Using Music Vocabulary in the Music Classroom

Teaching music vocabulary is not something that comes naturally for me. It is all too easy for me to teach lesson after lesson without naming things. That really is what vocabulary building is: giving a name to things you refer to or do. For example, I might ask a kindergarten class to sing the refrain of “There was an Old Woman” (Oooh) loudly at first, and then get softer. With this request, I would get the musical response I was looking for, but if I just left it at that, then I would miss an opportunity to build vocabulary. After the children sing loudly at first, and then get softer, I would tell them that when musicians sing loudly and then get softer, that is called a diminuendo. “So when you just sang loudly at first and then got softer, you sang a diminuendo.” Then, later in the same lesson, I would have them sing loud at first and then get softer, and then I would ask them, “what is it called when musicians sing loud at first and then get softer? If they remember, great. If not, I tell them again that it is called a diminuendo. I will keep asking them what it is called each time they sing one until they remember the word on their own.

This is how vocabulary is built. You could just give them the word, give them the definition, and have them memorize it. This is what I used to do. I would write the word on a half sheet of copy paper, give the definition and ceremoniously put it on my word wall. I still put it on my word wall, but I make sure the students use the word, or do the word and remember the word as in the case of the diminuendo, before putting it on the word wall. That way, the students will remember it because they have used and done it, and the addition to the word wall will serve as a reminder and a reinforcer of the new word the next time they come to my class. I may not use the word right away at that next class; I might once again have them sing “loud at first and then get softer,” and see if anyone jumps in with something like “we just sang a crescendo.” Or I might prompt the class to see if I can jog their memory: “We just started by singing loudly, and then we got softer. When that happens, there’s a word for that. Who remembers what it is?” This approach builds prestige for the one or ones who remember, encouraging others to remember vocabulary words when they are taught.

So far, I have discussed using vocabulary while performing. I like to start with that creative process because it creates greater ownership when the students are doing what is described by the word, which helps them remember the word. But the same word needs to be encountered and used with other creative processes too. Next, I like to bring it into responding. “I’m going to play some music for you now. Please stand while you listen. The louder the music gets, the taller I want you to stand, and the softer the music gets, the smaller I want you to get, so that if the music gets very soft, you are crouched down low like this.” As the music plays, they will use their bodies to move to dynamic changes, including diminuendos. “What did you do with your body when you heard a diminuendo?” There are any number of ways students can respond to music nonverbally. You can also have them raise their hand when they hear a diminuendo. This keeps them listening carefully to everything, but sometimes is not effective because lower achievers will just copy others in raising their hand. A better method is to project a timer on your screen, and have the students make a list of timings at which they heard a diminuendo. Of course you must do it along with them or in advance so that you will know when the diminuendos actually occur.

The uses of this vocabulary word in the creating process should be fairly apparent. Students create a musical work either through improvisation, composing with or without notation, and must include in their work instances of a diminuendo. At this point, I raise the ante. Because the students are now the creators of the music, I require that they must not only include diminuendos in their work (or whatever vocabulary word you are teaching), but they must also explain why they used a diminuendo at that particular location in their music. What expressive intent was there that was best conveyed through the use of a diminuendo? I might ask the related question during responding too. “What was the composer trying to express when s/he chose to write a diminuendo at that spot in the music?”

You can even use the word. In connecting to other disciplines or the other arts, or to daily life. For example, laying music aside for a moment, say the following sentence out loud: After walking all the way to the store, which was a mile away, I found that they were all out of chocolate milk, which was the only thing I went there to buy.” Say it as though you were exasperated at the beginning of the sentence, and instead disappointed at the end of the sentence.” In doing this, manly students will nearly shout the beginning, and then let their voice trail off at the end, making a perfect demonstration of a diminuendo in speech. From there, you might ask, “what are some other things you hear in your daily life that start loud, and gradually get softer?” The class can make a list of things like a car or airplane or train traveling away from them, or a baby crying and gradually tiring.

I don’t want you to think that I spend days or weeks teaching one word, and doing nothing but those things I have mentioned. Not at all. Instead, I keep coming back to that one word in every context I can find it over the span of many classes, and as the students are doing many different things. I keep bringing up diminuendo, but not having the students do the same lesson over and over. Once class it’s performing, one class it’s composing, and perhaps in both it’s also responding. Sometimes I will just point out that something we have been doing has a name, and introduce the word that way. “When I suddenly cut you off when I’m conducting, wait, and then go on, that is called a cessura.” Then I can say “let’s begin right after the cessura.” If they know where to begin, I know they remember where it is. I can then ask them what happens at the cessura to check if they know what the word means. When you start looking for them, you may be surprised to find how many music vocabulary words you and your students are “doing” every day. Noticing them, and selecting a few at a time to focus on is an effective strategy for teaching vocabulary.


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