The Educational Mission of the Academy: Interactive Performances, Part 2
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.
When 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.
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.
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.
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
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.