Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Cranberries and Cheese

Pretty much everyday, Bean and I have a salad with our lunch.  It's a simple salad: washed baby greens and olive oil with a generous helping of dried cranberries and goat cheese, blue cheese, or feta cheese on top.  The greens are the important part, just that alone would be sufficient, but the cranberries and cheese give it added flavor and nutritional punch.

That's exactly how I view music and art in our curriculum.  We could do without either one and we'd still be meeting the state requirements and the kids would be learning a sufficient amount of academics to get along in the world.  Life and learning are much richer for Bean and Boo when they have music and art, and not just what they absorb in the world around them, but when we intentionally introduce them to artists, composers, movements, and the vocabulary of art and music.

With both art and music, the instruction possibilities can be divided into three areas: practical (hands-on production of art and music), theory (composition, vocabulary, themes), and appreciation/history.  Typically, as far as I can tell from my experience, schools focus on a limited combination of practical and theory for both art and music, until kids reach the point where orchestra and band are offered. I remember only having art in early elementary school, about fourth grade, then it disappeared entirely for students on strictly academic, college-bound track.  Kids who were encouraged to go a more vocational route, may have taken art and/or drafting in junior high and high school.  Unless a student was in band, orchestra, or one of the choirs, music was over at about fourth grade too.  Since I am the teacher, principal, superintendent and school board (not to mention the comptroller), I get to decide what kind and how much music and art instruction my kids get.

One of the many things that enamores me to the curriculum laid out by Rebecca Rupp in Home Learning Year by Year, is that she outlines a very thorough program for music and art, giving them almost as much real estate as the "academic" subjects.  Actually, she treats them as academic subjects, giving them serious heft.

We have tried over the years to introduce music lessons to Bean and whether she was too young or the teachers were not a good fit is open to debate, but so far nothing has stuck.  I am determined to keep this idea alive and keep offering the possibilities whenever they arise or whenever we are at a curriculum turning point (otherwise known as new grade levels).  She insists that she only wants me to teach her, so in September, I ordered the first level of the Alfred Piano Course for Beginners, figuring I could at least get us started with my four years of forgotten piano lessons and that I would be learning too.  It was going okay at the beginning, but Bean soon complained bitterly about the illustrations in the books and the names and content of songs.  I promised myself that I would keep going with the lessons myself so she would absorb something and hopefully join in eventually, but that soon fell by the wayside.  Recently we have been talking about looking for another piano course with a different format - maybe a course intended for adults.

I don't dwell too much on music theory since Bean isn't doing an instrument at the moment.  I do go over the Music section in each grade's edition of What Your ...Grader Should Know: notes, rests, measures, time signatures, etc.

For me, the real fun is the music appreciation.  I see great irony in this. Neither of my parents were at all in tune with popular music when I was a kid (this made the musical predilections of my adolescence all the more alarming to them, delicious to me).  My mother in particular was emphatically interested in classical music and classical music only.  I remembered the on-going negotiations over the requirements for my attendance at the small symphony in my hometown.  The first concession was getting to wear jeans, then bringing a book (and being allowed to read it), the final coup de grace was getting to bring my WalkMan (and getting listen to Tears For Fears instead of Tchaikovsky).

During the fall, we went through The Story of Orchestra  (a Costco purchase from years ago) and listened to the accompanying selections.  We also read about the composers listed in What Your Third Grader Should Know and delved into our iTunes library for the featured pieces.  Currently, we are using a library copy of Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times, and What the Neighbors Thought to learn about different composers.  This book features short, slightly irreverent biographies of about twenty composers both famous and not so well-known, with descriptions of several of their compositions at the end of each bio.

I love these little interludes in our school week and although Bean's interest level ranges somewhere between indifferent and mildly intrigued, the closest she has come to negotiating her way out of it is insisting that she get to pick the composer each week.  I readily concede because I'm always curious who she'll pick and why.  Recently, she picked Clara Schumann because she had never heard of a woman composer before (alas, the only recordings we were able to come up with where her husband's.)

We follow a similar trajectory for art, though the hands-on part pretty much takes care of itself.  Bean has always been a prolific artist.  I have always made all art supplies readily available except the printmaking  tools and the acrylic paints.  These are the only two things on a high shelf because I like to know before my kids use supplies that could cause permanent damage to themselves or others.  Very often, Bean and Boo are working on art projects while I am reading history, science, or fiction aloud to them.  I may pull out something new or little used once in a while, but mostly I stay out of the way and try to remember to save samples for our public school consultant.

As with music, the only theory we cover is the lessons in What You're...Grader Should Know.  I figure it won't hurt her to learn the technical vocabulary of art, though I have yet to see her explore the finer points of composition on her own.  (Though she is a mean color mixer.)

No matter.  The real fun is inflicting art history upon her - um, I mean exposing her to artists past and present.  Despite growing up in proximity to the Art Institute of Chicago, I didn't know of any artists but Monet and Georgia O'Keefe until college so I feel like this is a gift to Bean and Boo, rather than education.  Bean genuinely enjoys this, but either loves an artist or is indifferent.  She's been drawn to Van Gogh since she was young, and her current favorite is Frida Kahlo.  (I'm really hoping there's a Frida Halloween costume in my future.)  By coincidence, we are using Lives of the Artists, from the same series as the music volume.  Bean picks an artist, we read about him or her then look up their work on the internet and in The Art Book, which we have at home.  She picked Andy Warhol after seeing an Arthur episode with a Warhol character and Hokusai after seeing an exhibit of an artist who used trash to recreate Hokusai works at our local marine science center.

She may not be impressed by art theory, but she often creates art in the style of an artist who's made an impression on her, and that's enough applied theory for me.

Of course, actually experiencing live music and art in person is the best education there is, and we do that as much as we can, but between having a toddler and Bean's aversions to noise and crowds, we don't do that as much as I'd like.  For now, I just settle for cranberries and cheese to inject a little calm and beauty into a haphazard or rancorous homeschool day.


  1. For piano, you might check out the Play Piano in a Flash book. They also have a kids version which I haven't seen. The basic idea is to use your right had for melody and left hand for chords and learn to play songs you like. It works for most popular music. I learned a few songs this way, but the truth is, it takes practice like anything else. We have a keyboard in the house and I often wish I could find a teacher (formal or not) who would happen to come by every week and just encourage the kids to play with music rather than give them formal lessons.

    You might check out the books Discovering Great Artists and Great American Artists for Kids for lots of projects where you work in the style of the artist.

    It's really fun reading your blog!

  2. Thank you Heddi! I'll look into the Piano in a Flash book. I love your idea about the at-home music class. I have a full-size upright piano, but a small house. If you find someone to do that, we could have our five in the living room.