When designing our musical outreach program, all members of our wind quintet agreed that we wanted to work with children, particularly third graders and younger. First things first, for those who may not know, a wind quintet consists of five instruments (flute, oboe, French Horn, bassoon, and clarinet). The reason we chose young children over every other demographic is because we all love working with children, and we thought this is one of the best ages to work with in order to generate lifelong interest in some of the wind instruments and repertoire. String instruments and piano tend to be the more popular choices, and we wanted to do our own instruments justice as well (though the flute is already wildly popular and probably does not need extra help). What better way than to introduce our instruments and music to a group who have unbounded and limitless curiosity??
However, this is a very difficult age group for which to plan programs, because they have particularly short attention spans. We wanted to present music that would be exciting and engaging for our classes, and one of the best ways to do this is through musical storytelling. Musical storytelling is just what it sounds like – a story told through and with the accompaniment of music. Music itself is always telling a story, but those who are not well-trained may miss some of the nuances in musical gestures, or they may feel that they are doing the piece injustice if they create their own story for it. Musical storytelling is an excellent way to address these issues and generate an interest in music. Our group decided to perform the woodwind quintet arrangement of Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, because it is an engaging story with beautiful, beautiful music.
Many of you might be familiar with the children's story Peter and the Wolf (1936) for narrator and orchestra, which was written and composed by Russian/Soviet musician Sergei Prokofiev. The combination of the spoken story with the music significantly enhances the audience's experience (in my opinion!). For those who don't know the tale very well, it revolves around a boy , Peter, and what he and his animal friends do when trouble (caused by the Wolf) occurs in the meadow (for a more thorough synopsis, please look online! I've included a video link below for those who wish to experience the musical story). If anyone is interested in the historical context and alternate readings beyond simply a children's story (and as we know by now, most children's stories are allegories), I direct you to "Classical Reissue reviews – Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf" by American music reviewer Gary Lemco. Lemco views Peter and the Wolf as an allegory for the political situation during the 1930s in the Soviet Union. There are two main theories – the first is that the characters represent the various Soviet republics, and the second is that the characters represent the nations of Europe. Peter, who bears the same name as the Russian national hero Peter the Great, represents Russia. In both versions of this theory, the Wolf represents the virulently anti-Communist Nazi Germany. It is certainly food for thought, whether or not you choose to apply this lens to the story!
Lemco, Gary (10 May 2013). "Classical Reissue Reviews – Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf". Audiophile Audition. Archived from the original on 23 June 2015.
The plot is simple enough and contains general themes of good versus evil that can resonate with any audience. I find this is especially captivating for young audiences. Peter and the Wolf also works perfectly as a way to introduce instruments to audiences, because the piece is constructed around various themes, which represent the different characters. In addition, each theme is associated with an instrument, so audiences can make a visual-aural connection between the characters, the themes, and the instruments. If our audience members found one theme more pleasing than the other, perhaps they might also be drawn to the instrument that played the theme, and wish to learn more! You will find the various themes displayed below (images taken from Wikipedia):
HUNTERS (WOODIWIND, TRUMPET, TIMPANI, BASS DRUM) - all instruments performed the hunter in our arrangement
PETER (STRING INSTRUMENTS) - our version had all instruments perform this theme
WOLF (FRENCH HORNS)
The very beginning of the following video goes through all of the excerpts, so please listen! If you cannot read music, try to follow along with the contour of the notes (against the video) to get a very basic idea of how the excerpts work. I encourage all to watch the entire video below in order to hear the whole story!
Below you will find information regarding our program:
Wednesday, March 9th
Kennedy Elementary School
25 second graders at a school in East Boston
Tuesday, April 5th
Early Boston Childhood Learning Center
2 assemblies: kindergarten and first grade
Sunday, April 24th
Boston Public Market
Performance for General Public
Friday, May 13th
Beethoven Elementary School and Chittick Elementary
1 performance at Beethoven, 2 assemblies at Chittick, performance for 50 kindergarteners
(note the class sizes and the range in ages - kindergarten through second grade, and a mixed audience at the Public Market)
After some planning, our initial outline looked something like this....
Overview and Purpose
Show the importance of storytelling through music while exposing children to classical chamber music and classical instruments.
Costumes for each character
Peter ("Robin Hood") hats for all members
Enlarged pictures of a bird, duck, cat, wolf, grandfather, and boy (Peter)
Introduction/Play Bozza's Scherzo (3 - 5 min)
- MICAH (basoon): Hello, we are from NEC’s CPP program and we have a special program for you today, but before we get started with that, we are going to play a little bit of music for you!
Play Bozza's Scherzo (video below)
Introduction to the Instruments (10 min)
MONA: I hope you enjoyed that piece! Today, we are here to share a musical story with you. This story is about a boy named Peter and what he and his animal friends do when trouble occurs in the meadow.
MONA: What things do you need to make a story? (interactive portion: take 2 or 3 suggestions). In a story, you need characters, and in this story, each character is represented by the different instruments we play.
Now, we are going to introduce each instrument to you, and play a little guessing game!
MONA: This instrument is called the flute. It plays really high notes and really fast notes and it can be heard easily! The flute is also like the human body; the headjoint is like the head, and it has a blowing hole like we have a mouth; the body is like our torso, and I like to think of the keys on my flute as buttons on a shirt; and the footjoint is like our legs/feet. I’m now going to play a little excerpt for you, and I want you to tell me which of these two characters it might be: the bird or the wolf? (interactive portion: play excerpt, continue with a guessing game involving two cards which display a single picture of one of the characters, have the children vote which character they think it is by a show of hands)
When you hear me play, do this flapping wing motion (interactive: chicken wings motion)
Repeat portion 1 and 2 with other instruments (they will have their own facts and their own motions)
Duck = beak motion
Cat = prowling motion
Horn = big claws
Grandpa = waggling finger disapprovingly
BRITTNEE (clarinet): Discuss the concept of ensemble, use the sports analogy of working together like a team. When one person has the main theme everyone else supports them (like the quarterback). We pass the melody between each other like we’re passing a ball.
Put hats on and play Peter theme (play theme together) + interactive: ask them to move their arms as if they are skipping.
Play Peter and the Wolf (23 - 25 min)
- BRITTNEE: Now we have a special surprise for you, so close your eyes! (Put on costumes). Now I'd like to introduce you to our narrator, Ms. Maggi.
- Tanya Maggi goes over the animal motions with the children
Play music, Tanya narrates the story!
Q&A (5 min)
SAM/CHRISTIAN = Emcees: limit 3 - 5 questions
Closing (3 -5 min)
- CHRISTIAN: Thank you for having us, we are going to close out with some music
- Note how we work as a team to make music TOGETHER!!
- Play "Contradanza" (video below) from Aires Tropicales by Paquito D'Rivera as the children walk out of the room
So, why did we do what we did? Essentially, we followed Tanya's template for an "Elementary School Program", which involved
- A short, exciting musical introduction (in order to engage the audience immediately)
- Introduction of the ensemble members (so the audience understands who we are and what our intention is - which is to introduce classical chamber music and instruments)
- Teaching your instrument (half of our program's goal!)
- Focused Listening sections (our character excerpts of Peter and the Wolf)
- Imagination Musical Section (omitted)
- Interactive Musical Selection (the children doing animal motions when they recognized the various characters' themes)
- Question and Answer Session (to sate their curiosity)
- Thanks/Closing Musical Section
Knowing the specific age groups allowed us to tailor our program to fit each school. For example, on Tuesday, April 5th, we had two assemblies (one for kindergarten and one for first grade). While we had already condensed our music to make it fast-paced, we cut even more material from our music for the kindergartners (some repetitive sections with the hunters parading about) so they would not get bored with some of the "slow paced" sections. However, we were able to re-include these sections for the first graders, because they can concentrate for slightly longer periods of time. Our goal was also to talk as little as possible, while still transmitting enough information, to keep our program highly interactive, and to be excited and positive so that we could encourage excitement in others (it is contagious, after all!).
No one program was identical to another, because we were constantly altering our approach based on audience reactions to our performances. For example, at Kennedy Elementary, we were able to gauge which parts of the piece were less appealing to our audience. After that, we cut those "boring" parts and presented our revised arrangement to the Early Boston Childhood Learning Center. By the end of our program tour, we were able to anticipate, based on age group, which parts could remain and which ought to be omitted. In addition, our cohesion as a group improved over time (and by the very last performance, I am fairly certain I didn't forget any of my lines, such as what my name is or describing my instrument - both of which happened!). By the end of our tour, we were really concise with our instrument introductions, and we were able to connect our information with other members of the group a little more easily. Our playing also improved significantly! Despite this, there were certain situations we could not have anticipated. At the Early Boston Childhood Learning Center, we presented our programs in a large hall (normally we present in classrooms or in small gymnasiums). The children were particularly rambunctious that day (likely owing to a new location and a substitute teacher), and we could not project our voices over the noise. That program was somewhat disastrous because our group was frustrated with the complete lack of control the adults had (including ourselves) over the children, and the children could not take anything away from our program. But everything is a learning experience, and following that, we brought a portable microphone with us everywhere (which presented its own set of challenges (such as where to place the microphone when we had to demonstrate excerpts. it did break up the flow of our program), but it was nice to know we could rely on it, just in case another situation arose...
As we were a school formed group, we stayed together all year long, devoting two nights per week for rehearsals (roughly 1 - 2 hours in length each). For several months, a large portion of this was devoted to learning Peter and the Wolf, which is deceptively hard. We had one coaching each week with a member of the NEC faculty. As a result, my chamber group and I spent a lot of time together. Perhaps even more valuable than learning how to design a program, I learned how to work with people on a very intimate level (which included navigating disagreements). To this day I marvel at how music can bring people so close, nearly to the point of being a (sometimes) bickering family. I certainly feel closer to the members of my wind quintet than I do to anyone else at NEC!
Things I learned from this experience:
- Creating chamber music is much more difficult than playing solo repertoire or performing in an orchestra.
- Peter and the Wolf is difficult, and it seems like we should have performed 100 concerts for the amount of work we put into the piece.
- Planning a program is not too difficult, but it requires a lot of alterations. Don't get too attached to your original ideas and goals; embrace change!
- Performing the program can be difficult and exhausting, because you have to discern the mood of the audience WHILE playing.
- There are so many creative ways to use your musical skills; you don't have to be limited to being a performer or a teacher only.
- I have learned a lot about respecting my peers this semester, and also about how to share my love of music with others..
- If you're having fun, the children will have fun, too!
- Despite the amount of professionalism that went into this, it's okay to be a little silly and show your audiences that music isn't "stuffy".
More than anything else, I discovered another opportunity to stay true to my musical goals, as well as find ways to come to love music again (and even more!). Thank you for a wonderful year of music making - to my quintet, and to all the schools who were generous enough to host our visits!
Stay tuned...the following photo carousel will be updated with more pictures of my quintet's adventures this year!