? If you are rocking and rolling on a year-round school schedule, I’ve got summer music lessons you can add to your lesson plans. Here’s what we have covered so far:

In honor of our most patriotic month of the year, I now present to you a most patriotic piece of music, popular in fireworks displays across America.

The fact that it was written by a German guy who mostly lived in England makes it all the more interesting.

Give it a listen:

George Frederic Handel was born in Germany, but he is more associated with England because he spent much of his career there. He experienced early success with operas and oratorios (big music concerts without costumes or sets, usually from Biblical texts). He wrote a little one called Messiah a few people have listened to once or twice (#wink). We talked about the Easter portion of Messiah back in April – head HERE for that post.

Handel premiered Music for the Royal Fireworks in 1749. One of his last hurrahs, it caused a certified riot in the streets of London. At that time, only the truly wealthy people ever heard live music. Regular, non-fancy people simply did not have access to instruments or events where instruments were played.

The chance to hear live music outdoors – by one of the greatest composers that had ever lived – was an extraordinary opportunity. The entire city was excited to hit the streets and hear Handel’s new work. Horses and buggies crowded every thoroughfare, causing an epic traffic jam and shutting down those streets for hours.

…hmmm, imagine the aroma of all those horses crammed in a small space…

Music for the Royal Fireworks was originally composed to celebrate the signing of a military treaty, but it has since become associated with great patriotic moments around the world.

ACTIVITY: I included this piece in my guide to Musical Sketching found HERE. I have played it many, many times over the years and seen children sketch parades, flags, celebrations, and – of course –  fireworks. It’s great fun to see them sketch related topics without knowing anything about what the piece is about!

Have fun teaching your kids about Germany/England’s musical gift to American patriotism!

Happy 4th of July!




{Music Lessons for Kids} The Frogs // Telemann

I love toaday’s quirky little piece.

Get it? TOAD-DAY.

I mean, this guy was born in the 1600s and wrote a piece called The Frogs. I feel certain Georg Philipp Telemann had a sense of humor.

Check it:

Think of Telemann as the much-less famous buddy of Bach and Handel. He was rocking out the Baroque music with the best of them, but he somehow didn’t end up as well-known as the other guys. He was also one of the most prolific composers of all time. I feel bad for him that he isn’t famous.

But he is way dead, so he is probably okay with it.

The Frogs is technically known as the Violin Concerto in A Major, but let’s not get technical. When a piece is called The Frogs, you kind of need to keep it easy and breezy, which is just how this much sounds. In a baroque sort of way.

The scratchy violins are intended to sound like croaking frogs. It’s probably a stretch for kids, but fun nonetheless. It sounds strangely Americana to me, ala Aaron Copland.

So if you are out and about this summer, combing through mountain streams or damp sand dunes and happen to see a little froggy critter, think of Georg (no e) and smile.




{Music Lessons for Kids} Canon in D // Pachelbel

I wish I could summon Marty McFly to hop in his DeLorean and zoom back to 17th century Germany. I would have Marty sit down with Johann Pachelbel and give him the shocking news that his little Canon in D is one of the most well-known pieces of classical music in America, a country he would not know exists, ’cause it didn’t back then. Then Marty would tell him his Canon became popular because of a movie (to which Johann would say, “what’s that?”) about death, but now it’s heard most often at weddings.

It’s complicated.

Johann Pachelbel is the one-hit-wonder of the classical world. He did a lot of other stuff, but he is remembered for one thing, and one thing only: Canon in D, otherwise appropriately called the Pachelbel Canon.

Let’s listen:

It wasn’t much in its day and was quietly forgotten for a few hundred years, until a rakish director by the name of Robert Redford plucked it for the soundtrack of his directorial debut. Redford used the piece in the film Ordinary People, and baroque music history was made when the movie went on to win tons of awards and break the hearts of millions of Americans.

The tune cemented itself into American culture from this tragedy-filled drama.

And then, inexplicably, the piece became popular for weddings. #???????

These are things I don’t understand, but here we are.

The piece is also notorious for it’s repetitive chord structure, which is the basis for approximately one million other songs. The story is hilariously told here. There are a couple of salty words, so preview for yourself first before showing your kids:

I love this piece, overused or not. No wonder it is so common — it’s absolutely gorgeous.



***I’ve got more info on this piece coming in Friday’s newsletter — sign up if you aren’t already on my mailing list. Scroll to the bottom of your phone or look on the right side of your screen for the sign-up box!***

{Music Lessons for Kids} Radetzky March // Strauss

Today I’ve got a little Father’s Day family music lesson for you. Except this is not the dad you want, ’cause he was kind of horrible. Classical music from the dark side, coming at ya…

First, music + back story:

Joseph Radetzky von Radetz was a Austrian military great, famous for leading his people to victory at the Battle of Custoza. Austrian composer Johann Strauss Sr. wrote the Radetsky March in honor of the great hero, and the tune quickly took off and became a national favorite.

Grab a plate of schnitzel, and give it a listen:

Nice, huh? Fun, joyful, bouncy, patriotic. I’m practically saluting the Austrian flag as I type.

Here’s the thing, though…

The music is great, but Johann Strauss Sr. was kind of a horrible person.

Exhibits A-C:

  • He practically abandoned his wife, instead spending his time touring and promoting his music.
  • Then he had eight — 8! — children by a mistress he didn’t even bother to hide.
  • THEN, he refused to allow his children to become musicians, though they were clearly talented. #Austrianfamilydrama

(Spoiler: his plan did not work out. We’ve talked his two talented sons HERE and HERE.)

It brings us to an interesting question for your kids:

Does the greatness of your work really matter if you don’t love other people, treat them well, and cultivate goodness in the world?

Johann Strauss Sr.’s music is still famous. The Radetzky March is a national treasure to this day and is played at the finale of every single concert by the Vienna Philharmonic.

But was it worth it?

These are interesting conversations to have with your kids.



If you are looking for a more worthy Father’s Day lesson, read a bit about Johann Sebastian Bach HERE. By all accounts, he loved the Lord, loved his work, and loved his twenty — yes, 20! — children. 

{Music Lessons for Kids} Summer from “The Four Seasons” // Vivaldi

When you are deep into a year-long project writing seasonal music appreciation lessons, Vivaldi is kind of your best friend. He was the original seasonal classical music guy, composer of the crazy-famous The Four Seasons.

We’ve covered it twice on the blog already – Winter and Spring. You can find some background info in both of those posts, so I won’t belabor that here. It is summer after all, and summer music lessons should be short and to the point, no?

Let’s get to it!

Each “season” from Vivaldi’s work contains three movements, or parts. Today’s lesson focuses on the 2nd movement, because that is the one I find most engaging for kids. (The 3rd is pretty powerful, though!) This video begins at the 6:00 mark, where the 2nd movement starts:

As mentioned in the previous posts, Vivaldi based these pieces of a series of sonnets (some people think he wrote them himself, but nobody knows for sure). If you can take a minute for a little 18th century poetry, give this a look:

1st Movement:
Beneath the blazing sun’s relentless heat, men and flocks are sweltering, pines are scorched.
We hear the cuckoo’s voice; then sweet songs of the turtle dove and finch are heard.
Soft breezes stir the air….but threatening north wind sweeps them suddenly aside. The shepherd trembles, fearful of violent storm and what may lie ahead.

2nd Movement:
His limbs are now awakened from their repose by fear of lightning’s flash and thunder’s roar, as gnats and flies buzz furiously around.

3rd Movement:
Alas, his worst fears were justified, as the heavens roar and great hailstones beat down upon the proudly standing corn.

So pretty much: there’s a storm a comin’…

Now, I live in the south, where afternoon thunderstorms are almost a daily occurrence. It’s hard to picture the same scene in Vivaldi’s Venice, but weather is weather, and storms are universal. And that’s exactly what Antonio had in mind for Summer.

The 2nd movement in great for kids. First I have my students picture their most favorite peaceful summer spot – lake, pool, ocean – or even their own backyard. I have them close their eyes and imagine the most serene of environments — AND THEN I LOUDLY DESCRIBE BEING VICIOUSLY ATTACKED BY BUGS.

They, of course, love this and think I am crazy. And then I tell them that is exactly what Vivaldi was doing with Summer’s 2nd movement. Serenity then bug attacks. For real! Listen again and see if you hear it.

Oops – this lesson wasn’t so short. What can I say? I love The Four Seasons. And it’s also a fancy hotel, so there’s that too.



Classical Music Playlists for Your Homeschool: Summer

Summer is here! I could not be more thrilled. Though it is busy in its own way, I love the change of pace that comes with the summer schedule. Easy evenings, late bedtimes, and no homework = all my favorite things. What does your summer have in store?

I spent more time than necessary pondering where to take the blog this summer in terms of music lessons. I don’t expect most people to be intent on accomplishing music appreciation lessons in between summer camps, family vacations, and trips to the pool. However, I do know that a lot of homeschooling families keep a year-round schedule. And some families use summer to catch up on things that may have gone by the wayside during the school year (ahem**cough cough**music).

I landed on a combined list for June and July (handily labeled “Summer”). Hopefully it will be a resource for those of you who need it, and if you don’t — well, I will see you in August. Or September. #orwhenever 

You can find the Summer Playlist on Spotify HERE.

Even if you don’t plan to do any music lessons, please still use this list to fill your home with great classical music this summer. Music has a powerful effect on a child’s developing brain, and simply having this kind of music on in the background will help prepare them for a great school year next year. Really!

(Spotify note: You do not have to be a paid member to access the list – you can set up a free Spotify account that allows you to listen with ads. FYI -with the free version, only shuffle play is allowed on mobile devices. If you use an actual computer, you can choose individual songs. My Spotify user name is kristihillmusic – just sign up and search my username to access the playlists.)

Ok, let’s get to our Summer Playlist!


This famous piece made the list because June is the month most associated with weddings, and this happens to be one of the most well-known wedding pieces ever. The story of how this one rose to fame is super interesting – we will unpack it later this month.



