For this first paper, I will be discussing my own current aims and curricula followed by a discussion on how I teach 1st grade students how to read, write and perform rhythm figures. For some, it may seem ambitious for a music teacher to teach first grade students how to read, write and perform rhythms however, research suggests that children age five and older are able to handle rhythms within a steady meter.
Upon the development of our district curriculum, the team and I have focused on the following aims for which to structure our curriculum around: (a) music education as a progressive experience, (b) the development of a students’ musicianship and creativity within the music education discipline and (c) the social, ethical and cultural components of music education.
For many years, our music department has operated without a curriculum. Music teachers operated their classrooms based on what they thought was best for each student or group of students. However, over the years, this has resulted in many discrepancies and inconsistencies in the musical aptitudes and competencies within our district students. For example, the student in one fifth grade class may be well-versed in the elements of music as well as how they function in music while another fifth grade student across town may have never heard the word “melody” being used in his/her music classroom. As a teacher in a very transient school district, it is important for me to know that all students, in every school, are receiving a consistent and quality music education.
Students typically attend one to two different schools during their elementary experience due to many factors such as district reorganization and their families moving into other neighborhoods. Due to this, there have been situations where a student goes from a school with a very strong music program to a school with a very weak music program. Consequently, the student might no longer play the musical instrument that they learned in their previous school or more alarming, they may become disinterested in music class altogether.
It is also important for me to know that all students have an equal opportunity to participate in school ensembles (choir, band, orchestra, etc. ) despite their cultural or socio-economic backgrounds. Much work has been done to standardize each program district-wide in order to facilitate instructional uniformity; the first step being a brand new curriculum. Although our efforts to push towards a more legitimate and substantiated music program have been consistent for 18 months, our district leaders and have made financial decisions that have resulted in a steady decline of our music program (Ex. they ended the middle school strings program). In order to combat the notion that music education is less relevant than other subject matters, my school in particular has begun the grant-writing and proposal process in order to pilot an Arts Integration in Math and Science program for third grade students.
Coates (1983) remains that “music education cannot continue to remain separate from the rest of the curriculum. . . it should be explicit about its contributions to education and curriculum”. Our hopes are that, as McCarthy, M. , & Goble, J. S. (2002) suggests, this interdisciplinary dialogue will fundamentally alter the curricular content of the field. We are also hoping that this program will be successful enough to prove that the arts should continue to be an essential component to a child’s education in order to develop skills that denote success in the academic and work environment. The academic experience of the elementary school student very critical when laying the foundation for what his/her strengths, passions and interests are. This being said, sophisticated skills such as reading, writing and performing rhythm figures should be explored at an early age. The concept of teaching rhythm figures to first grade students may seem intimidating to some however, there are many strategies that can be used in order to achieve this.
In my approach, I use kinesthetic movements linked with auditory sounds and rhythmic speech. For example, I use verbal syllables such as those used in the Orff and Kodaly pedagogies (ta ta ti-ti ta) with movements such as walking, clapping and patsching. Rhythmic speech is used if I am introducing a poem or lyrics to a folk song in isolation (Ex. “tap the rhythm, now let’s transfer this rhythm to a drum). When I introduce the concept of rhythm to first grade students, the quarter note is used to lay the foundation for the beat. I then introduce the quarter rest, noting that it is just as long as a quarter note but we do not hear it, we just feel it (putting our fingers over our mouths to silently indicate “shhh”). Once students understand the concept of the quarter note and quarter rest, I introduce paired eighth notes. We explore these rhythms through movement, singing and playing non-pitched percussion.
In order to connect the kinesthetic to the visual, I provide the students with rhythm cards (each card has one rhythm on it). Students are then asked to create small patterns of four (to facilitate a sense of meter) and sing or play these rhythms with their group. These performances are either done as they sing a folk song or in isolation (instrumentation only). I have found visual rhythm cards to serve as a powerful component to rhythm learning as they reinforce recognition, manipulation, recall, and can serve as composition tasks. The use of these visuals greatly improves my students’ ability to understand, create and perform rhythm patterns. Upon reflection of my strategy for teaching rhythm and the articles I have read, critiques I would raise about my particular practice are my choice of folk songs used to accompany my teaching of rhythm. This came to mind as I read a statement by McCarthy and Goble (2002) which reads “At present, the nation’s cultural and musical diversity represents a significant challenge…” (p. 25).
In my practice, I use classic folk songs because of their simple tonalities and limited rhythms. However by doing this, am I disregarding their cultural musical palate and lives outside of the classroom? In order to connect music to a child’s cultural palate, shouldn’t I choose music that reflect the cultural backgrounds of my students? Scholars who have brought these paraxial perspectives to this dialogue urge music educators to show our students the important role different forms of musical activity play in their everyday lives.