Making Musical Links with Literacy

I love making music with kids aged 3-6, especially pairing music with early literacy learning, which is a natural fit.

I once taught at a preschool where the director told me: “Just have fun singing with the kids,” implying that they’d pick up the literacy learning elsewhere in their day. I understand what she meant, but she missed the point. Childhood music and early literacy are so intertwined that it’s hard to make music with young children without touching upon key literacy skills.

Consider the topic of rhythm. Rhythm is a part of language, just as it’s part of music. Many music teachers incorporate syllable segmentation into their lessons by having students clap their names or tap words on a drum. Musical rhythm becomes interchangeable with language rhythm. Just as they segment musical phrases, children hear and understand multi-syllable words in chunks that can be sounded out and broken into smaller elements.

Or consider another activity we often do with young children: saying a familiar rhyme and letting the child fill in a rhyming end word. For example: Patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man. Bake me a cake as fast as you ___ (the child fills in can). Songs and nursery rhymes are a natural vehicle for children to hear, express and initiate rhyming words, thus distinguishing vowel sounds and building phonological awareness.

On any given day, my music lesson includes songs that perfectly complement the other literacy activities during the child’s day at school. Here are some of those elements:

A finger play song such as “Tommy Thumb is Up” incorporates sequencing and characters, building children’s insight into the elements of stories. I use a glove puppet and give each character distinct personality traits, including the contrary “Ruby Ring.”

Finger plays also build manual dexterity as children work toward handwriting skills. Here’s a link to a recording of this song, although you should note that I have different names for some of the fingers in this song: Tommy Thumb, Penny Pointer, Toby Tall, Ruby Ring and Pinky Finger.

My version of “The Muffin Man” engages children with starting letter sounds in verses about “Muffin Man,” the “Lemonade Lady,” the “Cookie Cat” and the “Donut Dog,” to name a few. I add visuals by using a sign with key words and a picture for each verse.


“Icky Sticky and Ooey Gooey” gives students a chance to hear and guess rhymes by connecting a word to a rhyming body part (sand-hand, tree-knee, hoe-toe, track-back).   I use spoon puppets to engage children visually and create a sense of fun.

Movement activities, always part of my music lessons, have many literacy links. When children imitate caterpillars and butterflies on my song “If I Were a Butterfly,” they build their understanding of a sequenced nonfiction narrative.

If they act out my musical version of “The Tortoise and the Hare” to learn about tempo, they’re getting a taste of the fable genre and building understanding that all stories have a beginning, middle and end. They might develop a similar understanding by acting out my “Three Little Pigs” song, described in another post on this blog.

I love language, stories and poems, so to me, the literacy element has special appeal in music lesson planning. Musical concepts on their own, even for young children, can be somewhat abstract. Literacy content grounds the music lesson in the familiar world. At a workshop with Andy Davis of New England Dancing Masters, he talked about telling stories to introduce new songs to young children. He understands the connection that children naturally make with a good storyteller or a book, which often can lead into a song.

The reverse is also true. A song can get children’s attention on a literacy topic. A teacher can begin a lesson on rhyming words having the children join in singing a rhyming song. My songs on word families, sound segmentation and syllable clapping are a natural lead-in to spoken lessons on those topics, especially once the kids know the songs and can sing along and even help compose their own verses. You can find most of the literacy songs I’ve mentioned on my download album, Songs for Rhyming and Reading. I just added two new rhyming songs to this album, so be sure to check it out!

My first love in teaching is music, but I firmly believe in all the connections that music can make to everything else in a child’s world. The connection with emergent reading is a total natural!

Musical Learning with The Three Bears


Paul Galdone’s book is a great accompaniment to this musical lesson.

The story of the Three Bears is a fun way to help children learn about high, medium and low pitches. This idea is not original to me (I’ve referenced some lesson plans below), but I found a way to involve students playing different instruments and repeating lines of the story.

The drums, the lowest instrument, are for the Papa Bear. Next comes Mama Bear, represented by tambourines and/or smaller drums. The baby bear is represented by the highest-pitched finger cymbals and bells. I’ve abbreviated the story line slightly so that there’s less talking for the teacher and the kids have the maximum opportunity for playing instruments.

