Classroom Cantatas at Ellis Mendell Elementary
Guided Internship
Spring 2011

Project Overview, Demographics

Classroom Cantatas: An Overview by Susan Craft, Education Coordinator

Classroom Cantatas has been partnering with urban Boston school children since 1992.  This program pairs members of the Cantata Singers chorus with classrooms with the goal of composing and performing an original cantata.  The theme of the cantata is tied to a core curricular area, and the individual texts are either composite poems written by the students themselves, or chosen by the classroom teachers and Classroom Cantatas staff.  The intention is for students to be able to enrich their learning of a classroom topic through the exploration of the Cantata texts.

In its current structure, the residency takes place in 45-minute classes, once per week for twelve weeks.  At Ellis Mendell Elementary School, second graders were learning about Mexican culture during Social Studies time, and so we agreed to aspects of Mexican culture for our cantata – games, food, music and holidays were the individual song topics.

The first four weeks of the program are spent with the Classroom Cantatas teacher leading the students in singing and listening exercises meant to lay the foundation for group composition.  In some programs, a chorale for the cantata is written by the entire class during this time.  Usually around week 5 of the program, students break into small groups with teachers – about 4-6 students per group leader.  The leaders helps the students make decisions about the text, words of emphasis, rhythmic and melodic elements, etc.  Teachers dictate the ideas of the students gradually over a period of four or five weeks until the song is complete, adding in accompaniment, dynamics and other expressive elements, according to the students’ ideas.

The last week or two of the residency is spent teaching the melodies that originated from each small group to the entire class.  The entire experience culminates with an in-school performance for the school community, and a field trip to meet with other Classroom Cantatas schools to perform their cantatas for each other.

Because of the time constraints in the current structure of the program, it is challenging to adequately teach principles of composition.  Additionally, most classrooms we work with do not have a designated music teacher in the school, so, as at Ellis Mendell this spring, we are often working with students with no formal music experience.  As a result, time is spent primarily encouraging creativity and expression in the compositions, and the teaching artists work to subtly glue the separate creative ideas together into a cohesive song.   Despite the obvious time limitations, the compositions are unique and full of heart.  At the end of the residency, students receive a CD of the performance and a bound booklet with their compositions and photos from their Classroom Cantatas experience.

Goals & Inquiry Questions

Sojourner’s triple-entry journals: the first 4 weeks

– observations and inquiries –

Students were very imaginative in describing the song in terms of mood, melodic and dynamic contrasts, and were eager to share their own thoughts and visualizations evoked by the song.  I expected some skepticism towards art song and classical singing, but these students were engaged in a wholly nonjudgmental way.

At my internship at a middle school last semester, I encountered a markedly skeptical attitude towards unfamiliar styles of music.  What role does age play in the development of skepticism towards certain styles of music?  Will these 2nd-graders continue to be open to listening to art song, opera, classical music, etc., having been introduced to it at age seven?


K., a student who seems interested but doesn’t participate as much as I expected, did not follow along with the text very well as we read it together in class.  I didn’t know why she was being so quiet until a lead teacher mentioned to me afterwards that K. hadn’t been following the text as well as the some of the other students.  When the answer to something isn’t clear (why wasn’t K. participating when she seemed interested?), the various components of the activity could be taken into consideration.


One of the teaching artists sang, and I saw one little boy gazing at her with his chin resting on his hand.  Her manner, gestures, expression, eye contact, and enjoyment of what she was doing became a kind of charisma that drew the students in and held their attention completely.  A teacher’s own enjoyment of what you are doing and teaching, honest enthusiasm, can be irresistible. 

Dynamics had just been demonstrated with a motion: arms straight out in front of body, palms together (one facing up, one facing down), and arms opening and closing like an alligator’s jaws.  During the teaching artist’s song, several students spontaneously followed her dynamics with the new arm motion.


When some students aren’t as advanced readers as others, giving them more time with a text seemed to increase their willingness to circle important words, etc.  How can one ensure a student is actually reading a text when he or she goes home with it?  Was the increased energy and participation of the class due in part to the extra time that the students may have spent with the text?  Were parents involved?


 The final performance of La víbora de la mar!

Soo-Kyung’s triple-entry journals:

MIE -Jan_18, 2011(Day 1)(4).doc       MIE- 03_01, 2011(Day 5)(3).docx

MIE – Jan_25, 2011(Day 2)(2).doc      MIE-03_08, 2011(Day 6)(3).doc

MIE- 02_08_2011(Day 3)(2).doc         MIE – blogs 03_24, 2011(3).docx

MIE- 02_15, 2011(Day 4)(3).doc        MIE 04_05, 2011 (Day 10)(4).docx

The Boy Who Doesn’t Sing

The Boy Who Doesn’t Sing: A Classroom Cantatas Case Study

by Sojourner Hodges

J. does not know what a melody is.  Maybe he never tried to sing before now.  His 2nd grade classroom is hosting a music program called Classroom Cantatas, but he does not join in when the rest of the class begins singing.  A teacher nudges him.  The feeling of singing is so unfamiliar that he confuses it with speaking.  He mumbles the words to the song.  

