We were driving late into the night. The brilliance of the moon cast a silvery light on the roadway as we traveled through a dark forest, watching cautiously for deer crossing into our path. Knowing it would be a long night, we played every car game we could recall. The three of our children who were traveling with us especially enjoyed “Name That Tune.” The idea was introduced, and they began to try to outwit each other, humming melodies from sources much more complicated than folk tunes. We heard themes from a Tchaikovsky ballet, concerto, and overture, Ravel’s Bolero, Bizet’s Carmen, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, intermingled with melodies by Mozart, Beethoven, and Gershwin. I was thrilled to hear the number of musical works my middle-school-aged children were remembering from their years of composer studies.
And my husband was equally surprised and impressed. He leaned toward me and whispered, “When I was a kid, to pass the time, we sang ‘Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall.’”
You can also enjoy success planning and implementing composer studies, and picture studies as well. Make the process simple and realistic. Here is a step-by-step template that made these important studies a reality in my homeschool.
(Get a vision for what these studies can add to your homeschool by reading my post, What is the Point of Studying Composers and Artists in Your Homeschool.)
Plan and write in your planner one thirty-minute lesson per week
Each week, set aside one thirty-minute lesson time for picture study and one thirty-minute lesson for composer study in your planner. I recommend keeping the study as the first lesson of that day, after Bible reading. Having all your children together at the beginning of the day is easier than trying to schedule a time later when studies are in full swing.
If a thirty minute lesson is not a possibility for your family, plan for ten or fifteen minutes. You will reap considerable benefit from even a short lesson. For those of you with younger children, a shorter lesson time might also be appropriate. Plan for it, schedule it in, and make it non-optional. If something must be omitted for a day, it’s not this lesson.
Choose one artist and one composer for each term.
If you follow a twelve-week term, you will have three artists and three composers for each year.
Decide upon six works by each artist and six pieces, or portions of works, by each composer.
If you take the time to make these choices before you start lessons for the year, it will relieve stress and help you be consistent. Often I looked to see what artists’ work would be exhibited at nearby museums to help me choose my artists and what music local symphony orchestras were scheduled to play to choose my composers. The field trips to see or hear the works studied or other works by the same artists/composers was always a highlight for my children.
If you study six works in twelve weeks, your children will learn one work every two weeks. Symphonies are long and usually have three or more movements. One movement is a realistic length for a two-week study.
Display the picture for study in a prominent place, so family members will see it often, in addition to the lesson times of more detailed study.
The lesson for picture study
- Introduce the artist, or review with your children what they remember from the previous picture study. Ask what the artist was famous for creating, such as animal paintings, portraits, or landscapes.
- Observe: In a picture study, children look closely at the whole picture, then begin to take in details. At this point, turn the picture over and allow the children to tell what they saw.
- Ask key questions about the picture.*
- Look for ideas in a picture. You can guide your children to discover the ideas by asking key questions.* When searching for ideas, look for the perceived meaning of the picture and the beauty with which that meaning is expressed. Try to perceive the personality of the artist where it can be clearly seen in his work.
The lesson for composer study
- Introduce the composer, or review with your children what they remember from the previous composer study. Ask what the musician was famous for composing, such as symphonies, piano pieces, or string quartets.
- Listen: Intentionally listen during lesson time. Allow the children to pick out the themes and hum or sing them. Later, listen to the piece while in the car and during chores times. Even though we purposefully listened only one-half hour each week, the children were able to recognize a piece musically and recall the composer because we listened causally as well as intentionally.
- Ask key questions about the music.*
- Listen to perceive ideas. You can guide your children to discover ideas by asking key questions.* When searching for ideas, try to discover the meaning of the piece and the beauty with which that meaning is expressed. Try to perceive the personality of the artist where it can be clearly heard in his work.
Become familiar with classical music.
- If you do not have a background in music or did not grow up listening to classical music, give yourself time to listen over and over again. It takes time to become acquainted with more complex music.
- Familiarize your young children with classical music. When my children were very young, I read the story of the Nutcracker to them and then played a recording of the Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky. They loved it! My little daughters took turns pretending to be Clara or the Sugar Plum Fairy. They all fought the mouse king with pretend tin soldiers, riding around the house on their stick horses. My son even hid behind the sofa, and turning his stick horse around to play that it was a gun, he jumped up right on cue with the bang in the music that brought down the mouse king. Nursery songs, folk songs, patriotic songs, show tunes, Peter and the Wolf, Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra are great music for beginners.
- Introduce classical music to an older child by playing movie themes. Start composer study with the music of a present-day composer such as John Williams and listen to the themes from the several movie scores he composed. If the movie was one your family saw, discuss how the musical themes portrayed characters or events.
Ideas for key questions about the music or art.*
- Listen and look for themes.
- Discuss possible ideas the composer or artist was trying to communicate.
- Place the artist and composer onto a timeline with their contemporaries, other artists, scientists, writers, historical characters, and events.
What’s the goal?
Your goal in picture and composer study is not to have children who can give a lecture on musical theory or for them to become famous artists and musicians. Your goal for these studies is for your children to learn to enjoy art and classical music, to appreciate and recognize the works of great artists, and to be able to tell one piece from another just as naturally as they learn the difference in the melodies between Ol’ McDonald had a Farm and Great is Thy Faithfulness. They learn to differentiate because they are familiar with and fond of what they are hearing. Someone once challenged me with the following analogy. The more your children are exposed to good literature, the better they become at reading the themes and language of literature. In the same way, in art and music, the more they are simply exposed to beautiful pictures and the best of music, the more they learn to “read” the themes of the world’s classic compositions. They are studying the best man has to offer.
Examples of Picture Studies
- Raising of the Cross
- The Night Watch
- Belshazzar’s Feast
- Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph
- Return of the Prodigal Son
- Starry Night
- Road with Cypresses
- The Church
Examples of Composer Studies
- Wedding March from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- Violin concerto in E minor
- Spinning Song
- The Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave)
- Symphony No. 3, Movement 2
- Symphony No. 5, Movement 4
- The Nutcracker Suite
- 1812 Overture
- Swan Lake
- Violin concerto in D
- Capriccio Italian, Op. 45
- Symphony No. 4
* After reading how to successfully make picture and composer studies a reality in your homeschool, you will also find this downloadable resource to be especially helpful, Your Guide to Practical & Thoughtful Picture & Composer Studies.
P.S. If you haven’t read my post, “What is the Point of Studying Composers and Artists in Your Homeschool?” I believe it will give you a vision for including these valuable lessons in your homeschool.
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