The rhythm is as follows (88 = paired eighths, 4 = quarter, R = quarter rest):  88-4    88-4   4 – 4 – 4  R

Spoken lyrics with the rhythm:

Papa Bear, Papa Bear, Pa-Pa-Bear.

Mama Bear, Mama Bear, Ma-Ma Bear.

Baby Bear, Baby Bear, Ba-by Bear.

Goldilocks is represented by the glockenspiel. She has the same rhythm as above and her melody is:

Mi-So-La, Mi-So-La, La-So-Mi, with the lyrics: Goldilocks, Goldilocks, Gol-di-locks.

The teacher reads or tells the story using the suggested script that follows. Students can be invited to join in the repeating lines. Each part above should be played on the instruments when that character is underlined.

The script

Once upon a time, there were three bears, Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear. One day, their breakfast porridge was too hot, so they decided to take a walk and let it cool.

While they were gone, along came a little girl named Goldilocks. She knocked at the door but no one was home, so she thought she’d check out this little house in the woods.

The first thing she saw was the table, laid out with three bowls of porridge. There was a big bowl that belonged to Papa Bear. There was a medium-sized bowl that belonged to Mama Bear. There was a little bowl that belonged to Baby Bear.

Goldilocks tasted each bowl, and the littlest bowl tasted just right, so she ate it all up.

In the next room, she found three chairs. There was a big chair that belonged to Papa Bear. There was a medium-sized chair that belonged to Mama Bear. There was a little chair that belonged to Baby Bear.

Goldilocks tried out the first two chairs but they were too big. The Baby Bear’s chair looked just right! Except – oops! It broke apart when she sat in it!

Then she decided to go upstairs, where she found three beds. There was a big bed that belonged to Papa Bear. There was a medium sized bed that belonged to Mama Bear. There was a little bed that belonged to Baby Bear.

She tried the first two beds but the Baby Bear’s bed was the one that felt just right. She soon fell fast asleep.  I wonder what will happen to Goldilocks.

The three bears soon came home.  They saw their porridge bowls. (Tap instruments on the bold syllables, as indicated in the lines that follow.)

Papa Bear spoke first. Somebody’s been eating my porridge.

Mama Bear spoke next. Somebody’s been eating my porridge.

Then Baby Bear piped up:  Somebody’s been eating my porridge and they ate it all up!!  (Go crazy on the instruments on this last part.)

Next they went to their chairs.  (Repeat similar taps for each line.)

Papa Bear spoke first: Somebody’s been sitting in my chair.

Mama Bear spoke next: Somebody’s been sitting in my chair.

Then Baby Bear piped up:  Somebody’s been sitting in my chair and they broke it to bits!

Finally, they went up the stairs and saw their beds.  (Repeat similar taps for each line.)

Papa Bear spoke first: Somebody’s been sleeping in my bed.

Mama Bear spoke next: Somebody’s been sleeping in my bed.

Then Baby Bear piped up: Somebody’s been sleeping in my bed and here she is!

Goldilocks awoke with a start! She jumped out of bed and out the window!

(Glockenspiels play and voices sing.)

Goldilocks, Goldilocks, run away! (Play and sing several times, getting faster).

Goldilocks ran away and never, ever came back again to the house of the Three Bears.

The end!

I’ve written a full song about the Three Bears. It’s a great way to end this lesson. You can download it and find the lyrics here at Songs for Teaching.  You can hear the song here.

Here are some lesson plans that helped inspire me:

Here’s a youtube of the Paul Galdone book, emphasizing high-low pitch differences.  Have fun exploring pitches and instrument sounds!

Seek & Find the Joy in Music!

CMN has made a big difference in the work I do in Boston's public schools.

There’s nothing like getting up & singing and dancing!

Seek the joy! It’s one of the guiding principles of the elementary school I helped to found in the summer of 2015. It’s the core principle of my music classroom. Recently, at a pre-holiday gathering, our school staff all wrote shout-outs to each other. I saw “joy” repeatedly in the comments for me, so I know I’m doing the right thing!

Sometimes when I get muddled up in thinking about curriculum and benchmarks and those academic-sounding terms that govern our lives in education, I shake it off by returning to singing, dancing, and storytelling. I summon the joy.

Joy can mean a lot of things. Here are some images of joy in my world:

Joy is when I get out as many instruments as possible and let as many people as possible play them.

Joy is watching the mouths of our students fall open when I bring my friend who plays double-bass to the school and they think it’s a giant violin.