Right away, something happens.  He is mumbling in time to the beat!  Is he rapping?  He may not know what melody is, but he has a fine sense of rhythm.  A few weeks into the program, after the key elements of singing and songwriting (melody, harmony, etc.) have been explored and explained, the class splits up into groups.  J. follows two Group Leaders and three other students to a small, round table.  One of the other students, W., quickly discovers her knack for improvising melodies.  After reading a line of poetry (she also reads well), she promptly repeats the words, this time sung to a lilting and engaging melody.  J. is lost.  This process of setting words to music alternately bores and frustrates him.

Interlude: The Teachers
Soo-Kyung and I continue to sing examples of melody, keeping it fresh and distinct from rhythm, yet J. still speaks the text instead of singing it.  He is unable to sing the melody that W. had composed, even though we have been practicing it for a month.  Waiting with me for the Orange Line back to New England Conservatory, Soo-Kyung wonders what we should do.  "He doesn’t sing!"

Why doesn’t he sing?  Is it an auditory problem?  How can we possibly teach J. to reproduce a melody if he does not hear it as a melody in the first place?  Or perhaps it is a behavioral problem.  After all, he tends to sulk.  Maybe he thinks he is too cool to sing songs.  What do we do?  "He doesn’t sing."

One day, a question forms in J.’s mind.  The Group Leaders are talking about melody again, and they keep asking him if he has any ideas.  He raises his hand, but the question is too urgent, so he interrupts — "What’s a melody?"

The breakthrough is incredible.  Although J. does not begin singing immediately, he suddenly begins participating.  At first, his ideas are rhythmic or structural (prolonging word endings, adding maracas, repeating phrases, etc.), but his creativity and enthusiasm soon becomes a driving force in the development of our song.  Then, as a completely natural extension of his creative involvement, he begins to sing.

J. can now match pitch, accurately reproduce melodies on his own as well as with us, and improvise his own melodies.  During our last session as a small group, as we finished, polished, and practiced our song, J. begged to sing it solo.  With Soo-Kyung accompanying him on the keyboard, J. sang the entire song by himself.  I leaned into the coats handing on the wall (momentarily forgetting my role as a teacher and letting W. braid my hair) and listened to the exuberance in J.’s voice.  And so a personal victory for J. became, too, a collective victory for Classroom Cantatas. 

Dialogue between J. (2nd grader) and Sojourner (teacher) with W. (2nd grader) present
Location: Mostly empty classroom with some through-traffic
Objective: To set a line of text to music

J.: [pointing at W.] …the one when she said, um, "sea"…remember? [sings, raising eyebrows and gesturing upwards] "sea-eeee," yeah?
Sojourner: [smiling] Yeah?
J.: You should, um, [pointing at words] do this again…[turning away, distracted] do this again…[gesturing at words and looking at Sojourner] read it.
Sojourner: "We look like a serpent of the sea –"
J.: [interrupting, looking intently at Sojourner, singing] "Sea-eeee"…
Sojourner: [smiling] Yeah!
J.: [pointing at W. again] That’s the one that she did?
Sojourner: Yeah, we’ll do that again there…  OK!  So, we’ve decided that we’re gonna do…that [looking for a piece of paper]…that…making the "sea" go up just like we did the first time [pointing at word on page] on this one…
—-end of video—

“Our Composer”

       "Our composer"       
by Soo-Kyung Chung

     When Sojourner and I, the group leaders, ask “ How can we make the melody with this phrase?”  W. created the melody spontaneously. In fact, most meloies of our song “ La Vibora de la Mar” were created by W.

     W. was good at rhythms also, in particular, the beginning of the second paragraph “ Two friends join hands up high to make a bridge”. While shaking two maracas made by herself and her classmates, she made up the melody rhythmically. However, even though she sang a melody, it sounded murmuring,  so it was not easily understood, but Sojourner was good at guessing by sining back to her. With this kind of collaboration between a student and a group leader, the song was composed.

