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(This post is part of an on-going series on ways to engage your kids in classical music. Find the first post on Musical Sketching here.)
Classical Music can be a little abstract for kids. (Or – truth be told – adults too.)
It is easier to teach kids about something they can see, touch, smell, or taste. Listening only is a tough sell these days, when visual stimulation rules the brains of the young and old. Simply pressing play is not usually enough to get kids on board with just how fun classical musical can be.
I love to have my students act out pieces of classical music, either through role-playing the characters or recreating the scene of the music. Role-playing can make music come alive and gives children a little something to attach to, making it just a bit more relevant.
The list of possibilities is really endless, but I have curated 11 of my favorite pieces conducive to role-playing classical music with children:
1. Montagues and Capulets // Sergei Prokofiev
Video here (by the Emory Youth Orchestra – Atlanta Kids, way to go.)
Our Russian pal Sergei will be an upcoming topic on the blog because he is an excellent go-to for music kids love. He wrote a great version of Cinderella, and he is perhaps most famous for the ultimate classical music kid piece: Peter and the Wolf. Plus, he loved awful sounding dissonance, which children love to cringe at.
Quick vocab lesson: Dissonance is fancy for “sounds really bad.”
For this list, I chose Montagues and Capulets from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, because it is a familiar story – and all kids love to pretend they are mad at each other. I typically break the class into two groups, but you can re-create the scenario however you wish. (Homeschooling one child? One of you gets to be a Montague and the other gets to be a Capulet.)
(If you want to set the scene with a little story time, try this book — catch everyone up on the story and it will all make a lot more sense.)
Here’s what I do: while the music is playing, take turns having the two groups act out all forms of dislike – stalking around, checking each other out, pretend to talk bad about each other, sharpening swords. These are warring families, so I let my students have at it. To really understand the depth of the tragedy, it is kind of important to create the reality of the hatred these families felt. We play it up, but I don’t always talk about the death at the end of the story. I usually send my students on their merry way saying, “ask your parents how the story ends!!” #punt
2. The Planets // Gustav Holst
Just like Sergei, Gustav will show up soon on ye olde blog. Talk about super tangible and transferable to other subjects — he wrote a whole bunch of music about the planets!
Mars is great for more warring behavior. Venus is my favorite for a peaceful flight through space. Jupiter is my go-to for a full on spaceship trip to the big planet. We load up in our imaginary spaceships and fly pass the other planets, coming in for a soft landing on Jupiter. After that, we pick up space rocks, hunt for aliens, pull out cameras and document the journey – the sky is the limit (ha — #pun). Just get into it and have fun. Your kids will happily come along for the ride (ha #punagain) and great classical music will soak into their bones in the process.
3. Water Music // George Frederic Handel
To further bring the Water Music to life, I love to recreate the scene of boarding the King’s barge for the royal boat party. Use your best British accent and insist on lots of bows and curtsies. Pretend you are sailing the river, while Mr. Handel’s lovely music plays in the background.
4. In the Hall of the Mountain King // Edward Grieg
This one is a winner. Castles, adventures, trolls, oh my. Kids can actually hear the moment Peer Gynt gets caught and starts running. Just give it a try — you won’t miss it.
Also, I love this guy
5. Bridal Chorus // Richard Wagner
Nothing complicated here, people. It’s wedding time! Force the boys to have fun and let the girls wedding plan to their hearts content. Decide who will be the bride (then take turns, obviously). Endure the groaning boys. Bonus piece: Wedding March, Felix Mendelssohn. Use this one for the recessional.
6. O Fortuna // Carl Orff
To throw the boys a bone after pretending to do wedding stuff, let them have at it with this piece of music that Wikipedia describes as …”a staple in popular culture, setting the mood for dramatic or cataclysmic situations…” I don’t know about you, but the boys I know embrace cataclysmic situations. Have them formulate their own epic tragedy and act it out to this music.
House cleaning getting you down? Dishes staring at you, taunting you with their delicate balance, threatening to topple at any moment? Needing a pick-me-up to tackle the laundry pile? O Fortuna is your soundtrack. House work has never been so epic. Also, this.
7. March of the Toreadors // George Bizet
I also love this George. (All about him here!) I would be completely remiss to not include March of the Toreadors on the list of great pieces for kids to act out. Channel your inner Martha with a lovingly made costume or just throw a tablecloth around your kid’s neck for some bullfighting drama!
8. Brahms’ Lullaby // Johannes Brahams
After troll hunting and epic fighting, you and your kids might like to swing the opposite way for a minute. This is my best, most sneaky way to get my students quiet, while convincing them they are having fun in the process. I am willing to let you in on my secret because I love you, and sanity is important.
You know this tune, but you might not know it is a piece of classical music from one of the big guys. Brahms wrote this, legend has it, to celebrate the birth of a friend’s child — but that friend was also the object of some serious unrequited love.
And you thought it was just a lullaby.
Acting it out is easy:
“Kids, let’s pretend to take a NAP!”
And for a subtle variation:
“Kids, let’s pretend it’s NIGHTTIME!”
If you come to me in one year and tell me this is the only piece of classical music your child knows, I promise I won’t judge.
9. Pomp and Circumstance // Edward Elgar
Kids love to act out ceremonies of all kinds, and I have a blast with my students teaching them about graduations. Elgar’s classic was originally written as a military march, but it will never be anything but the graduation song in the U.S. Put this one in your back pocket for a late-Spring music activity. (Note: in the link, the part you know starts at 1:50.)
10. The Frogs // George Telemann
What a fun piece of music! Known as The Frogs, Telemann’s baroque masterpiece is the perfect soundtrack for all sorts of animal shenanigans. Pretend you are frogs leaping around the yard, Or just play a good old-fashioned game of leap frog and call it a day. P.E. + Music = #integration
11. Hoedown // Aaron Copland
I saved the best for last. This is a winner, and – if you came of age in the ’80s – will make you want steak for dinner.
Contrary to what your taste buds are telling you, this piece of music was actually not written to promote beef. It is a part of Aaron Copland’s fabulous Rodeo (pronounced Ro-DAY-oh, if you’re fancy) ballet, choreographed by Agnes de Mille and premiering at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City in 1942. (22 curtain calls later, it was pretty much considered a success.)
Here is a great version, though it is clear the cow imagery cannot be escaped. My students love to act this one out. We saunter to the barn and brush down the horses, then climb on and start galloping. There is a nice spot for the horses to rest at minute 2:15, then you can ride back to the barn and put them to bed.
I hope this has opened up some new ideas for you on ways to get your kids engaged in classical music through acting and role play! Let me know if you try any of these ideas. Bonus points for pictures! Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Happy listening and role-playing!
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