Joy is dancing just to the edge of losing control (and sometimes a little beyond it).

Joy is joining the kindergarteners in trying out the simple circle dance that I just taught them. Then they push me out of the circle saying, “Ms. Buchanan, let us do it ourselves.”

Joy is kids throwing colorful scarves in the air and catching them on various body parts (or not).

Joy is singing, yet again, the song that I think everyone’s sick of, but then someone yells, “That’s my favorite” or “I love this one!”

Joy is when a child is so excited to tell me, “I listened to your CD on the radio!”

Joy is when I bring my fellow children’s singers to the school – one African American and one Latino – and so many children (and teachers) are thrilled to see musicians who look and talk like them.

"Culture Queen" Jessica Smith visited my school in early 2016, bringing joy and cultural understanding.

“Culture Queen” Jessica Smith visited my school in the spring of 2016, bringing joy and cultural understanding.

Joy is telling simple stories and having the kids play instruments for all the characters.

Joy is seeing the kids take over the glockenspiels during play time and use the simple notes that I created to play the songs over and over again.

Joy is the excitement of getting a new xylophone! Purchased on a whim on cyber Monday, it still  wasn’t cheap, but it looks and sounds so beautiful.

Joy is when I hear a first-grade boy sing solo on “This Land is Your Land.” His skin is brown, and it IS his land. His teacher has tears in her eyes.

Whatever else you resolve to do in the New Year, resolve to seek the joy. And find it!

Exploring Musical Opposites: High & Low

flowersI’ve been teaching my students in kindergarten and first grade about musical opposites. Right now, we’re especially focused on how pitches can move up and down, high and low. I learned the following finger play from a friend; the author is unknown. I adapted the words to teach more clearly about musical themes.

As you say the rhyme, you can emphasize the changes in pitch by featuring a slide whistle or another instrument, or simply use your own vocal inflection, showing the sounds going from low to high and high to low. Wiggle and Waggle are your two thumbs, moving up and down. “Home” is down by your side.

This finger play can be followed by singing a major scale on “do-re-mi” as student move their hands or bodies up and down with the notes.

The Story of Wiggle and Waggle

This is my friend Waggle and this is my friend Wiggle

They like to walk together and they like to talk and giggle.

And so one morning on a bright sunny day

My friend Waggle goes out on her way

She goes up up up the hill and then goes down.

Up and down all through the town.

She goes up high high high and down low low low

High and low all through the town.

But she can’t find Wiggle no matter where she roams.

So my friend Waggle goes up and down, high and low, back home.


And then, the next morning on a bright, sunny day

My friend Wiggle goes out on his way

He goes up up up the hill and then goes down.

Up and down all through the town.

He goes up high high high and down low low low

High and low all through the town.

But he can’t find Waggle no matter where she roams.

So my friend Wiggle goes up and down, high and low, back home.


But the next sunny day, Wiggle picks up the phone

And makes a call to Waggle, who’s at home – Hello!

Wiggle says, shall we meet

On the street?

Waggle says, yes, let’s meet

On the street!


And together, they go up up up the hill and then go down.

Up and down all through the town.

They go up high high high and down low low low

High and low all through the town.

And then, they say: that was fun, going up and down, high and low.

Let’s do it again tomorrow!

For more up/down and high/low activities, you could also have children sing and move to Nancy Hershatter’s song “Once I Was a Seed,” featured in another post on this blog about learning about sequence and narrative.

Why We Need Music in School – A Response

16685614_SSMusic education is good because it helps raise students’ test scores. I recently read an article by teacher and blogger Peter Greene that adamantly contends we should not use this argument to justify music education.

Hmmm. Why not? If test scores go up when music is part of the school curriculum, doesn’t this tell us something important about the power of music?

It seems to me we have a “both-and” situation here. I agree with Greene that we should value music in schools because of music itself. Music is universal, it’s beautiful, it helps us get in touch with our deepest feelings. It’s transcendent, builds community and helps everyone participating feel like a winner. And for many students, it’s one of the highlights of school.

But wait, there’s more! Music also has this incredible effect on the brain. Let’s celebrate that the field of neuroscience has been very busy documenting the beneficial impacts. Bestsellers such as the late neurologist Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music have brought scientific research on the human experience with music into the popular culture.

