Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Piano & Forte! Songs and Books for Investigating Music Fundamentals

Ms. Brigid here, from Merit School of Music  in Chicago, IL. Thank you for joining me!

Spring has arrived suddenly, after another winter that was way too long. Will it stay, or will we be ambushed by one last errant snowstorm or accosted with another brutal temperature drop? Basking in the unexpected warmth and splendor of a sunny day, we hardly know what to do! A friend confides quietly, “I heard a bird sing yesterday,” and we both marvel. Birds. Songs. Spring.

The world is hushed, yet on the brink of great things. It’s a time of wonder – and a time to bring wonder into the classroom. It’s time for Jack in the Box or Jack in the Cone, as the case may be.

Quietly I start singing, holding my little puppet:
Jack in the box, still as a mouse,
Hiding deep in your dark little house.
Jack in the box, so very still.
Won’t you come out?
(Jack) Yes, I will!

I look down at the puppet while singing, “Won’t you come out?” The puppet is shy, and won’t come out. It swivels its head around, at eye level. I say, “He’s shy. We have to be really quiet. Can you sing ‘Won’t you come out?’ with me?” The children sing earnestly, imploringly. Finally, Jack pops out, as we all sing “Yes, I will!” in loud, strong voices.

“In music, we have a special word for quiet, called ‘piano.’ Can you say that with me?” I mime playing a keyboard, then put my fingers in front of my lips and, in a hushed voice, say “piano.”
“There’s a special word for loud, too: ‘Forte.’” I flex my arms like a bodybuilder and say “forte” loudly. The children repeat the word with me. "These words are in Italian, the language of music!"

We sing the song again, then I show everyone how the puppet works. “When you push the stick up, the body comes out of the cone. When the stick is twisted, the body turns one way or the other. Next week, everyone will get a chance to make the puppet jump up.” This works because I have a small collection of cone puppets that I can bring to class and pass around – some are handmade, some commercial, and some are from the Museum of Theatre Puppets in Lübeck, Germany.

"Let’s pretend we’re Jack in the Box puppets. Get on your feet like a frog, and watch me.
When I pop up, you pop up – not before. I’m going to try to trick you.” Of course I try to trick them, and usually succeed – much to their delight. We sing the song again, settling down on our ankles, and this time, I ask the kiddos to watch their teacher or another student – and jump up when they jump up.

As promised, the cone puppets visit the following week and magically engage my kiddos. We sing and act out the song a few times, before introducing the cone puppets. I review how they work then tell the children they will have the chance to play with ONE puppet. I stress that the puppets must be treated gently.
Depending on class size, and how the children are configured (at the perimeter of the rug, or sitting in rows, etc.) I distribute the puppets to every 5th or 6th child, and ask the children to pass the puppets to their neighbors after they’re done. Having multiple puppets ensures thing go smoothly. All are assured they will have a turn, and no one is left waiting an overlong time. I hear the children sing to the puppets in”here comes the bride” perfect fourth intervals, “Yes, I will!” They are delighted with the puppets. I am delighted with them.

Books – Hush Little Baby
“Does anyone know what a lullaby is?” I usually get an answer that is fairly close. This is a demographic, after all, where there are lots of younger siblings! We discuss what the job is for a lullaby, who a lullaby is sung to – and whether it is sung piano or forte?  We try both ways and (usually) come to a consensus that a lullaby should be sung piano.

Hush Little Baby is a well-known lullaby in the United States. Of the many book editions available, my preference is Marla Frazee’s version. I tell the children, “This is how Illinois looked 100 years ago when Ms. Brigid was  little. There were no paved streets, no cars, no street lights, television or computers,” etc. The narrative illustrations draw them in, so they can start to imagine what it must have been like to live in that long-ago and very different time. Text is clearly printed at the bottom of the page – which is perfect for my emergent readers.

A recent conversation with my friend Irica has prompted me to present another version illustrated by Sylvia Long. Irica made the point that the traditional song promotes materialism - buying a succession of things  (that cleverly rhyme) to get the baby to stop crying. The song never affected me like this, but over the years, other parents have commented on this aspect as well. The implied materialism prompted Long to create her own, very lovely version, which intimately focuses on relationships and the wonders of the world as night falls. It’s important to present comparatives, and this is a charming way to do so. The words are lyrical, the illustrations dreamy and the book’s ending circular.

