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If the music program at Aspen Country Day had a motto, it would be "everyone is a musician." A recent overhaul of the music curriculum gives each child more ways than ever to experience this art form, whether by playing an instrument, singing, listening, or composing. The result is a thoughtful, steady introduction to all that music has to offer -- for creative expression, for knowledge, and for joy.
As with all curriculum design at ACDS, teachers begin with the end in mind, asking, What do ACDS graduates need to be fully prepared for the next step in their education?
"Starting in Lower School and all the way through, the biggest thing that we promote is that everyone can sing, and everyone can play an instrument, no matter what level," says music teacher Brandon Joseph. "They are all musicians, no matter what." As children grow up, he adds, "We're going to find some way -- whether writing, composing, singing, dancing -- some way to influence you so that you become a 'music person.'"
Year by year in the ACDS music program
In PreKindergarten and Kindergarten, children are singing and " enjoying many types of music," says Lower School music teacher Kimberly Bakker, known to her students as Ms. Kim. "Our singing incorporates, motions, repetition, patterns, counting, numerals and the alphabet, matching up with the PreKindergarten curriculum. If they are talking about hibernation and bears, we're singing The Bear Went Over the Mountain. If it's shapes and colors, we're playing the triangles and following the color-coded notes on the xylophone."
Photo: a morning of singing & instruments in PreKindergarten
The arts at ACDS are essential: "The arts tap into the whole person. It is good for children to understand that there is something out there that we want to explore through our creativity, to give our lives meaning."
Kindergarten students use rhythm instruments such as the tambourine, handbells, maracas, woodblocks, and keyboards. They sing in every class, building on a vast repertoire of songs and learning solfege, the familiar "do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do." Children also learn to listen to music with a discerning ear, identifying the difference between a march and a waltz, for instance. "We also learn about how various cultures use music for celebration, expression, or to tell a story," says Kim.
In First and Second Grades, the music curriculum gently moves into more complex territory. Children continue to build their vocal repertoire while investigating pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and tempo. They play the recorder and percussion instruments, all while taking the first steps in learning to read music, starting with notes symbolized by different colors and letters. This is the basis of the important skill called instrumentation -- learning to recognize a note and then manipulate the instrument to play it. "As their reading skills develop in the classroom, their ability to read lyrics and music notes develops, too," says Kim.
Third Graders put aside their rhythmic percussion instruments to tackle a stringed instrument, the violin. "This is a huge jump," says Kim. Each student has a smaller-sized violin that is rented for the semester. Children play basic songs in small and large ensemble groups. "They learn to follow the conductor or a student maestro, and practice the 'etiquette' of the 'orchestra.'" No more color-coded notes for Third Graders; now they are reading music on the treble clef staff. The children are "sometimes amazed by their ability to read notes and create a beautiful sound," says Kim.
Photo: violin rehearsal in Third Grade
The arts at ACDS connect: "What we do in music class, in all the arts classes, helps reinforce what is going on in the homeroom classroom. Confidence, creativity, communication, innovation."
Third Graders play their violins twice a week in music class at school, and they also flock to Monday weekly after-school rehearsals. They benefit from the expertise and enthusiasm of Ms. Kim, a lifelong violinist who has used summer professional development opportunities to deepen her skills in teaching young string players.
At the Holiday Sing, Third Graders will perform a song composed just for them by teachers Kim and Brandon. You'll also hear students from various grades playing the handbells, jingle bells, and recorders. Along with the All-School Play and Grandparents' Day, the Holiday Sing offers valuable performance opportunities for the many ACDS students who play instruments outside of school. "One of the best things we do is to inspire a child to go out and want to learn another instrument," says Brandon. "We can support that by giving them that deep musical understanding: they can read music, and they have had a positive experience of playing an instrument here at school, whether a percussion instrument, a stringed instrument, or voice."
In Fourth and Fifth Grades, children dive deep into kinesthetic music learning with musical theatre. "This is where lyrics, music, and dance all come together," says Brandon. "It gets more complicated. You are no longer just singing lyrics, but using your voice to express the meaning of lyrics." Children also broaden their concept of the art form by listening listen to more world music, as in their recent studies of pan-African and tribal music for the October Lion King workshop.
Photo, Lion King musical theater workshop
The arts at ACDS are about participation: "Students have to buy in, to understand that we are all in this (performance or musical) together, and everyone has to believe in what we are all doing."
A typical music class in Fourth and Fifth Grades begins with a warm-up, as children listen and explore "how the music tells them to move," says Brandon. Next, they spend time on ear training to identify all the notes on a scale. Often, they'll be preparing for a musical theater workshop or, in the second semester, working on composition. They learn about whole notes, half notes, and standard time signature. They write their own compositions in a music journal, using real musical notation. In one project called "love notes," students write a musical note to their parents for Valentines' Day. In Fifth Grade, the zylophones make a return, and children write a whole work with complex time signature, performing their own compositions in class. They also experiment with the Garage Band music composition software, dj-ing their own dance.
Sixth Grade brings an Arts Survey class, where students have an entire trimester devoted to each of three arts -- music, visual art, and drama. In music class, they focus on digital composition and create their own songs. One group even recently wrote an entire soundtrack to accompany the 1922 silent film Nosferatu. Using the Garage Band platform, they wrote music for each scene in the scary vampire story. "This is a way to understand music more psychologically," says Brandon, who said the timing of the Art Survey class -- three times a week for an entire trimester -- allows children to develop competence and confidence in each discipline.
Seventh and Eighth Graders focus "purely on chorale," says Brandon, who leads one big choir that comes together twice per week. Choir folders in hand, students perform three-part and four-part works, choosing their own music, often contemporary. They receive official grades not only on their participation in the choir, but also on quizzes and tests on music theory and music history.
"By the time they head to high school, they are able to identify intervals and start reading music for choral performance, such as you would find in a high school choir or an a capella group," says Brandon. "They are ready for what comes next."