Levitin’s book contains elaborate brain diagrams showing that nearly all parts of the brain are utilized in processing musical experiences, not just those related directly to listening and language, but also the memory center in the hippocampus, the timing circuits in the cerebellum, the planning centers in the frontal lobe, and the motor, sensory and visual cortexes.

Sacks noted that these many different parts of the brain often work together when one is making music.  “For the vast majority of students,” Sacks wrote, “music can be every bit as important educationally as reading or writing.”

Shouldn’t the fact that music is good for your brain be one of the main reasons for teaching music in school? Why not make a connection between musical aptitude and many other abilities?

As Harvard’s Howard Gardner explained in his landmark work on multiple intelligences, musical intelligence “should be viewed differently from our other intelligences, because it carries more emotional, spiritual and cultural weight than the other intelligences. While also helping people organize the way they think and work, it helps them develop in other areas, such as math, language, and spatial reasoning.”

I’ve been particularly drawn to the connections between music and learning to read. Music is a natural fit with learning about sound, about rhymes, about language. I often say that music is actually the best way to learn many early literacy skills. But you don’t have to believe me, just consider some of the many studies out there that confirm this conclusion.

Studies going back nearly fifty years show a correlation between instruction in the Kodály music system, a folk song-based method which originated in Hungary, and improvement in students’ reading ability. This relationship was tested first in the Hungarian student population (Kokas, 1969), and again in American children during their first year of school (Hurwitz et al., 1975).  The Hurwitz study found significant differences in academic achievement, including reading, between children who had received the Kodály music instruction and those who had not.

Additional studies specifically focused on early literacy showed that:

  • Children who could tap a regular rhythm achieved greater success at early phonological awareness activities. (1)
  • Children who had regular music instruction scored better on pre-reading assessments. (2)
  • Children who were taught pre-reading skills using music had higher assessment scores than those in classes that didn’t use music. (3)
  1. David, D., Wade-Wodley, L., Kirby, J., and Smithrim, K. (2007). Rhythm and reading development in school-age children: a longitudinal study. Journal of Research in Reading, 30 (2), 169-83.
  2. Gromko, J. (2005). The effect of music instruction on phonemic awareness in beginning readers. Journal of Research in Music Education, 53(3), 199-209.
  3. Fisher, D. (2001). Early language learning with and without music. Reading Horizons, 42(1), 39-49.

Sure, let’s absolutely enjoy music for its own sake, but let’s also connect music to literacy, math, science and social studies. Why limit the benefits of music to the music classroom?

Perhaps, as Greene suggests, it’s unfortunate that we need to use improving test scores to justify anything we do in schools. But I’m coming to accept that education is increasingly data driven, and in many ways that’s not a bad thing, as long as it’s kept in the proper perspective. (And yes, I know that it often isn’t.)

The bottom line is I’m not surprised at all about the correlation between studying music and achieving higher test scores. And if that’s what it takes to keep music programs in schools, by all means keep using that argument!

I Learned About Orff This Summer!

Pitched percussion instruments are an important part of the Orff approach to teaching music.

Pitched percussion instruments are an important part of the Orff approach to teaching music.

During the summer of 2016, I had lots of adventures. While traveling through the American south, I stopped at the University of Memphis for two weeks to take a course about an approach to music education called Orff.

Orff isn’t an acronym, it’s the name of the founder, Carl Orff, a 20th Century German Composer. Composer Gunilde Keetman was an indispensable partner to Orff in the development of the teaching approach, called Orff Schulwerk. Perhaps because of her gender, she didn’t get credited in the name!

The American Orff Schulwerk Association (AOSA) describes the approach as follows:

“In Orff Schulwerk classrooms, children begin with what they do instinctively: play! Imitation, experimentation, and personal expression occur naturally as students become confident, life-long musicians and creative problem solvers. The Orff approach to teaching is a model for optimal learning in 21st Century classrooms.”

Here are a few important things I learned about Orff during my two weeks. Orff uses pitched percussion instruments such as glockenspiels and xylophones to help students create their own music that really sounds good! For beginning students, instruments are often put in a pentatonic scale (by actually removing the non-pentatonic keys), so that whatever the student plays will blend with other notes being played.

