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Chapter 7 - Activities for Listening to Music

In a world of multitasking, sitting still and listening to a piece of music can be a great challenge for children. But music for meditation, such as a prelude, postlude, or actual meditation, is an important part of the worship experience. Children need to learn how to listen. It is best to not think of this music as background music, but as music for center stage. As part of the worship, have children perform for each other. Prepare for this by saying, "Judith has a gift for us: a piece of music she will play. We must receive this gift quietly. Receive this gift with your ears and with your mind. Receive this gift with your body and soul."

Instead of thinking of the music as performance, think of it as an act of compassion. The beauty of the gift makes our world more beautiful.

When the sharing is complete, ask the students to give thanks with their eyes, their minds, and their hearts—all quietly. Or the children can respond to the gift with a gift of their own: thunderous applause. Applause is an emotional response to an emotional gift. In most cases, I prefer that the gift of thanks be internalized in some way, as the sound of applause can disrupt the flow of worship time. But sometimes we just can't help but applaud. It is a necessary response to a wonderful experience.

A music DVD is a useful tool for teaching children to listen. There are educational DVDs available that present a wide range of music, from pop to folk to classical. I love showing children Ingmar Bergman's The Magic Flute, a cinematic adaptation of Mozart's opera.

There are also creative ways to draw children into the experience of listening to music. The eurythmics approach to music education teaches students to listen to music with their bodies. They react to fast music with fast, improvised movements and to slow music with slow movements, with the goal of translating actual emotions into specific movements. Then, when students take the next step of simply listening to music, they can concentrate all the same on the emotions the music evokes.

As with all creative activities, narrow the river. Instead of having students move with their entire bodies as the music tells them, instruct them to move their right arms as the music tells them. Then you can gradually expand the motion directives to include the whole body.

Similarly, when adding writing and drawing activities to the listening experience, narrow the river. If you are studying world peace, you could play Barber's Adagio for Strings and ask the children to let the music tell them which two crayon colors to choose. They will each be drawn to different colors. Further, you could instruct them to use only circles in what they draw. Or you might say their drawings must represent the peace they hear in the music. The possibilities are endless. When they are done, be sure to gather the children in small groups to discuss their creations, and then have a class discussion about what colors they chose and why. It will be quite illuminating and you will find that they actually listen to the music.

The next step, of course, is to have the students listen to the music without drawing. They can, however, utilize the same creativity as before. Encourage the children to picture objects in their minds that relate to whatever piece of music you are playing (the objects can relate to peace if you are listening to Barber's Adagio for Strings).

Matthew Fox's University of Creation Spirituality has developed dynamic forms of worship that combine creativity and spirituality. These art-as-ritual endeavors involve art, music, dance, and a whole host of creative activities. I have led many art-as-ritual sessions with children. Anyone who says that children cannot experience spirit is looking at spirit from an archaic (sit-in-your-chair-and-be-quiet) perspective. Children need to play, dance, and sing. This is not your grandmother's Sunday School; this is vital spiritual exploration.

I love to combine listening with poetry, a technique that Nita Penfold teaches. I play some music, often a wild orchestral piece like Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." I hand out words written on pieces of paper to each child, and they must arrange the words in an order that the music dictates (that is the essential listening part of the exercise) and create a poem. Then they must write their poems, adding verbs and nouns as needed. A child who receives the words red, cloud, music, hate, and cloth may choose not to use the word cloth. Another child may create the poem, "I hate the red cloud. The music I love," while another child may write, "Clouds or music, Clouds or hate, Make a choice." Because it is as much a music activity as a writing activity, don't be afraid to talk about the music and how it shaped the poems.

Nita Penfold also teaches an art and writing activity to which I have added music. I play some music such as Charles Ives' String Quartet No. 1, 1st Movement, or Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 14 (known as "Moonlight Sonata"), 1st Movement. The children listen to the music as they walk quietly around a table full of postcard and magazine photos. They must let the music tell them which image to choose, and then they write poems based on both the music and the image. You narrow the river by having them base their poems on both the music and the image. They must share their results, and they will amaze you. All these creative activities work best when you model them beforehand.

Learning to listen to music takes years. Your goal can be to help the children begin to experience the pure joy of receiving music, to listen. Listening means reaching out to the sound, hungering for the beauty, loving the beauty. Scientist Brian Swimme says that the more in love we are, the more alive we are. I would add that the more we listen, the more alive we are. The more we express ourselves, the more alive we are. This is part of what I mean when I ask you to let music come alive.

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Last updated on Saturday, December 10, 2011.

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