Last month, Leelanee Sterrett shared what
it was like to cultivate a unique learning experience as a member of The Academy. In order to make a complex classical
piece more engaging for an audience of 8 to 10 year olds, Academy fellows worked
to find an entry point into the work.
leading our Interactive Performance of Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Quintette en forme
de choros, we asked, “Can music be a way to share our memories or our culture?” In our performance, we suggested to
our students that it was almost like Villa Lobos was sending us “musical
postcards” in the Quintette.
This was a useful analogy,
because it gave the sense that composers write music for the purpose of
sharing their ideas with us. It also worked well with the construction of the
piece, which is made up of many distinct sections, so listening to it is akin
to looking through a series of postcards that depict different scenes or
landmarks in a city.
Academy fellows Leelanee Sterrett, ToniMarie Marchioni, Yoobin Son, Alexey Gorokholinsky, and Shelley Monroe Huang performing their “musical postcards.”
We started with a very
simple activity, playing a brief excerpt of some busy, disjointed music, and
asking students to volunteer what sort of scene they thought might be depicted
by that musical postcard. Their responses had a lot to do with images of
traffic and streets crowded by people, as we expected.
We then asked them to
listen to a contrasting postcard, and share with us the differences between the
two. To us, the second excerpt sounded like a laidback jazz tune you might
hear at a café on a lazy afternoon. But to our surprise, nearly all the
students heard the music as a scene of grief or fearfulness—an equally
valid interpretation, but one that hadn’t occurred to us throughout our
planning! We’ve learned to be prepared for surprises in our teaching.
With the students, we
started discussing street bands in Villa Lobos’ Brazilian city. We asked them
where they hear and see music here in New York. Of course, all of us have
heard musicians on the street corner, listened to the radio at home, or met the
ice cream truck when we heard it coming down the street. But students shared
answers like, “I hear music in the wind blowing through the trees,” or “There
is music in raindrops falling.” Wow! We had been expecting very
literal answers from these young listeners, yet they really found a much deeper
level on which to engage in the music.
In the end of the
assembly, we performed the whole Quintette
en forme de choros, having found many ways to listen to and experience the
various sections of the piece. At about eight minutes long, this was perhaps
the most challenging part of the performance for the students. With all
we had explored, however, they were more or less able to hang with the
music as it unfolded.
Despite its thorny
complexity, they seemed to “get it” just as easily as one might understand something more
straightforward, like Brahms or Mozart. One student memorably observed, “Normally when I hear music, it sounds like everyone is playing the same
thing together. But this was like everyone was playing their own thing at
the same time.” It's a very apt description of the Quintette!
The fellows traveled on the Long Island Railroad to get to and from their teaching experience.
I think in doing these Interactive
Performances, we’ve given our students a different way to think about classical
music. They really are brilliant, imaginative listeners. “What I will
remember about today, is that the music I hear can relate to my life,” said one
fourth-grade girl. She nailed it, and made all of us proud to be musicians
involved in these kids’ lives.
Related: The Academy's
Educational Mission: Interactive Performances, Part 1Performing, Teaching,
and Being Ready for Everything