Let’s say you want your children to pass an object in time to the beat around a circle while chanting a rhyme to that beat with the correct rhythms. There are several competencies enfolded into that one objective. You want your children to be able to pass an object around a circle, you want them to pass on a beat and receive on a beat, you want them to chant rhythms accurately, and you want them to keep a steady beat with their chanting, and you want them to keep a steady beat with their movements. The fact is, playing a “simple” object passing game is not so simple after all. Let’s break this activity down into a sequence of learning activities that will prepare those children to succeed at playing the game.
First, we need a rhyme.
Just a side note for this is that when I play games that exclude a player, I always give them something to do once they are tagged “out.” For this game, I would have them leave the circle and take up a rhythm instrument to play either the beat or the rhythm while the circle continued to chant and play the game. Now back to our lesson plan.
There are two rhythm patterns in this chant; three quarter notes followed by a quarter rest, and four quarter notes. The first thing to do is to get all the children keeping a steady beat. I don’t want them making sounds at this point, because I want them to be able to focus on hearing me chant to them and hearing themselves chant back to me. So I will have them do a silent time keeping movement. Tapping the back of their left hand with the fingertips of their right hand works well. With the children doing this beat in this way, I will have them listen to me chant one of the patterns on a neutral syllable, and then have them repeat back to me what they just heard me do. Bum, bum, bum, — . They repeat, bum, bum, bum — . I would do this pattern at least twice, with everyone chanting together. Then I would do the other pattern. Bum, bum, bum, bum. They repeat, bum, bum, bum, bum. Again I would do this at least twice with everyone chanting together, then doing sometimes one pattern, other times the other pattern. Finally, for this step, I would have individual children chant one or the other pattern, still repeating it after me. Remember, all the time, the children are tapping the back of their left hand with the fingertips of their right hand.
By using a neutral syllable, I have helped the children focus on the rhythm without being distracted by the words. Now that they have learned the rhythm, I would now replace the neutral syllables with the words of the chant. I am not using rhythm syllables here because I don’t want the children to associate the rhythms with both syllables and lyrics in a new song all at once. Today, I need them to play the game with the words. Another time, I will introduce the rhythm syllables to replace the neutral syllables, and then go back to the words, which by then will be familiar, to play the game again.
So now the children are chanting the rhyme and tapping the beat. The next thing we need them to do is to pass an object on the beat; that is, to pass an object at the same time they are presently tapping. This can be a challenge, especially for PK and K students, so some readiness may be necessary. They already have their left hands held out in front of them for tapping with their right fingertips. Now they are going to right tap the left hand of the child to their right on one beat, and return their right hand to tap their own left hand on the next beat. I call this passing a beat. To practice this, the children temporarily leave off chanting the rhyme and instead chant “pass, own.” “Pass” refers to their neighbor’s hand, while “own” refers to their own left hand. This is the motion they will use to pass the object. When they can do “pass-own” well, have them start passing an actual object. They will continue to do “pass-own” throughout, but when the object comes to them, they will using the “pass-own” motion to actually pass the object.
Finally, have them continue to do the “pass-own” motion and to pass the object when it comes to them, but now they will chant the words of the rhyme instead of saying “pass-own.” Another teacher has had success assigning each student a number. The children count out loud from one through whatever number is assigned to the last child. The children are to pass the object to the friend whose number is being chanted when it is chanted. If this method is used, then the children only count on the “pass” motion and never on the “own” motion.
With younger children, you will need to repeat the readiness activity described above, though more briefly than at first, before playing the game outright. Eventually, the class will be able to sit in a circle and play the game straight away. At that point, it probably becomes a favorite activity, and so is best placed at the beginning or the end of the lesson. Because it was brand new in our hypothetical lesson, I would have placed it in the middle of the lesson, making it the most “meaty” segment of the class. Once the song is familiar, and the children can sing it without assistance, and play the game with no review, then it can be used outside the game for the literacy segment of the lesson plan, which is what I referred to as “meaty” above, the middle segment.
This middle segment is where I would start to use the rhythm syllables instead of neutral syllables. I would follow Feierabend’s Conversational Solfege procedure. The first step, teach by rote with a neutral syllable, as was done above. Next, teach the same material by rote with rhythm syllables. This might be during the same class, but often will be at a subsequent meeting. After that, have students decode; you sing the rhythm patterns in neutral syllables, and they sing the same patterns back to you in rhythm syllables. Again, decoding would not be done the same day they learn the syllables for the first time. I always wait until they have gained proficiency at one step before moving on to the next with a particular song or chant.
When the children can decode, it demonstrates that they have succeeded in associating the sounds of chanted rhythms with the names of each sound within the rhythms. Once they have decoded, then they can read what they have decoded. You chant, then they chant, while you point to the notated rhythms on the board. Now they are associating the melded sounds/names with the visual notation. After that, the students will be able to read the rhythms with rhythm syllables off the board without you having to chant it to them first. Do this with familiar songs and chants first, then with unfamiliar songs and chants to see if they can generalize what they have learned to new material. This is all done in the middle segment of your lesson plan, though not all in the same lesson.
The final third of the lesson returns to something lighter and something the children enjoy doing. I like to do my response to listening here. I use music they enjoy, and give them specific things to listen for and respond to. For example, I might ask them to tell me how the composer used timbre to create the image of water fountains (Respighi’s Fountains of Rome) or how what effect was created by changes in dynamics in Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. Or, I might play two popular songs, and ask them to name one thing in each that interested them and give one reason why. Or, I might play something twice, once to gather ideas and the second to create movement for expression, or for form. So the overall form of my lesson are hands-on music-making, music literacy, responding/connecting.