For those non-music majors who don’t know, a pentatonic scale is a scale with five pitches instead of the usual seven in the typical octave. The notes “fa” and “ti,” are omitted. The result is a sound that is often heard in ethnic folk music such as Irish music, as well as in the blues. As mentioned above, a pentatonic scale permits a blend with whatever other note is being played, often creating a lush sound. Orff also uses non-pitched percussion instruments of all kinds to add various effects to the music being played.

A second important thing I learned about Orff is that body percussion plays an important role in teaching. Students often echo a teacher’s body percussion movements to begin learning a rhythm pattern or song. Body percussion might be on several levels, including a stomp, clap, tap on the chest or thigh, or snapping the fingers. Body percussion for younger students is kept simple, either with a simple combination such as tapping thighs and clapping hands, or keeping to one level, such as stomping feet, marching or clapping hands.

One of the Dancing Masters' many publications.

Folk dances and movement activities from the New England Dancing Masters are often part of Orff class activities.

Indeed, feeling the music in the body through movement is also an essential part of Orff, as is the case in the other musical pedagogy I’ve studied, Dalcroze. We spent 75 minutes of each day during our 2-week Orff course on movement activities, including moving freely to various types of music, choreographed movements and folk dances.

There’s much more to tell! I hope to post more on this blog about how I’m using Orff in my music classroom this year.

A Musical Comedy for All Ages Celebrates … Music!

Music Island art by Karen Roehr.

Music Island art by Karen Roehr.

“Music Island” is back! My full-length musical comedy for all ages will be staged by the Youth Choir of the First Parish of Bedford, MA on June 10 and 11, 2016, directed by Janet Welby.

I invite everyone to sample the delight of Music Island. The show opens on an island governed by an ignorant buffoon, where music and other forms of artistic expression have been entirely banned. Life is dull drudgery until the island’s children experience a magical moment on the beach and begin singing.

The show features a diverse cast of birds, cats, silly grown-ups, delightful kids, musical muses, and a few would-be pirates. It’s a perfect show for young actors, with a variety of significant roles and songs appropriate to young singers’ voices. Not to mention the timeless message about the power of music and the arts!

To give you a taste of the music, listen to what the birds of the island have to say about a ban on singing here!  Later in the show, when the kids of the island and their musical muse companions get thrown into jail for singing, they drown their sorrows with an uplifting gospel number.

At the last staging of Music Island, here’s what some people had to say:

I saw Music Island last night – WOW!! I really enjoyed it!! Congratulations on the premiere – it was fun, engaging, musically sophisticated, and charming!! – Adria Arch, artist and former education director at Arlington Center for the Arts

 Music Island is just a delight. The kids loved it. They just can’t stop singing the songs! The feedback on the show has been so positive. We feel so fortunate to have been part of the “premiere.” The show is a gem, wonderful for children’s theater to perform and enjoyable for all ages. Love that music! – Nancy Gilday and Roberta Zimmer, producers of the Arlington Children’s Theatre show in 2007

Thank you for writing this awesome play! – Maisie, former cast member

If you’re associated with a school or children’s theater, I hope you’ll consider Music Island for a future production!

Cultivating Young Musicians – Part 1

coverI led a workshop entitled “Cultivating Young Musicians” on April 30, 2016 at the New England Conference of The Children’s Music Network. I highlighted songs that I regularly use in my music-teaching practice to help children learn about basic musical concepts such as scales, pitch, beat, tempo and dynamics. Here are some of the songs that I highlighted in the workshop.

Learning About High and Low Notes & Scales

Once I Was a Seed

By Nancy Hershatter (Tina Stone has written an additional verse.) Each line ascends one note in the scale, starting at “do.” This song helps children learn about seeds growing into plants while also helping them embody a musical scale and “grow” from low to high.

Children begin curled up on floor like sleeping seeds.

Once I was a seed / Sleeping in the ground / Then the sun came out, and …

Then the rain came down!  Use a rain stick or make a sound like rain falling, and children can turn their heads and say ‘ah’ to take a ‘drink.’

During the following lines, children slowly stand up, sprouting “leaves” and reaching for sky.

My leaves sprouted out / Reaching for the sky / I grew and grew / And now I’m oh, so high.

