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:
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—
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.
What I learned throughout the Internship at Mendell Elementary School
By Soo-Kyung Chung