In harmony: Hilary Major’s beginning musicians learn together

Some of the most exciting – and personal – academic work at Moses Brown has emerged from the faculty cohort plan, a professional development and evaluation program. In a year of transformational study, a cohort of veteran teachers sets goals and serves as resources for one another’s evaluations. At the heart of the program are cohort projects, each teacher’s big idea for personal research to be shared in the classroom. The benefit to students is clear: teachers continuously deepen their expertise, refine their curriculum, and bring the result back to the classroom to enrich the learning experience. 

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“Let’s begin with the D major scale, 2 bows on each note.” Bows touch strings, and the notes rise up the scale. Moses Brown School’s beginning string ensemble is rehearsing. Next they play the scale as a round, creating simple harmony with the others. “You’re playing the D!” “Oh, I get it, it’s just going up.” “I have an idea! Let’s try this!” “After we finish this exercise, we’ll hear your idea.”

Last year, as the school year began, these third, fourth and fifth graders held their instruments for the first time, unable to read music. Hilary Major, director of Moses Brown’s orchestral string instrument program since 2001, says, “This is the perfect age: they’re developmentally ready to learn to read music and follow a conductor.” Meeting twice weekly, they learned to play the violin, viola or cello, along with beginning theory and ensemble playing. The small number – five last year – is the secret to success in the ensemble approach.

Let’s open our books to the page we added Tuesday. We’ll read it with our voices first, then instruments. D is our tonic, our home base. You’ll see we have a new time signature, ¾.” Hilary created an original method book last year. “The usual books never quite go where the students need to go,” Hilary says. “I knew customizing our own book would improve the learning experience, since I could respond to individual abilities and interests.” Her book has four sections:

  • Exercises – basic note-reading, note-making and string playing. Four-measure exercises introduce one note at a time, with simple fingering and bowing techniques.
  • Improvisation – exercises such as “Questions and Answers” teach improvisation within simple rules –questions must end with the pitch rising, and answers have to resolve musically.
  • Songs – “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” etc., in three parts that share melody and harmony. One part uses open strings, no fingering, so that players at varying levels can take part. Finding the right line within a multi-part score is also a distraction for early music-readers; Hilary’s book replaces the “ABC ABC” arrangement with “AA BB CC”.
  • Music –music they may perform at a concert, written or arranged by a composer and published.

When students joined the ensemble in September, they received a binder with three pages of Exercises, two pages of Improvisation, and four Songs. As the group progressed, Hilary wrote five or six new pages each month. “Each session told me the exercises I needed to write next,” she says. ”At the end of the year, Voilà! A completed book for future beginning string ensembles.” She added new songs for this year, so that returning musicians found new material waiting for them.

“What could be better than ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ in three-part harmony?” Such instant gratification – making “real music” right away – provides essential validation. Success feeds maturity and pride in the shared endeavor. Rehearsal time is no longer lost to shuffling pages, and or skipping those that don’t fit the need. With an ensemble of very young players, maintaining focus is essential.

“The musicians’ path is clear: members of this beginning ensemble can progress to the advanced group, then join the middle school’s string ensemble. Upper school’s string orchestra is a class in the performing arts department, with a growing chamber music component. “A few upper school musicians sit in as mentors to the beginners, and they suggested simple improvements, such as adding the ‘hey!’ note to ‘Jingle Bells’. Since I wrote the book, I can incorporate changes right away!” she laughs.

“Let’s end with ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’…and let’s see how fast we can play it. Really, really fast!” Hilarity ensues.

 

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