My students are in the midst of a unit on instrument families.
We’ve studied the similarities/differences between instruments of the string, brass, woodwind, and percussion families. To the point where my students can easily categorize instruments based on their appearance. Being able to aurally identify and categorize by tone color (or voice) is quite different. This has always been a challenge for kids. So, how do we help them get over this hurdle?
Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” is an amazing tool for recognizing differences in tone colors of orchestral families. For those unfamiliar with this piece, the musical theme is played by entire orchestra. Then, by each family of instruments: first the woodwinds, then brass, then the strings, and finally, percussion. Finally, the four families reassemble to play the opening theme once again. Typically, I use the first two minutes of Part 1 of this piece as a listening activity with 2nd and 3rd graders.
Art And Writing Prompt
In brainstorming ways to make this aural identification easier for students, I hoped drawing might allow students to make a personal connection to each tone color. I asked each student to listen to each family’s theme carefully while creating a mental picture for each family’s tone color (What does this family remind you of? What do you think is happening in this section?). After students had a chance to listen to each section, pausing in between and repeating sections as needed, they had time to draw a picture for each family. Students shared their images with partners, verbally expanding on what each sound brought to their imagination, practicing some great speaking and listening skills.
Due to the fact that I see my students for 25 minutes at a time, I haven’t had time for much more than having students sketch something in crayon, but I could extend this activity and integrate art concepts by allowing students more time and allowing students to use different media to complete their work. Students could create a piece of art dedicated to one instrument of the family, and we could create a gallery exhibit of student art.
On another day, in a great activity I learned in a workshop with music educator Cheryl Lavender, I distributed a flashlight to each student. Each flashlight was covered with one of four colors of cellophane: blue, yellow, red, or green. As a class, the students decided which color would best match the tone color of each instrument (i.e., “Percussion is red because it sounds like a battle.”) We turned off all of the lights in the classroom and turned on the music, creating a lightshow on the ceiling with our flashlights. Students turned their flashlights on when they heard “their family.” This was a great way to see that students had internalized and created meaning for each family of instruments. You could also easily do this activity with a different piece of music to ensure that their internalization of each family’s tone color will transfer.
Finally, students can use their drawings and their experience with creating a visual light show as a writing prompt to write a paragraph for each instrument family. This paragraph could be a story about the image that each instrument family brings to the student’s mind, or it could be a point of view paragraph, from the POV of the family itself. Just one way I hope to include more creative writing and Common Core ELA Standards in my general music classroom as a form of listening response!