Making It Work: Creating Performance Ready Products Based on Children’s Literature
One of my favorite parts of Orff workshops and trainings is when clinicians share ways to use children’s literature in a lesson or as the basis for a performance. When I began attending workshops and conference sessions I was amazed at the creative, innovative and musical ways in which the presenters used literature in their lessons. I took lots of detailed notes and eagerly recreated the ideas with my students. I had no idea how they were able to see a story in text and end up with beautiful lessons and performance ready products. Over many years, as I taught more and more lessons using other people’s ideas I started having my own. Now I feel pretty confident choosing a book and working with my students to create an exciting final product. Here is how I “Make it Work.”
When choosing a book for a performance product, it is important that I choose a book I love. If I love it, the kids probably will too as my passion for the story will come through. Most of us see our students about once each week. That means we will be working with the story for at least a portion of each lesson for about eight weeks. If I do not care for the story when I begin, by the end of eight weeks I probably won’t like it any better. I find myself purchasing books that I find intriguing and keeping them on my shelf while I gather ideas or wait for the perfect time use it with my kids.
Next I look for inspiration. If I have a template in my collection of workshop and conference notes, I go there first. Even if I am working with students who are younger or older than the targeted grade in the example, I can glean ideas about where to add music, movement or unpitched percussion. While a song, instrumental selection, or arrangement may not be appropriate for my students – looking at someone else’s ideas sends me on a path to finding something that will work for us.
Once an intriguing book is on my shelf, I look for other ideas and lessons that may contribute to the theme. I keep a file on my laptop or tuck a copy of workshop notes and songs or ideas into the book. When I decided to use the text as inspiration, I have a pile of ideas to choose from. Last year I rediscovered a favorite book that has a tree as one of the main characters. My local Orff chapter hosted a clinician who presented an entire Saturday workshop with a tree theme, and then someone else shared a lesson on a music educator Facebook page that used the same book. It seemed like a good time to use the story with my students, so my theme for spring is trees!
Now I will read the book many times with my handy pack of post-it notes nearby. I read the story four or five times over the course of many days and brainstorm ideas, write them on post it notes and stick them on the page in the book. In the end I usually use about half of the ideas. I include the suggestions I may have borrowed from other sources, my own modifications and eureka moments. Then I edit and prioritize the ideas so I can structure my planning by beginning with the most important elements necessary to tell the story well. I plan to add on the “color parts” that make the telling more interesting as time allows. I generally choose an opening song or dance (folk dance or student-generated creative movement) and a closing song to wrap up the story at the end. When working with older students we have even composed our own “opening song” to set the tone of the book.
I have found the most success when I leave a lot of room for the children to choose and create large portions of the telling. They decide on the appropriate timbres for unpitched percussion and compose ostinatos to create “traveling” or “transition” music. We change the words or modify folk tunes to create complimentary songs to enhance the telling of the story. Sometimes we perform selections from the Music for Children volumes and the children arrange the pieces to suit our needs. The students work in groups to write the script, generate creative movement, and plan for costumes and scenery.
Often, the children have better ideas than I do. I share a story and a framework and let the students take the lead within a structure that I set for them. We have a few clear understandings before we begin working. We will all have an important part in the product were we will be successful. The role you perform may not be your first choice because we work together as a team to complete the story. Lastly, I have the final say in when we need to stop adding new ideas. With these understandings in place, the children take ownership of the project and are excited about their individual role and the final product. If you are uncomfortable with structuring so much choice all at once, start with one or two areas where the students make decisions. Choosing unpitched percussion is an easy place to start. When you are feeling more confident, add more student decisions in the next story.
When using folktales and culturally based stories, do some research before you commit to using the book. Make sure the story is culturally sensitive and appropriate for your school. Research regional dance, music and dress to accurately represent the culture as best as you can. Everyone understands the budget for most school music programs is slim to none, and we can make our best effort to be sure the costumes, scenery, dance and music is appropriate to the featured culture.
I have shared the process I use to transform a story or picture book into a performance-ready product with my students. Please share your ideas in the comments, as well as some of your favorite stories and books to use with your students in music class, so we can help each other to “Make it Work.”
Looking for lesson ideas inspired by children’s books? Check out these previous posts on Teaching With Orff: