Musical Play with Stories

Students at the Gardner Pilot Academy act out my musical version of The Three Little Pigs (which was written at the Gardner several years ago).

Students at the Gardner Pilot Academy act out my musical version of The Three Little Pigs (which was written at the Gardner several years ago).


This is the second in a series of posts about learning through play.

I had the opportunity to attend the Massachusetts Music Educators’ Annual conference for the first time this past weekend. This is my first year “officially” to be a music teacher for elementary school students, and I gained some new perspective about the job.

I got a short sales pitch on recorders (and a free recorder), talked to a music department head whose principal wants to cut the music programs to make room for more instruction in “core academics,” (I gave her my card if she needs an ally) and wandered through displays of K-8 music curricula, lollipops to sell for band fundraisers, and shiny brass instruments and violins.

Then I found something familiar: a four-part workshop led by Andy Davis of the New England Dancing Masters. Andy is a quintessential Vermonter – his remarks are peppered with references to contradances and squaredances, grange halls and old-fashioned storytelling. The Dancing Masters have created many books of traditional movement songs and dances with appeal to all ages.

One of the Dancing Masters' many publications.

One of the Dancing Masters’ many publications.

Andy’s workshops had a following. He had participants up and dancing and making music the old fashioned way. His instruments were body percussion, an accordion and occasionally a piano. The heart of the workshop was dancing with friends and acting out stories to music. No computers, no data, no rubrics. Just getting back to the real basics: people of all ages having fun and exploring the human condition and elemental themes such as love, evil and death.

I like to think that’s what kids have a chance to do when they act out my musical stories such as “The Royal Children” (a gender-neutral version of the Dancing Masters’ “Thorn Rosa”), the Three Little Pigs and the Three Billy Goats Gruff. It’s what kids have experienced at my summer drama camps, in which we’ve built stories – mostly classic myths and folktales – into musical plays from the ground up. Kids understand more about evil when they’ve actually played the big bad wolf or the menacing troll. They love acting out ways to show that bad guys will get what’s coming to them: good-bye bad wolf! You’re no match for our brick house!

Andy’s workshop featured the story-song of Old Roger, a tale of death. It’s a simple movement activity in which Roger (having passed on) is buried with an apple tree to mark his grave. A woman comes to gather some apples from the ground, and Roger springs out of his grave and scares her! She goes hippity-hop! Roger can even get up and pursue her around the tree. It’s not in the song, but I think the story should end with the woman gently encouraging Roger to go back to his grave. This ending is consistent with other folktales of this nature.

The song has its roots in English/Scottish folk culture (although I found one reference on the web to the song’s popularity in Cameroon). Death is a topic we often tiptoe around in schools, but one which children are endlessly curious about. Andy made the point that in earlier times, death was much more present in children’s lives. Multiple generations often lived in the same household, and many people died at a younger age, including children who never made it to adulthood. Animals constantly were killed (dinner!).

The story’s also about the spirit world; the dead are often still a presence in our lives, waking us up and even chasing us around the apple tree.

When children act out the story, each part is played by someone in the group, including the apple tree and even the apples if you like. Multiple groups can act it out at the same time. Here are the lyrics, which can be set to varying tunes. The tune Andy used sounded similar to “Pop Goes the Weasel.”

  1. Ol’ Roger is dead and laid in his grave,
    Laid in his grave, laid in his grave;
    Ol’ Roger is dead and laid in his grave,
    Oh, oh, laid in his grave, (or Hee-Hah, laid in his grave)
    Oh, oh, laid in his grave.2. They planted an apple tree over his head,
    Over his head, over his head;
    They planted an apple tree over his head,
    Oh, oh over his head,
    Oh, oh over his head.

    3. The apples got ripe and all fell down,
    All fell down, all fell down;
    The apples got ripe and all fell down,
    Oh, oh, all fell down,
    Oh, oh, all fell down.

    4. There came an old woman picking them up,
    Picking them up, picking them up;
    There came an old woman picking them up,
    Oh, oh, picking them up,
    Oh, oh, picking them up.

    5. Ol’ Roger got up and gave her a kick, (or gave her a scare)
    Gave her a kick, gave her a kick;
    Ol’ Roger got up and gave her a kick,
    Oh, oh, gave her a kick,
    Oh, oh, gave her a kick.

    6. It made the old woman go hippity-hop,
    Hippity-hop, hippity-hop;
    It made the old woman go hippity-hop,
    Oh, oh, hippity-hop,
    Oh, oh, hippity-hop.

My suggested ending:

The woman told Roger, Go rest in peace,

Rest in peace, rest in peace;

The woman told Roger, go rest in peace,

Oh, oh, rest in peace.


At the end, Roger lies back down in his grave, so that the living, too, can go in peace.

Can’t Get Enough of that Pie!

Thbaked-pieanksgiving is just a week away. How about a song about pie? For the past couple of years, I’ve enjoyed a song I learned from my pal Tina Stone in The Children’s Music Network. It engenders a special community spirit in many classrooms.

Scroll down for a link to a clip of the tune. Here are my words, based on my memory what Tina sang:

I went down to the apple fair, I had three dollars and I spent one there.

I got so happy, do you know why? I got me a piece of apple pie!

Oh pie, pie, pie, pie, I can’t get enough of that apple pie.

Pie, pie, pie, pie, can’t get enough of that pie.

The song continues with more verses, each with one dollar less, and whatever kind of pie people want to sing about (purchased at the fair by the same name). When you have no more dollars left, you sing:

I went down to the pie fair, I had no dollars to spend there.

I saw those pies up on the shelf, but if I want some pie, I’ll have to make it myself.

The fun part is thinking of all the different pies people like, including silly ones like popcorn pie. The motions are also great: I have everyone sit on the floor in a circle with their feet straight out in front of them, so it looks like a sliced pie. We count out how many dollars on our palms, and then we tap on our legs as we’re going to the fair. For the chorus, we “make our pie dish” by putting our arms around each other and swaying. This is tremendously popular with most kids.

When I was planning to post this song, I got a lesson in the “folk process.” Tina reported that the song was written by our Canadian colleague, Kathy Reid-Naiman. Here are Kathy’s words:

I went down to the county fair, I had four pennies to spend there.

I bought a raspberry pie and took it home, put it on a shelf and I sang this song.

Then, sing the chorus, which is the same. All I can say is pies are quite a bit cheaper in Canada.

If you’d like to hear the tune, you can find it at this link for Kathy’s pie song:

Thanks, Tina and Kathy!

Getting into the October Rhythm

IMG_0034Around the time the leaves begin to fall here in New England, I start thinking about waltzing around the room with brightly-colored scarves.

Dancing and singing with a 3/4 beat gives young listeners a distinct sense of a rhythm that differs from the 4/4 pattern. Songs in 3/4 and 6/8 meter lend themselves to motions such as swaying, floating or gliding, and are fun to do with props such as scarves or streamers. In order to help children get the feel of the three quarter beat, one might put on a classic waltz such as the Blue Danube, Waltzing Matilda, or the nursery song “Lavender’s Blue.”

Just spend time feeling the beat and swaying or floating around the room. I have found that songs in three-quarter time lend themselves to singing about things that float in nature, such as snowflakes, flower petals or leaves falling in autumn. Here are two autumn songs to consider, using fall-colored scarves or streamers as props:


By Liz Buchanan

Ideal props for these songs are autumn-colored scarves or streamers. I also made a poster that says “October” at the top, with leaf cut-outs from left to right in orange, green, red, yellow and brown. I ask the children to “read” the leaf colors with me before we sing the song.

October, October  (Motion: floating dance with scarf waving in your hand like a leaf)

Leaves orange green red yellow brown

October, the wind blows  (Blow like the wind) 

Leaves falling down, down to the ground   (Slowly bring scarf and body down to the floor)

(Spoken: Now, a big gust! Woosh!) Leaves fall down to the ground. (This line can be sung much more quickly. At the sound of woosh, toss the scarf in the air and let it fall.)

We first practice this song seated, without scarves, so that children have a chance to learn the words and movements without the distraction of a scarf in their hands (or on their heads, which seems to be a popular spot).

You can hear my recording of this song here.

Autumn Leaves are A-Falling

Traditional folk tune

Autumn leaves are a-falling;
Red and yellow and brown;
Autumn leaves are a-falling,
See them fluttering down.

(Arms and hands above head, moving around as if they were fluttering leaves.)

Autumn leaves from the treetops
Flutter down to the ground,
When the wind blows its trumpet,
See them whirling around.
(Hands start out over head, then flutter slowly downward. When the wind whirls the   leaves around, children spin their bodies around.)

Autumn leaves when they’re tired,
Settle down in a heap,
At the foot of the old tree,
Soon they’ll all fall asleep.

(Children sink softly to floor and pretend to fall asleep.)

You can hear the tune on this video.