Mary Dagani | April 2017

Making Musical Connections

As a STEAM TOSA, I have the honor of working with over 600 TK-5th grade students throughout our district.  I see my classes on a 2 week rotation cycle and spend 90 minutes with regular ed., as well as special ed. classes.  For as challenging as teaching can be at times, it never ceases to amaze me how some of my most artistic thinkers can be found amongst the SDC classes.  Recently, I had a very profound experience that left me speechless.

Making sense of musical connections

While working on an animal adaptations unit, I incorporated a listening activity involving Camile Saint-Saen’s famous orchestral work, Carnival of the Animals.  Using pictures for reference, the students were asked to carefully listen to the instrumental clues the composer cleverly placed in the music and identify which animal was being portrayed.  After starting a movement entitled The Elephant, which features a string bass solo, one student seemed to be having difficulty suppressing his excitement.  He eagerly raised his hand to make a guess only after about 3 notes of the solo were heard.  I hesitated to call on him.  (“That couldn’t have been 5 seconds worth of think time and clearly he hadn’t heard enough of the piece.” I thought to myself).

However, something in his eyes and his eagerness to respond convinced me to call on him.

“It’s the Elephant”, he said with an enormous grin on his face.

I was taken aback by his rapid response.  Certainly he was just a good guesser.  Or was he?  So, I decided to dig a little deeper and fired multiple questions his way.  “How do you know?  What in the music made you think that?  Can you tell me more?”

He smiled assuredly.  “Yes, the guy in the cafeteria played it on the violin.”  (He was making a bowing motion across his knees – NOT across his shoulder to indicate a violin.)

I found his explanation odd, but at the same time there seemed to be more to his thought process.  He was, after all,  mimicking the motion of a stringed instrument, albeit the wrong one.  Once again I pressed for more details.  ” You mean the cafeteria here at school?  Where we eat lunch?”  (“Duh, that was a silly question to ask of him.  As if there was a second cafeteria secretly hidden on campus for purposes other than eating and assemblies.”  I thought.)  By now I was having a hard time connecting to his thought process.

“Yes!! ” he said exuberantly,  “The man playing the violin in the cafeteria!!” (“There’s that bowing motion again – still across his midsection, nowhere near his chin.  What was he trying to tell me?”).

And then, it dawned on me…

Every year, the local symphony sends a small ensemble to our schools with the purpose of introducing the students to various instruments of the orchestra.  Each performer takes a few minutes to talk and demonstrate their instrument for the audience.  This quintet of professional musicians consists of a violinist, clarinetist, trombonist, string bassist, and a percussionist.  (Quite an eclectic group if you ask me!).  I had attended many of these assemblies myself when I was a classroom teacher, living vicariously through the performers and wondering if my dreams of being an orchestral musician were truly over.   And when the time came for the bass player to introduce his instrument, the piece of choice, as I recall, was (and apparently still is) . . . . . wait for it. . . . .The Elephant from Carnival of the Animals.

Addressing the elephant in the room (pun intended)

Bam!  I saw it very clearly now.  This child had made a musical connection; not to my activity, but to a prior experience he had earlier in the school year.  I was perplexed and pleased at the same time.  To think that an eight year old could have held that musical memory in his brain and recalled it at that exact moment.  It made me smile.  But the sparkle in his eyes said it all – he knew.  This young student was able to make a musical connection and he knew it!  Want to know who else knew?  Howard Gardner.  Gardner understood that we all possess our own intelligences.  We as educators need to recognize this in our students and nurture their strengths .  As for me, at that particular moment I found myself gazing into the eyes of musical intelligence.

About the Author

Mary is a STEAM TOSA, Project Lead the Way Launch Lead Teacher, and an Orff Schulwerk music specialist. Her eclectic background, along with her 28 years of elementary classroom teaching, gives her a unique perspective on Arts Integration.