An Easy Music Appreciation Curriculum for Homeschoolers
Do you feel underequipped to teach your children music appreciation in your homeschool? It doesn't have to be scary. In this article, I'll lay out a simple plan that lets you intentionally incorporate music appreciation to your homeschool schedule in a way that is painless and even fun. This approach is perfect for young children, and can be adapted or enhanced as you see fit for your older students.
The core component of this approach is a series of unit studies that you design yourself. Here are the four steps I'll discuss:
- Choose the kind of music you want to expose your students to in your academic year.
- Create a schedule that makes sure you're covering your selections.
- Determine what resources you need for each unit and make sure you have them.
- Put it all into practice.
The first two steps are both part of the initial planning phase and will go hand-in-hand. First you will probably want to decide what you will cover at a very general level. What I wanted to do - and what I will mostly write about here - is spend each unit listening to music by a single composer. I do want to point out, though, that you can use this same strategy for other kinds of units. For example, you could cover world music and spend each unit in a different world region.
Once you have a general idea of the topics you plan to cover, then you can start drafting a schedule to decide how many units you will have and how long each unit will last.
For my academic year 2017-2018, I was planning 36 weeks of formal instruction. I decided somewhat arbitrarily that I would spend six weeks on each composer, so that immediately suggested that I would have six units that were each six weeks long. Later that summer, as I planned my history curriculum, I decided I wanted to change my last unit into an "American folk songs" unit, so I simply replaced the last composer on my list. Sorry, Vivaldi. Not this year.
Below, you can see my simple initial schedule for the year.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Ludwig von Beethoven
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
American Folk Songs
Note that some of my units are interrupted by long breaks, like Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Spring Break. This doesn't bother me, but if you don't like it, feel free to tweak your schedule to whatever suits you.
Don't panic when you read the heading above! Detailed planning does not have to mean intense planning and preparation. You just need to decide what you're going to put into your curriculum and make sure you have the resources to do it.
At the core of this music appreciation curriculum is listening to music. It is enough, then, if all you do is make sure you have access to music that ties in to the unit your are studying. We're an old-school family that still uses CDs for most of our music listening. At first, for my composer units, I felt like I needed to make a list of each composer's "best" pieces and make sure to have those on hand, but I found I was satisfied by simply finding "Best Of" or similarly-named compilations for each one. I have found these more difficult to come by in our local library, but I've had good luck at places like Half-Price Books. They can even be found at garage sales and thrift stores if you have time to look.
Aside from the music that you'll be listening to, anything else you want to add to your curriculum is up to you. For example, younger kids might like making their own simple instruments to "play along" with the music or coloring pictures of the composers. You might want to ask older students to learn about the life of the composer. All I am doing right now is checking out an easy reader biography about the life of the composer from the library - Mike Venezia's series, Getting to Know The World's Greatest Composers, is a favorite in our house - and making it available to the children, but I have not tried to formally sit them down and read it to them as a "school activity."
Putting It Into Practice
You can try to formally fit "music appreciation" into your school schedule, but at my house that isn't necessary. I frequently play music in the front room (where my children spend 75% of their free time). Sometimes they listen and dance to it; sometimes they seem to just ignore it; sometimes they tell me it is interfering with their game and ask me to turn it off. I just go with it. I also keep one or two CDs in the car, and I play those CDs when we're driving around.
When one of the children does show an interest in particular song, I name the song and remind them who the composer is. I try to honor requests to play a particular piece whenever those requests are made, even if we have just finished listening to it and even I am in the middle of making dinner and I have to wash the raw meat off of my hands before I can handle anything. If they are asking for the piece by name, then they are definitely learning to appreciate it!
Sometimes, while the music is playing, I sit in the room and play "conductor" with my young kids, marking time with a pencil or just a finger like a conductor would do with a baton. At other times of the day, I hum a particular melody that we've heard to see if the kids pick up on it. The important thing is to make the music a part of daily life, and at my children's ages, that means turning it into a game or repeating it in other contexts outside of the normal school day.
Classical Music For Young Kids? More Fun Ideas
Here are some additional tips for making classical music fun for younger kids:
Introduce Peter and the Wolf
If you've never heard of this composition, it's a delightful little piece by Sergei Prokofiev that musically retells a classic Russian folk tale about a young boy who catches a wolf that has tormented some friendly animals around his garden. Certain instruments in the piece represent different characters in the story (e.g. the oboe represents the duck, the flute represents the bird, etc.) What makes this piece so kid-friendly is that most - if not all - recordings include spoken narration that explains the story each step of the way. It's easier to hear the clarinet as though it were a cat running up the tree if you have just had the narrator tell you that the cat is running up a tree!
There are many different recordings to choose from with different narrators. There is a version at my library narrated by Patrick Stewart, and while I do love Captain Picard/Professor X, my hands-down favorite version is the one narrated by Dudley Moore. It is filled with plenty of jokes that are just as fun for adults as they are for kids. This is well-worth tracking down.
As I've already mentioned, my kids love to dance, and my girls enjoy watching ballet. This is another great medium for introducing classical music as a story instead of "just" music. We attended a small youth ballet performance of Peter and the Wolf a few months ago which my girls absolutely loved. We have already watched The Nutcracker on video last Christmas, and we will be doing that again this year. We also checked out a video recording of a ballet production of Cinderella from our local library, which we have also enjoyed watching. I am on the lookout for other age-appropriate videos of ballet productions that my children might enjoy.
Play Games With The Music
Play games that focus on the music while also getting their bodies moving. They may have played these kinds of games with simpler, more so-called "kid-friendly" songs, but they can also be played with classical music with good effect. Even the youngest kids can enjoy imitating you while you clap the beat, or stomp the beat, or tap the beat with your finger on a table.
Take it a step further by turning off the recorded music and singing the melody while you clap instead. Introduce tempo by showing the kids that as you sing the song faster, the beat also speeds up, and as you sing slower, the beat slows down. Let your kids sing while you clap beat for them. Then ask them to speed up or slow down, and you change the speed of your clapping to match their singing. Then ask them if they can keep up with you while you change the speed of your clapping.
Turn your music back on and play with the dynamics (i.e., how loud or soft the music is). When the music is soft, make little, quiet movements such as walking on tiptoe. When it gets louder, take more exaggerated step. When the music is at its loudest, jump up and down.
Ask your creative kids what kind of pictures they see in their heads when the music is playing. Some particularly interesting songs for this might be Richard Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries, or Gioachino Rossini's William Tell Overture.