Just last week I was all set to continue a lesson I had taught on dynamics with one of my classes when I sat down and took another look at my plans. I decided to veer away from my original plans which involved percussive dynamics expressed through movement because I felt like this group needed some unification. In order to both teach about dynamics and unify the group I decided to use an African folk song I learned in graduate school that has only 4 words and 4 measures of music. The song would be easy to learn and the words would not be understandable to my students so we could focus on the dynamics and not be distracted by the lyrics.
First I taught them the song.
Then we added some dynamics. Next, we made a circle. I’ve been using circles a great deal this year in my teaching in all areas of the performing arts. Everyone can see everyone else so there is no hiding in the back and we are all accountable to one another. I find the students do a much better job of listening to one another and tend to stay more engaged. Singing in a circle creates an intimacy and a lovely ball of sound where are the voices blend, rise and fall together.
In addition to sitting in a circle, we created hand gestures to help us express the dynamics. To emphasize our cohesiveness, I had the students touching palms with their neighbor. We started the song softly (piano) with palms touching swaying side to side. As we increased our volume (crescendo) we brought our palms higher. At the climax of our song we sang with our strongest voices (fortissimo) clapping our neighbors hands above our heads. To end the song we brought our touching palms back down as we decreased our volume (decrescendo) and ended as softly as we had begun (piano).
Just thinking back to that moment gives me chills.
Sometimes I forget how powerful a simple song can be when sung by a group in unison. I could have stayed sitting in that circle all day listening to those voices crescendo and decrescendo together. But alas, I had another objective in mind!
Now that the students knew the song, were comfortable with the dynamic changes and had the experience of connecting in a circle it was time to bring in more whole body movement. We had warmed up by experimenting with different types of movements (spinning, jumping, swaying, etc) and how we might express different dynamics using level (high and low) and size (big and small). I had a few students demonstrate a circle dance with me with whole body movements that reflected the dynamics and then challenged the students to create their own circle dances in small groups reflecting the dynamics of the song.
The results were beautiful to watch.
Although all the dances were based on a circle and most used level and some also used size to demonstrate the dynamics, each dance had its own distinct flavor and reflected the individuality of the creators. The whole class was singing using the dynamics we had rehearsed as they watched each group perform their dances. Hearing their voices and seeing the attention they gave the performers indicated to me that learning this folk song was the right approach for my objectives.
My standards based objective was for the students to create movement that reflected dynamics and that objective was clearly reached. My personal objective of unifying the group was more difficult to assess but the feeling I sensed in the room and the engagement of the students as they sang and danced and watched the performers was proof enough for me that we had reached that objective as well.
Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.