One of the delights of this time of year is the yearly field trip to see Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. While literally children of all ages attend performances of this holiday time favorite, I take the fifth grade at my school to a special morning performance our local ballet company puts on for students. Most of my students have never seen The Nutcracker before I take them, and many have never been to live theater. In fact, they are surprised to learn that I am not taking them to a movie! Today I would like to share with you what I have found to be worthwhile activities to do with the students prior to attending the performance.
My preparation has three goals. Before they see the production, I want my students to know the story and which piece of music is associated with each part of the story, I want them to recognize the major musical themes, and I want them to recognize the five basic ballet positions as they watch the dancers. Because the ballet director goes over the story before the performance, I spend the least amount of time on that. His recitation will be a review for my students, reinforcing their preparedness to follow the plot. Recognizing the musical themes is the most important goal for me. For this, I first play musical excerpts as I tell them the story for the first time. This is an introduction and overview to the music. Next, I use a chorus arrangement; Nutcracker Jingles arranged by Chuck Bridwell and published by Alfred. It is written for 2-part choir and is an ingenious combining of “Jingle Bells” with themes form The Nutcracker. It begins with a piano introduction playing the opening of the overture, followed by a rollicking setting of “Jingle Bells.” Next, “Jingle Bells” is set as a partner song with “Marche” with added words for the latter derived from “Jingle Bells.” That is the approach for the rest of the arrangement: the main theme from a piece is set to words derived from “Jingle Bells.” Included are “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” “Dance of the Reed Flutes,” and “Waltz of the Flowers.” The students enjoy learning these sections, and by the time they get to the performance of the ballet, they are delighted to hear the themes they know well enough to sing. The only downside to all of this is that I occasionally have to stop them from singing along during the performance!
The next part of my preparation for them is to teach them the five basic ballet positions. These are described with photographs on numerous websites. I have them all stand and go to each position, and learn them by name. Then I teach them how to do stage fencing using third and fourth positions. We use rhythm sticks for “swords” and each student must maintain third and fourth positions, especially with toes always pointed in the right direction. The students enjoy pretending they are swashbucklers, and they gain appreciation for what it is like to travel about a stage with your feet pointing in strange directions. When they attend the performance, they can watch the dancers’ feet and recognize which position they are in when the dancers are doing ballet steps. My students also pantomime the opening scene of decorating the Christmas tree, trying to stand in one of the positions whenever they are not traveling across the stage.
The final part of their preparation is to learn about the composer, Tchaikovsky. For this I use an activity I found at makingmusicfun.com Each student has to pretend they are Tchaikovsky applying for either a teaching or composing job. The students have to read about Tchaikovsky and then, from the information in the article, write a resume for the job they are applying for. I then interview each student, asking them specifics about what they have put down. The questions I ask at the interview are all answered in the article, but they force the students to pay attention to every detail, instead of just gleaning the facts they need for their resume. While they work on this, I play lots of different music by Tchaikovsky, so that as they write down what musical works they (as Tchaikovsky) have written, they can hear the pieces and perhaps describe them in the interview. In all, preparing my students for their trip to the ballet takes about four 45-minutes classes. We have a lot of fun, and are well prepared to get the most out of our experience at the theater.