Music can be very abstract for young children. These are the methods I use in the classroom to make music lessons a bit more tangible…
A Classroom Favorite
“Mrs. Hill, can we PLEASE do musical sketching today???”
I hear this on a regular basis – Musical Sketching is a favorite activity for my students. I didn’t invent this idea, and lots of teachers do it and call it different things – I call it Musical Sketching, because it is a simple description that fits exactly what it is.
What is Musical Sketching?
Musical Sketching isn’t complicated: simply play your chosen piece of classical music and tell your children to draw what they hear. Some will get to work without asking questions, and others will look at you like you are crazy. The phrase draw what you hear is innately thought provoking – what does it even mean?
I find, the older the child, the more they overthink the activity and try to do it “right.” I assure them there is no right or wrong, they should simply draw whatever comes to mind. Younger children tend to be more naturally open minded, with fewer worries about boundaries and perfect execution.
Here’s What I Do:
Using a 3-5 minute portion of music, I invite my students to listen through once without drawing anything. To just concentrate on the music and see what comes to mind. Then I play the piece 2-3 more times, letting them sketch their mental pictures. Any medium is fine – pencil, colored pencils, crayons, etc. I have even used paint for older children.
When we are finished I allow them a chance to share what they sketched. This is one of their favorite parts – they love having a chance to show their work. For me, the fun part comes in knowing something powerful has happened in their brains, and they don’t even know it.
How is Musical Sketching Beneficial?
The end game (which children don’t need to understand) is not what they draw. The point of this activity is engaging their brains in a different way. Drawing while they listen is a kinesthetic (fancy for “hands on”) activity that gets their brains firing in fresh ways. Many children greatly benefit from kinesthetic learning activities, and research is proving its value:
“The more parts of your brain you use, the more likely you are to retain information,” says Judy Dodge, author of 25 Quick Formative Assessments for a Differentiated Classroom (Scholastic, 2009). “If you’re only listening, you’re only activating one part of the brain,” she says, “but if you’re drawing and explaining to a peer, then you’re making connections in the brain.” (Read more here.)
Every child I’ve taught thinks the point of the activity is what they draw, but it most certainly isn’t. I revel in listening to their stories of parades, flowers, helicopters, and all manner of stuffed animals engaged in various activities. (I once had a first grade boy draw an army battle while listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto.) It doesn’t matter. What matters is their brains lighting up.
Musical Sketching also allows children greater capacity for longer pieces of music. I’ve had very young kids stay engaged with classical music for 20 minutes or more during Musical Sketching exercises. If they are asked to simply sit still, their capacity is usually much shorter. The longer they listen, the more their brains get busy. And that’s what we like.
Where Should You Start?
My point above is that it absolutely doesn’t matter what they draw, which is true. Conversely, however, it is fun when certain pieces tend to evoke consistent images among children.
One of my favorites is Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, which we talked about earlier this week. Without being told anything about the piece, my students have drawn flags, parades, patriotic images, all in many shades of red, white, and blue. Some even draw fireworks and are shocked when I tell them the name of the piece. I love to play pieces without giving any clues whatsoever – even the title. You will be amazed when their sketches seem eerily appropriate. Or you will laugh when they don’t. #eitherway
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Music for the Royal Fireworks, Handel. Start at the 13:40 mark for the most familiar part.
- Waltz of the Flowers, from The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky. Flowers + dancing = girls love this one!
- Carnival of the Animals: The Elephant, Saint-Saëns. This one is only 90 seconds long – a good one to start with for very young children. Let them draw first, and then tell them the title. They will certainly “hear” the elephant if they didn’t already!
- Lieutenant Kijé: Troika, Prokofiev. A troika is a Russian horse drawn sleigh. This piece sounds super Christmas-y with lot of sleigh bells.
- Moonlight Sonata, Beethoven. Moody and stormy at times, this is a great contrast to some of the happier pieces listed above. Incidentally, our old pal Ludwig did not name this piece — the moonlight moniker came from a music critic who thought the tune evoked the idea of moonlight shining on Lake Lucerne. He named it in 1832, but the question is — did he sketch it? #hecouldhave
Musical Sketching in Action
Ok, I could go on and on about brain stuff and give you 20 more pieces to try, but let’s get practical and I will just show you how this works.
Last week I did a Musical Sketching activity with my second graders. I used Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, but told them nothing about what they were about to hear. Here’s what they came up with…
Dracula and his castle:
A terrible storm…
Some kind of prison situation…
These images are not surprising, as Toccata and Fugue has entered our pop culture repertoire in the slot of all things spooky, scary, and Halloween-oriented. I doubt that is what Mr. Bach had in mind when he sat down at the organ that day, but there you have it. I find it fascinating that so many of my students sketched similar themes while being told nothing about the music!
By the way, Disney used this piece in Fantasia — cool video here!
Musical Sketching Variations
Here is where it gets really fun. When the point is a tactile, kinesthetic learning experience, the sky is really the limit. These are great variations on the concept, perfect to do at home or with smaller groups.
- Musical Sculpting: Use Play-doh for younger kids or Clay for older children with stronger hands. Have them sculpt what they hear — this activity is a blast and it is hysterical to see what they come up with.
- Musical Building: Grab a set of blocks (for younger kids) or put your unused Legos to good use. Tell your children to build what they hear and try to refrain yourself from giving any more instructions than that.
- Musical Collage: Give your child a stack of old magazines and have them cut and paste images into a collage that matches the music.
Show Me Your Work!
I hope you will give Musical Sketching (or sculpting, or building, or collage-ing) a try with your own kids. If you do, please send me pictures of their work! Email your photos to email@example.com and I will do a round-up post some time in the future. I can’t wait to hear what pieces you use and see what your kiddos come up with!
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Happy listening and happy sketching!