You can hear a recording here:

Wiggle & Waggle

This is a traditional finger-play story that helps children learn how to pitch their voices high and low. Words are revised & rhymed by Liz Buchanan. Your two thumbs are Waggle and Wiggle, and their “homes” are by your sides. You point them up and down for those parts of the rhyme, and raise and lower your inflection. Briefly turn your hand into the phone for that section of the rhyme. I often use a slide-whistle to emphasize the “up and down” pitching of the story.

This is my friend Waggle and this is my friend Wiggle

They like to walk together and they like to talk and giggle.

And so one morning on a bright sunny day

My friend Waggle goes out on her way

She goes up up up the hill and then goes down.

Up and down all through the town.

But she can’t find Wiggle no matter where she roams.

So my friend Waggle goes up and down, back home.


And then, the next morning on a bright, sunny day

My friend Wiggle goes out on his way

He goes up up up the hill and then goes down.

Up and down all through the town.

But he can’t find Waggle no matter where he roams.

So my friend Wiggle goes up and down, back home.


But the next sunny day, Wiggle picks up the phone

And makes a call to Waggle, who’s at home – Hello!

Wiggle says, shall we meet

On the street?

Waggle says, yes, let’s meet

On the street!


And together, they walk, up up up and then back down.

Up and down, Up and down, all through the town.

And then they go back home. The end.


If I Were a Butterfly

By Liz Buchanan. This song helps children learn about the life cycle of butterflies, and also uses the flight of the butterfly to take pitches high and low.

(Chorus) If I were a butterfly, I’d flutter high into the sky

I’d flutter down and touch the ground

If I were a butter, flutter-fly-flutter, if I were a butterfly.


When a butterfly’s born, it has no wings

It’s a creepy-crawly caterpillar thing.

When the time is right it makes a chrysalis

Where it cuddles up so small.

Then comes the sun and it shines down warm

And one day the chrysalis opens wide. And what comes out? A butterfly!

The butterfly flies into the air, it flutters here and there and everywhere, here and there and everywhere, here and there and everywhere!


Oh, butterflies help the flowers grow; they spread the nectar, don’t you know?

They live in places around the world, from the jungle to the plain.

Their wings are many colors bright, purple and blue and orange and white

I love to watch them in the air, flutter here and there and everywhere, here and there and everywhere, here and there and everywhere!  Chorus

You can hear a recording of this song here:

You can find out more about teaching with butterfly songs here.

Butterfly by Laura Doherty –

Laura Doherty is one of my very talented musical colleagues from the Chicago area. This is a very dance-able and lovely song to pair with my butterfly song, giving the children an experience with contrasting meter (Laura’s song is in ¾ time). I often have children dance to these songs with scarves.

Solfege syllables & understanding pitch

For learning about solfege syllables and pitch, I told the story So-Mi Soup, a story for teaching about So and Mi and their relationship. I will put this story up in a separate blog post.

I also sang the song “Bounce the Ball to Shiloh,” a simple song from Kodaly for Kindergarten collection, uses the pitches mi, so and la.

Steady Beat

 A 2013 study published in The Journal of Neuroscience by Dr. Nina Kraus shows a relationship between neural response consistency and ability to keep a beat. This study made the important link between keeping a beat and auditory processing, which is so critical to reading/writing ability.

I’m Feeling Good

By Nina Simone. I learned this song from my colleague Kirsten Lamb, who turned it into a great “call and response” song for keeping steady beat with body percussion or instruments, while singing syncopated jazz melody. In the call & response version, children respond, “I’m feeling good,” instead of “You know how I feel,” the lyrics of the original Nina Simone song. You can hear the original song here.

Birds flyin’ high (I’m feeling good) / Sun in the sky (I’m feeling good) / Breeze driftin’ by (I’m feeling good)   It’s a new day – I’m feeling good.

Verse 2: Fish in the sea/ River running free/ Blossom on the tree / It’s a new day – I’m feeling good.

Verse 3: Dragonfly in the sun/ Butterflies having fun/ Peace when day is done / It’s a new day – I’m feeling good.

Verse 4: Stars when you shine/ Scent of a pine/ Freedom is mine/ It’s a new day – I’m feeling good.


I taught my song/story, The Tortoise and the Hare. That activity is posted here on the blog.


I didn’t have time to share these poems, but I learned them from a colleague in the Boston Public Schools. It’s fun to have children dramatize these poems in order to begin learning about the contrasts between loud and soft in music.

