Ensemble Skills for 1st-2nd Grade (Part 4 of 4)

This is the final part of a series on skills, goals and objectives for 1st-2nd grade Dalcroze classes. The lists from the previous posts on movement, rhythm and pitch would not have been out of place in many other introductory theory, ear training or music or movement fundamentals classes. I regard this final category, ensemble skills, as just as important as the others, even if they are not the outright focus of the class. Items that appear on this list are an attempt to answer the question, “How do we make music with others?”, especially music that we create ourselves through real-time composition, a.k.a. improvisation.

When I went to the list I shared with parents last year, I was surprised to find it was much shorter than I expected. In my mind, learning how to function in a performing group are foundational skills for musicians that can provide a lifetime of enjoyment in music-making. Yet there were only eight things on the list, and I could easily imagine a list of 8 different things. How could that be?

As I sat with this discrepancy, I thought about what each of these items have in common. Unlike the other lists, they are less concerned about what music is, and more focused on how it is made. They are relational: they focus on the quality of connection with other musicians, and the ability to retain and express individuality within a larger group.

These items fall squarely in the ‘musicianship’ category on the syllabus, as opposed to the ‘music theory’ end of the spectrum. They are skills musicians need whether playing improvised music with others or playing “pre-composed” music (e.g. performing a string quartet or an orchestral work). Developing these skills is a lifelong process, but I try to make space for them in each class. There are many ways into the woods, so this is simply the form the work took last year. Instead of just bullet points, I’ve included a bit of background for each.

Play something that has a beginning, middle, and end

I can hear you thinking, “Doesn’t everything have a beginning, middle and end? How hard can that be?” True, beginnings are not hard. Middles take care of themselves. It’s the end that seems to be a learned behavior (and not just for children). Endings are different from merely stopping. Endings are intentional. They make space for the next thing. They can question or answer. They can merely pause. They can be abrupt or gradual. They can be expected or they can surprise. But in my experience, this is learned behavior needs to be encouraged at every level of improvisational study and practice.

Make clear choices of dynamics, tempo and texture

Most students come in with a primary or favored mode of expression: loud and fast, say, or careful and deliberate. In class we might call attention to these tendencies in the form of simple observations. “Mark played fast and loud.” “Jenny played soft and slow.” After a while, I’ll try to find ways for students to try on someone else’s mode of expression. Imagery and story are very helpful for young children, but so is cultivating careful and close listening, naming and acknowledging so that children are exposed to a wide variety of possibilities while having their own choices validated.

Play something similar

Remember that Sesame Street feature, “One of these things is not like the other”? I loved playing that game. It highlighted not only what was different (1 fruit and 3 vegetables!) but also what was the same (all something that you eat!). This is a very useful concept for creating music. When we are playing together we can learn to both stand out as ourselves while fitting in to the overall dynamic of what’s happening. Not a bad life skill, either.

Play simple ostinatos under an improvisation

The group plays a repeated pattern (perhaps with some combination of beat and twice as fast or slow), and a soloist is free to play as she likes. At first, most kids will either play something completely disconnected from the music or play the irresistibly compelling thing the group is playing. I’m fine with either of those at first because I am mostly interested in helping the group to stay together in a simple repeated pattern. Can we maintain it without speeding up or falling apart? Can each child resist the urge to unleash his or her wild energy on an instrument for the sake of the group? It takes a while to cultivate this, but when it happens, it’s the same magic feeling humans have been addicted to for time out of mind.

Follow a conductor in a group

Again, subverting your will to the will of someone else (a composer, say, or a conductor) is sometimes what music is all about.  I find children are often more than willing to watch and take direction from each other, usually much more excited about it than doing so with me, yet another adult telling them what to do. When they lead each other, I love watching them sense the power behind (at least momentarily) investing someone with authority.


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