We’ve already touched down on Winter and Spring, so it’s no shocker that Vivaldi’s Summer is on our list this month. Your kids will love what the music represents – and it’s easy to hear. (The link will take you to the 6:00 mark, which is the beginning of the 2nd movement. Listen to the end – it kicks in gear at 8:11!)



Music for the Royal Fireworks is commonly heard in 4th of July fireworks shows. Of course, it was written by a German-living-in-England, so American freedom was not really on the agenda when Handel penned this tune. You’ll get the full story in July.




There are patriotic undertones for the next two pieces on our list as well. Dvorak composed his New World Symphony after moving to, you guessed it, the New World, AKA ‘Merica. The Largo movement now has an association with the military, and the Allegro movement sounds like a famous movie score. Can’t wait for you to hear these two!



This violin concerto from Baroque great Georg Telemann gained the affectionate nickname The Frogs because of its fanciful depiction of the little critters. Perfect for summer.



This is another piece that has become synonymous with patriotism. It was used in the Opening Ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and beautifully depicts American composer Aaron Copland’s ode to the everyday working man.



This gorgeous piece makes the summer list in honor of it’s original premiere date – July 2, 1900. You might know this one as the tune for the gorgeous hymn Be Still My Soul. It originally had lots more to do with censorship, Finnish patriotism, and the Russians. More about that in July!



I’ve often thought summer would be perfect if it weren’t for all the bugs. Vaughan Williams depicts a buzzing wasp in this piece, and your kids will be able to hear it clearly right at the beginning. Then they can enjoy the rest of the piece – which is not so buggy.



This one made the list in honor of Father’s Day. It was composed by the senior Strauss, father to two sons who also became famous composers. We’ve talked about the sons on the blog already (here and here) and now Dad gets his turn. Warning: it’s more of a cautionary tale of what not to do when it comes to father/son relationships.



The last of the patriotic inspired pieces on our list — can you tell I am working the 4th of July into our summer list? A Sousa march with a great story is perfect for celebrating our country’s birthday.



Finally, the quintessential piece that embodies the languid heat and lazy days of summer. I included both a vocal and instrumental version on the Spotify list. The operatic vocal might turn your kids off, but try and give it a shot. Go for the instrumental if they just can’t deal. (Instrumental linked here.)


And that’s it! I hope you can use this list to get great music in your kids’ ears this summer. Find the playlist HERE. I will have a lesson post for you Thursday!



{Music Lessons for Kids} May Playlist Round-Up

Another month has passed, which means it’s time for our round-up post of the remaining May playlist pieces.

Catch up on all the May lessons with these links:

We only have two remaining. Here is the original text from my May Playlist introduction and links for listening. Add some Musical Sketching for simple music lessons!

Waltz of the Flowers // Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers is from The Nutcracker, which is way more associated with Christmas than springtime. But The Nutcracker is loaded with incredible music, and we won’t have time for all of it in December. So I plucked the flower piece out for this month. #seewhatididthere?

Spring Song // Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn has a funny little collection of music called Songs Without Words and his Spring Song is one of the most recognizable. It’s a light little tune, perfect for springtime.

I’ll be back Thursday with our Summer playlist! I am combining June and July for a combined list of classical music summer favorites. See you then!



{Music Lessons for Kids} Adagio for Strings // Barber

Here are our May Lessons so far:

Today’s piece is one I think of as an atmosphere piece.

I shared in my weekly newsletter recently about the Charlotte Mason concept of Education is an Atmosphere – the idea that a child’s learning atmosphere matters just as much as what is actually being taught.

***Shocking News Alert***

I think music is a BIG PART of creating atmosphere.


I included Adagio for Strings in the May playlist because it has a history of being played at military-related funerals, which makes it a good match for the Memorial Day holiday. Memorial Day tends to be all about pool parties and cookouts, but it is also a day to honor those who gave their lives serving our country. This piece conjures those feelings for me. It was once described by a music critic as “full of pathos and cathartic passion,” and I totally agree.

American composer Samuel Barber wrote the piece as a young man, in his 20s. It received its most notable moment in history after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Jackie Kennedy requested it be played in his honor, as it had been one of her late husband’s favorites.

The Monday after his death, the National Symphony Orchestra played Adagio for Strings to an empty concert hall for a live radio broadcast. The country sat in stillness with this music, mourning the loss of a President and grieving the end of Camelot.

Now, I know what you are thinking:

Kristi, this is depressing! I don’t want to teach my kids this! I want to go back to happy music. Bring back the birds or the dancing!

Well, here is where I tell you a secret:

Kids don’t necessarily need to know all this.

That’s why I call it atmosphere music. It is beautiful, meditative music – perfect for calm schoolwork and quiet projects.

I’m telling you this story, because I believe it helps you.

The parent.

The more connection we personally have to art and music, the more we will subconsciously pass on a love for the good, true, and beautiful to our children. As they say, more is caught than taught. If you want your kids to care about great music, guess what? YOU need to care about great music. And telling you this story is my way of bringing YOU into the picture. Appreciating how this piece held space during a significant moment in our country’s history might make it meaningful to you. And your kids will benefit from that.

So this one is for you, parents. Enjoy and appreciate the beauty of this historic piece of music.



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