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Coffee (and Donut) Conversations About Music

By: Music Teacher Chelsea Dorner

January 23, 2019

Music should not be an intimidating art. In fact, no art should be intimidating. The arts are not an elitist group of people who have some secret that they’re keeping from the rest of us. Then why is it that my interactions with non-musician friends often include a twinge of shame, a joke about their tone-deafness, or an overall feeling of dread? Why do we more easily gravitate to one type of music? Though the thoughts I have to share on this topic are a far cry from a scholarly research, they are the analysis of my observations throughout the past 15 years in the classroom and as a professional musician.  

People groups have been making music forever. The music they create is in response to, a contribution to, and a reflection of their culture. It is part of who we are at the core to participate in and enjoy music. As adults, we have lost some of that. Therefore, the goal is to keep that uninhibited knowledge about music alive. In our music classroom at Rossman, we start with what we know and then go from there. Whatever I can do to make music less intimidating makes the experience more valuable.

When studying orchestral music, I have to teach students how to listen. There’s a lot less expectation of getting it “right” and more of an emphasis on a student’s own understanding. The goal is to take phrases like “I really like this jingly part, it makes me think about Christmas” and eventually refine it a bit more to “the Glockenspiel really outlines the melody nicely.” It’s all about being able to have productive conversations about something intriguing that they notice.

Last Friday, sixth graders took a trip to the St Louis Symphony. There was a wide range of emotion (and opinion) about the event from the students, both before and after the concert. Notably positive was the response when I told them that the pre-concert conversation included complimentary Krispy Kreme donuts. Though I’m still not sure how I feel about enticing children to watch a performance with food, I suppose it fits into my “non-intimidation” philosophy. The students waited in the lobby and stood out a bit among the more mature concert goers as we distributed tickets. Powell Hall, erected in 1925, is beautifully adorned with large red drapes, and a fantastic staircase, where we stopped for a photo opportunity.  

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Up the stairs we meandered and found the donuts. The students chatted as they observed their surroundings and wondered about seconds. We entered the theatre, found our seats and listened to a man give a lecture about the pieces we were about to hear. The program, made up of pieces written by composers from Germany throughout the history of orchestral music, included works from Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss and Hindemith. Our class time leading up to the field trip included listening to the pieces and describing what we heard. (Our ears find it easier to listen to something a bit familiar, so we prepared accordingly).  

The value in studying art as children is that it gives them a voice. Kids who have the language, ear and connection to real life music can have conversations about something they don’t quite understand. They can interpret, recreate, notice and become inspired. Some of the sixth graders we took to Powell Hall last Friday were motivated to nap, some were interested in the back stories of the pieces and their composers, some loved the architecture, and some scrutinized the performance. It brought about thoughtful conversation, which creates community. In a world where community may be dying, art can remain a gathering place, regardless of one’s understanding.

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Back in our classroom, we discussed the playbill, and how programs are created. We dissected a playbill and explored its contents. Students are now creating their own programs, choosing pieces of music based on a theme as well as selecting their performance venue. These imaginary performances will include variety and be based on their newly acquired taste for orchestral music.

Orchestral music shouldn’t be a secret, or an intimidating art that is only for the elite. It is a time machine, a form of expression open for interpretation, conversation and community.

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Rossman School, nestled on a 20-acre campus in Creve Coeur, is an independent preparatory school for students in Junior Kindergarten (four years old) through Grade 6. The school’s mission is to provide a strong, well-balanced education in a nurturing school community committed to excellence. Dedicated to developing personal, nurturing relationships with each child, Rossman’s experienced educators provide a solid foundation in academics, athletics and arts while emphasizing strong character development and leadership skills.​ Request a free Rossman School brochure here.

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