Loud by Jeff Moss

The banging of the trash can

The honking in the street

The roaring of a lion

The stomping of your feet

The booming of the thunder

The yelling of the crowd

All those noises

Are sounds that are LOUD!


Soft by Jeff Moss

The whisper of a secret

The humming of the bees

A lullaby at bedtime

As wind blows through the trees

The snowflakes falling softly

Swirling to the ground

Those things are quiet – shhh!

Don’t make a sound.

I also taught two story songs in this workshop. These will be posted as Part 2.

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.

The Power of Song

Luke Seston joins Andrea Green in playing some upbeat musical numbers.

Luke Seston joins Andrea Green in playing some upbeat musical numbers.

“He loves music!” As a children’s musician, that’s a common refrain I hear from parents. It’s just a fact: most kids’ happiness meter jumps several notches when the singing and dancing starts.

I’ve written a fair bit about the connections between music instruction and early literacy skill development as well as achievement in other academic areas. But let’s take time out to praise music-making just because … it’s awesome!

I just got back from my tenth annual trip to the fall conference of The Children’s Music Network. This network of children’s musicians, teachers and other music lovers exists to support people who offer great music to children and families. Its conferences include workshops, business development support, mentoring and inspiring keynotes.

But what I love most about going to a CMN conference is singing. Without prompting, songs at a CMN gathering often break into perfect eight-part harmony.

Uncle Ruthie, Sarah Pirtle, Suni Paz and Ruth Pelham lead a song at the CMN conference. All have been honored with CMN's Magic Penny Award for lifetime achievement in children's music.

Uncle Ruthie, Sarah Pirtle, Suni Paz and Ruth Pelham lead a song at the CMN conference. All have been honored with CMN’s Magic Penny Award for lifetime achievement in children’s music.

Upbeat songs lead to wild, free-form dancing. Slow, meaningful songs can bring tears. These conferences offer professional development, but mainly they feed our hearts and souls. We leave with the happiness meter in the stratosphere.

At this year’s conference, I got to spend time with Andrea Green, who’s written many musicals for children and teens. She led a workshop on how performing in musicals can transform children’s lives. We watched a moving documentary about how performances of one of her musicals brought together kids with cerebral palsy with those at a more typical school. You can find out more at this link: It’s clear that lives changed as a result of those performances.

I loved when Andrea led a song with Luke Seston at her side at the piano. Luke has cerebral palsy; he also has one of the biggest smiles you’ve ever seen. Seeing his joyful response to music, I’m reminded of the kids I worked with from the Condon School in South Boston, who have CP and other significant disabilities. Music is one of the main ways to send their happiness meters into orbit. My work also brought them together with the students in other classrooms. As was the case with Andrea’s musical, kids with differing abilities found connections through songs.

I could go on and on with stories about my experiences at the Condon. Just walking into the place, I’d suddenly run into a dozen smiling kids, asking if I’d be in their class that day. This year, I’ve moved on, to a music teaching position at the KIPP Academy elementary school in Lynn, MA. One of the highlights of our week is every Friday’s “Songfest.” The whole school gets together for singing and dancing.

It brings back one of my earliest memories of school. In first and second grade, I attended Crestline School in Birmingham, AL. Every Friday, there was an all-school assembly where one of the classes would perform a play. The assembly always began with singing. The music teacher, Amos Hudson, was especially into military hymns. To this day, I can belt out “From the Halls of Montezuma,” “Anchors Aweigh” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” thanks to Mr. Hudson.

In my own music practice, I tend toward more peaceful favorites such as “This Little Light of Mine” or “Fanga Alafia.” I’m also partial to songs I learned through CMN, such as Ruth Pelham’s “All a Family Under One Sky,” or the ever-popular “Rockin’ in the Rabbit Hole,” penned by Guitar Bob Messano. And of course, I love writing songs myself, from the “Antelope Dance” to “Nihao, Jambo, Hola.” It’s all good – kids spring into joy on nearly all of them.

During one of the most difficult times in my adult life, I had a chance to sing with the Mystic Chorale for several seasons. The rehearsals of this 200-voice chorus took place in the beautiful, reverberating sanctuary of a local UU church. Every week, the resonating harmonies took me away from the stress and pain of everyday life and into a more uplifting dimension.

So songs make connections between people while replenishing the soul. That’s why everybody should sing. Not just kids.