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  • Writer's pictureJanis Aston

Baby Monsters, Skin and Bones

Let's have some fun in October!

Fall is my favorite time of year and October was one of my favorite months to teach. So much color, so many fun activities, and SO much music to choose from.

Children love to pretend. They love to dress up, put on costumes, scare people, and be scared. They just do. It's part of being young, unaware, and unaffected by the darker side of Halloween. And I love the drama and fun of telling spooky stories and singing scary songs.

You don't have to use Halloween decor to teach how composers use tempo, dynamics, and tone color to create mood in music. In fact, we were not allowed to celebrate Halloween in our school district. But we sure could have pumpkins and even Jack-o-Lanterns to decorate our rooms. These three activities can be done at any time of year because they make no references to Halloween. I just enjoyed using them in October.

I had lots and lots of either battery-powered or electric Jack-o-lanterns that I put up around the Music Room. I could turn off the lights and it wasn't too dark (I also had a lot of windows). Then the fun began!

Baby Monster Story

For some reason, somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind, when I listened to the Mussorgsky's "Ox Cart" ("Bydlo" from Pictures at an Exhibition), I came up with this fun story to use with Kindergarten and First Graders. We had so much fun pretending to be monsters in the forest on a very dark night.

This is such a great piece of music to start the foundations of crescendo and decrescendo. Mussorgsky would probably approve!

Word of Caution!! Be very sensitive to your little ones.

Most will love this activity and the spooky atmosphere of turning off the lights with only the glow of the Jack-o-Lanterns lighting the room. But watch them carefully as you tell the story. I tend to be very dramatic and of course, the music helps by adding to the effect. You may need to tone it back a notch if they look scared. And be sure not to make light of their fear. Acknowledge it and move on.

I had two little boys start to cry and I immediately turned on the lights. They came and sat by me as the other children played "Baby Monsters" to act out the story. The next year, the week before Halloween, these same two boys met me in the hallway. "Mrs. Aston, Are we going to play Baby Monsters this week? We promise not to cry this year!!" LOL Second graders would beg me to repeat it for them but I knew they would not have as much fun as older kids. Some things are best left to their memory! But that's what we want, right? Students to remember and retain those great learning experiences. You can ask, "Remember the Monster Story we did in kindergarten? What happened in the music that created that scary feeling?"

Skin and Bones*

"There was an old woman, all skin and bones . . . Oooooo!" Play this song for first grade students. I always had them sitting up close to me on the floor and would sing with the recording or a cappella. When it got to the "Boo" part, pause, and then say it loud.

This is another great song to make those English Language Arts connections. Ask students, "Who are the characters in the song?" (woman and something in the closet) Ask students what they know about the woman. She is old and skinny, Some will say she is a skeleton. Point out that skeletons do not have skin! Get them to speculate what is in the closet. That's lots of fun because the song does not say. Then ask them to tell you the sequence of events—An old woman went for a walk, she passed a graveyard, saw bones, and went to get her broom. Ask them why. Because she wanted to clean up the messy graveyard. These answers help students see that there might be other interpretations. (I would get every answer from "she was a witch" to "she was a skeleton"!)

Tell students to find a partner and sit on the floor with their partner. When they have found a place, say, "One of you, stand up. You will be the 'Thing in the Closet!' Go hide behind a chair." Then tell the ones who are sitting on the floor that they are "The Old Woman." When the song gets to the part about going to the closet to get a broom, tell them to go to their "closet" (be sure they know where their partner went), and pretend to open the door. The "Thing in the Closet" will shout "Boo! But will not run after you. I promise, you will not have to give any more instructions than that. First graders will take it from there. Repeat so they can change roles. And be prepared. They will ask to do this over and over!

Someone Came Knocking

I had to find something fun that would appeal to the second graders as much as the Baby Monster Story. In the MacMillan second grade music book, there is a poem by Walter de la Mare—"Someone Came Knocking." (One Source: All Poetry.) Nothing really scary but mysterious. I would read it different ways and ask if that was scary. "Nah, Mrs. Aston. That's not scary." Finally, I would turn off the lights and put on a very, very scary piece of music to accompany my dramatic reading of the poem.

Now, remember, they had already heard the same poem at least twice and would tell me it wasn't scary. Once again, with only the glow of the Jack-o-Lanterns lighting the room, I would start the music (with a remote). Their reactions were priceless! Screams, squeals, and big eyes were the reactions. Sometimes I would have to stop the music before I ever started the poem. But they LOVED it and beg me not to stop!

Music can definitely create a mood.

What a fun way to show that music can definitely create a mood. We would talk about the poem and why adding the music made such a huge difference. Then I divided the class into small groups to create their own rendition of the poem. Each group had a couplet from the poem and worked together to create their scariest ways of saying their lines. They could add instruments or use body percussion or sounds to help. We put all of that together for our own performance! This activity makes balanced literacy connections that you can use for a teacher evaluation.

In the Hall of the Mt. King

Finally, a fun drumming activity for 2nd-4th grade (or even older) students. Edvard Grieg takes the simplest rhythm pattern and turns it into a fantastic and exciting piece of music. Your students may have heard this music on commercials or cartoons.

Begin by simply introducing the pattern. Write it on the board or project it on a screen. Echo-pat one measure at a time, then put two together, finally the entire pattern. Ask students if they think it's a hard pattern. Ask them what they would think about a composer who used this same pattern and repeated for an entire piece of music. Would they think they would like it, would it be exciting or boring. Most will say, "Boring." Then tell them to try to pat that pattern over and over to the music you are going to play for them. Shake your head and tell them it's a challenge and you really don't think they can do it.

Play the music full volume (it's very soft at the beginning) and pat the pattern together. Of course, by the end, the students will be frantically trying to keep up. Most will just be going crazy patting their knees. At the end, ask, "Was that boring?" "Why not?" Lead them in a discussion of how the composer used tempo and dynamics and also tone color to create a very exciting piece of music.

If you have enough drums for each student to have one, repeat, but this time play the pattern on the drums. Or create a stick routine. Let students make suggestions. They can work in small groups to come up with a story to act out. You'll have to set some guidelines for this with your older students or they will come up with inappropriate stories for sure!v

Whatever you do, use this time of year

to have some spooky fun with your students!

NOTE: All songs and activities are standards-based, sequential learning experiences from Unit 2 —October-November-December.

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