How to Read (in) Music

Guest Post by:

 Peg Grafwallner, Instructional Coach/Reading Specialist, Ronald Reagan IB High School, Erica Breitbarth, Music Teacher, Ronald Reagan IB High School

One of my favorite ways to spend the first block is to observe a music class. I am an
Instructional Coach and Reading Specialist at a large, urban high school. I collaborate with dozens of teachers by supporting them in embedding literacy into their classroom teaching with disrupting their learning objectives. This particular morning I observed Ms. B’s Beginning Chorus class. As students practiced their scales, Ms. B played the piano and offered instructions. She encouraged students to use Curwen hand signals to align to the notes. These hand signals offer a kinesthetic connection to the notes giving students the chance to, according to Ms. B, “visually and spatially represent the sound they are producing.”

As students were practicing their scales, I noticed explicit similarities between reading and music; and most notably, reading in music. Ms. B. prefaced the lesson’s song by offering background on the composer and the arranger. Frequently, the background of an artist can be directly related to the piece they create. Therefore, that background is often analyzed to make meaning from the piece. Likewise, when I introduce a short story, I always share with students the background of the author. Often, the author’s interesting life experiences is a hook to get students interested. As an example, the life of Edgar Allan Poe is as emotionally complex as his poem, “Annabelle Lee.” Therefore, it is beneficial to spend time on the connections between author and text and in this case, between the composer and the music.

6E56F311-72C8-4FAC-83B5-79D1E9CCAF0ANext, Ms. B asked her students to listen to the introduction of the song and try to predict
what it was about. What mood did the piece evoke? How did it make them feel? These questions encouraged students to imagine what the composer or musician is saying within the music. What do they want us to know, to feel, to understand? In addition, students were encouraged to apply music terminology to their explanations. Utilizing that terminology supports their practice of music language and inspires them to communicate as a musician. In a similar way, when I teach a new piece of text, I often “tease” students with the first couple of lines from the story (“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” A Tale of Two Cities) or the name of the main character (“Bigger Thomas,” Native Son) or the location of the setting (“Starkfield,” Ethan Frome). I ask them to predict what they think the story is about, or to anticipate the attitude of the character or to foresee the importance of the place. That conversation helps students to imagine the theme, the characters and the setting.

Next, Ms. B distributed the sheet music and asked students to take a few minutes to
“read” it over. She asked them to sing the rhythms on counts and encouraged them to keep reading the music even if they mixed up a rhythm, but to continue working on it both visually and aurally. As a reading specialist, I encourage students to keep reading if they get stuck on a word. I remind them of various “fix it” strategies to make meaning. As an example, can the student determine meaning from the prefix, the root word or the suffix? Is the student able to understand the gist of the reading without the word?
When students finished reading, Ms. B asked them to highlight their individual line so
that it would “stick out of the musical texture as you read.” This type of close reading, or
“musical annotation” is a valuable skill in all content areas. When students begin a new piece of text, even a brief close reading supports their annotation skills. By doing a close reading, students are asking questions, making comments and deciphering unknown vocabulary. This engagement with the text helps students for the challenge of reading and making meaning of what could be an unfamiliar topic.

2F7ECCC0-891D-4DF0-AE40-86521386832BAs students read and highlighted, Ms. B prepared a video of the song being performed by
an authentic ensemble, so students could “feel” the style and the spirit of the piece. This visual is critical in making an auditory connection. By listening to the music and watching the singers’ body language, the student is hearing and seeing the relationship between the singers and the music. Similarly, I often show a video or play a recording of an author reading a portion of their short story, poem or novel. I want students to see the author’s demeanor when reading and hear the tone and inflection of the author’s voice.
Finally, after a visual and spatial warm-up, an introduction of the artist, a prediction of
the piece, a detailed close-reading with annotation, and lastly, a visual and auditory opportunity to hear the music, Ms. B’s students were ready to practice the piece themselves.

In closing, it is essential to create scaffolded reading opportunities in all classes, not just
the four “core” where one would most expect them. To support students in reading, explicit and useful strategies are necessary to make meaningful reading connections, which in turn, highlights the value of reading in every single subject. Applying those specific reading strategies in music and all classes demonstrates the value of that discipline and the ability to transfer those strategies from one content area to the next.

References
Dickens, C. (1859). A tale of two cities. London: Chapman Hall.
Wharton, E. (1860). Ethan Frome. New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Wright, R. (1911). Native son. New York, Harper.

Peg Grafwallner is the author of Ready to Learn: The FRAME Model for Optimizing Student Success, available now through Solution Tree.

EB9E4BE1-B0CE-4383-9A1D-316C6DF1DB91  Ready to Learn

 

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