    The most striking moment with W. was the last composition class. We were supposed to revise the melody, and make the accompaniment. When we practiced the song several times, suddenly, W. told Sojourner and me “ Something is wrong around here.”  We played the beginning of the song again and again. She said “ I don’t know exacly where is wrong, but it sounds wrong with my ears”. I rememberd the spot that Soji and I had made a correction because we did remember it  in a different way. I played the previous version for  W. from my memory. She said that “ It is exactly what I want.” This is the First paragraph, third verse “ Children in Mexico play this game.” She wanted the pitch “ E-CC-AA-C” in stead of “ E-CC-GG-C”, which  is just a one step different interval. Wow… She was so senstive that she could hear the difference. I am so glad to be able to find the place that she wanted.
     Besides  this, when we made an introduction for this piece, the kids liked to play the glissando on the keyboard,so I introduced the glissando as an ascending motion, and a descending motion. I thought this evoked the shape of the wave. However, Winter expressed “ I want the glissando once”. Wow… she precisely pointed out what she wanted, so I omitted my descending motion, and only kept the ascending glissando. It makes a sense to me  because when we composed the first and second verses, the kids wanted to melisma on the word “Sea.”; They wanted to sing the octave on the word “Sea.” This melismatic octave became our song’s motif. Both in the introduction, and the postlude, we used this motif as a glissando. Overall, we hear this morif six times throughout the song.
     After we were done  composing each group’s song, we had time presenting each group of songs for the class.  I accompanied the song on piano for our group’s song. Right after the performance, Winter came to us, and said “ It was too slow.” Wow… she has  a strong sense of tempo, and good musical ears. She seems professional! After that, we sang our song more moderato by not dragging the tempo.
     I think W. loved this Cantata Singer’s class, and this creative activity certainly stimulated her inovative imagination, and made her confident, and finally had a positive effect on not only her musical activity , but also the other areas of her class.    I imagine that she must be proud of herself, and that she felt  great satisfaction when she sang “ La Vibora de la Mar” in the concert.


                                                     What I learned throughout the Internship at Mendell Elementary School 

                                                                                               By Soo-Kyung Chung

     Seeing the kids’ performance last Friday at  one of the local schools, I was so satisfied with this Internship. The second graders at Mendell elementary school where I worked as an intern,  could barely sing before, but now they momorized the text, and sang the melody in the right pitches, and even articulated the dynamics. What a huge improvement! They already had a performance last Tuesday at the Mendell schools before the 1st graders, and they had another performance with  two other Cantata  Singer’s partner schools last Firday. Even thouh they are the  youngest in the group, they sang well, and  their four different groups’ song were particulary distictive.
     After performing, the kids gave Sojourner and me a bouquet of paper flowers. They made themselves, and rolled two letters to us inside. It was such a graceful gesture from them, which I did not expect. They said that they liked us and Cantata Singers’ class. In particular, K. was so shy in class, but she expressed her appreciaion very well in the letter.
     It was so sad to say good-bye to them.  I realized that I also liked this Cantata Singers a lot, and  learned a lot through this Internship.
     I learned how we can approach music for beginners not by teaching music theory or solfège, but by helping them to creat a song. This way, they had a chance to compose with a poem realating to Mexican culture as their social studies topic. They were learning social studies through music.  They read a poem rhythmically, stressed a word that they wanted, and made up a melody.
     I learned how to cooperate with kids and how we all came  to respect each other by making a song. This is because it is all about the collaborative work  between the kids, but also between the kids and leaders. Therefore, each of us contributed in order to accomplish our song “La Vibora de la Mar.” Once one student  introduced an idea, the other complemented the idea. Our group leaders’s job was to catch their ideas and made the song properly, based on their ideas, and showed them the music score that they made in the previous week.  I remember how each verse was made, so each verse is the result of the collaboration.
     I also leanded  how to instruct the kids from music teachers. We had four music teachers and two interns. The four teachers are professional singers, so they could not only demonstrate a song by singing beautifully to the kids, but they could also explain  the music well.  The main teacher, Jacque was so good at getting attention from the kids. She had a great fluency  and energy to teach the class by articulating the words well , asking a question, and praising the kids by saying “Fantastic!” I noticed that praising was a good way to encourage the kids to participate in class more actively. I remember vividly that kids were raising their hand very actively to respond to the Miss Jacque’s question, though the kids were so shy in the beginning of the semester.
     Our supervisor, Susan is very well-organized and professional. In the first class, she gave us the big lesson plans  that includes the program goals, teaching artistry, weekly project etc… I was amazed by the details of the program that she made. I also  liked the communication between teachers every week. I got at least one email from them every week so that I could see how they prepared the class before coming.
      I liked to go to visit this school every Tuesday. Leaving NEC was a good opportunity to meet local people like kids and teachers. I could learn the reality of music education is confronted by, and how we can communicate better with the kids through creating music.
     Singing together was refreshing. I got to become a child again, and experience the joy of learning. We always began, and finished by singing the opening song and closing song. We learned also a song called "Namaste" whose message is to respect diverse perspectives, and "De Colores," which is a Mexican folklore song. Now I know some Spanish words: primavera (spring), flores (flowers), and uno, dos, tres (one, two, three).
    The first concert at the Mendell Elementary School                                      
                     With our Cantata Singers’ teachers 

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