“I am confident that the education they have received will make them individuals who can and will take the time to think for themselves and inspire and lead others.”
One aspect of Waldorf education that is so wonderful and valuable, in my estimation, is the inclusion of the arts throughout the curriculum. This is true of the “art” of music where songs are sung and flutes or recorders played in classes with their main lesson teacher, not just twice weekly in the “music” subject class. This is an incredible gift to the students. Being musical is something that is encouraged for everyone, not just those labeled “talented.” All are seen as capable and the Zimbabwe quote, “If you can walk you can dance, and if you can talk you can sing,” is practiced in Waldorf education.
The music curriculum, like the main lesson curriculum, is based on the developmental stages of the child. Songs for all grades are chosen that relate to seasons, holidays, and the curriculum that is being taught for that school year.
In the first grade, songs have almost always been linked to movement in the form of musical games, dances and free-style activities where the art of listening and following directions is practiced. The students are learning to play pentatonic flutes (carefully-crafted, quality instruments) that are an extention of their voices and have a beautiful tone. These can be challenging instruments to hold but, because they have only five notes that consist of the larger, open intervals with no half tones, this allows the children to hear tones that are not dissonant in relation to each other but all sound “right” together. One activity we currently enjoy requires us to physically stretch very tall and then curl into a tiny ball, our voices rising and falling in pitch to match the movements, imparting the idea of highs and lows without awakening the students to terminology.
The second and third graders stay at their desks more this year but also continue to move to specific patterns presented through dance. We have sung along with many circle and line dances. This class loves moving to the patterns and is doing very well following directions. They have learned many contra dance steps, including do-si-do, sashay, promenade and right-hand star. Rhythm, rather than beat, is emphasized until the 9-year change when the child “lands on the earth” developmentally.
Pentatonic flutes are again played in second grade and both those and clapping exercises, continue to be taught by imitation. Recording of rhythms in their music books began, using sounds from nature, such as “sun,” “rain drop” and “pitter-patter.” New songs accompanied by sign language have been introduced this year including, “Mi Cuerpo,” “Blessed Be Francis,” and a Korean song we are currently working on, “Ha’kuo Jung” (the school bell is ringing).
During ski season, I have had the pleasure of teaching double blocks on Tuesday morning to grades four and five. Songs related to their studies of ancient civilizations and North America have been sung. The class is working on the quodlibet (a piece of music based on two or more tunes) “Starlight, Starbright” and “I Love the Mountains.” The students are focusing on playing C diatonic flutes while reading music. An in-depth study of the rhythm to the song, “Shortnin’ Bread” was presented and practiced with rhythm instruments and is now being learned on xylophones, glockenspiel and choir chimes with other instrument possibilities to be added.
It was wonderful, as well, to have double blocks with the middle school class on Friday afternoons during ski season. The students worked on a rhythm piece using the theme, “Don’t Be Slow.” They progressed from analyzing the rhythm symbol to word relationship, speaking the song, clapping, and playing with rhythm instruments to the pitched percussion instruments. The class is currently learning parts on those same instruments to accompany a student’s piano piece of “Piano Man” by Billy Joel. Class begins with recorder ensemble consisting of soprano, alto, tenor and sopranino. Work on playing these instruments while reading music is emphasized.
As you can see, there are many aspects to teaching music. Not only does one hope to impart the joy of singing, but also strives to teach the skills of: singing in tune, how to play many different voices of flute and recorder as well as pitched and unpitched percussion instruments, reading musical notation (including melody and rhythm), how to work in an ensemble, and learning many different kinds of dance patterns. A song may look simple (because the students seem to perform it effortlessly) but there is lot of concentration being developed and practice in every musical piece learned. It is wonderful to see the students’ abilities progress through the years.
Cathy Arseneault-Shea has been the music teacher at the White Mountain Waldorf School since 2004.