...When their songs drift from afar,                                        Momma's going to show you a shooting star.

When that star has dropped from view,             
Momma's going to read a book with you.

…Momma's going to show you the harvest moon.

As that moon drifts through the sky,
Momma's going to sing you a lullaby.

The title says it all! This beautifully conceived book by Deborah Underwood explores the many kinds of quiet that exist in the word. Renata Liwska’s illustrations perfectly encapsulate the delicate essence of Best friends don’t need to talk quiet or making a wish quiet.

There are so many types of quiet in this book – which I reveal by slowly turning pages, speaking in a hushed voice. We act out what is shown on the page where possible. The subjects range from wondrous to happy, from unexpected to sad. Full disclosure – I skip some of the sad “quiets.” Last one to get picked up from school quiet, with the accompanying picture of a completely undone, forlorn moose, would be too much for some of my tender-hearted kiddos, who are struggling with separation issues. Other quiets are more adult oriented, e.g. Surprise from Aunt Tillie quiet. The book works equally well in a large group read along, a small group exploration or as a bedtime book. The book ends with Tucking in Teddy quiet, Bedtime kiss quiet. “What flashlight?” quiet, and, finally, Sound asleep quiet. SSssssshhhhhhhh! Sweet dreams quiet.

The LOUD Book!
Companion book to The Quiet Book, this book encourages repetition and dramatization of text. Last slurp loud, Applause loud, Thunderstorm loud, Parade in the park loud, Fireworks loud are invitations to spectacular and hilarious interpretations of forte. The content is smaller in scope and less open to post-book discussions about feelings, but still manages to get the idea across of paying attention to the sonic world we inhabit and the soundtrack of our lives. Though I skip a few pages, my Pre-K and K kiddos are able to relate to most everything in the book, even a “loud” which is quiet: Deafening silence loud - where a mom-like bunny towers over two miscreants guiltily eating cookies out of a cookie jar. Gulp!
Thank you for joining me. Next month, April showers bring – Crescendo!
I am continually inspired by The Children’s Music Network (CMN) community. an international group of socially conscious musicians, educators, librarians, families, songwriters and good people, who “celebrate the positive power of music in the lives of children by sharing songs, exchanging ideas, and creating community.” Please visit CMN, and find a gathering in your region.

©2014 Brigid Finucane  
                         * 847-213-0713 *



  1. Brigid I love this. I love the hush little baby piece. I never thought about it that way. And more to love, too.

  2. Love the quiet and loud books! I will definitely check those out. I have quiet and loud poems that I learned from a music teacher in my area. I will try to share them on my blog sometime soon. Thanks for your work on this great blog!

    1. Liz, I love these books. They are very thoughtful - yet whimsical. With your artistic talent, I can see you adding your own ideas in really engaging ways.

  3. Loved this, Brigid! The illustrations in your book choices are so engaging---I'm going to look for them to use at my next preschool visit---love this way of teaching piano and forte! Had to laugh at "this is how it looked 100 years ago when I was a child!"

    1. Hi Dorothy! I initially found both the books at my great Skokie Library, then went on to purchase them....which I only do these days if I perceive continued use! My book collection has hit critical mass. I think you'll enjoy the ways you can share them with big kiddos (choir) and little.

  4. Thank you, Stuart. The illustrations of the Sylvia Long edition are quite dreamy, so I'm happy to introduce them to my kiddos. I also use comparative recordings of "Hush Little Baby" - and we talk about piano, forte, and figure out who's singing and what instruments are used. Lots of extensions!

  5. Oh Brigid thank you so much for these reminders! I haven't taken my cone puppet out in years, and just the other day I came across it and thought that it might be time, and here you have handed me a whole wonderful lesson plan. Interesting note about the materialism of Hush Little Baby - it's true of course but I always saw this book as more silly, with all kinds of wonderful messages about sibling relationships etc....

  6. I never took the song literally - and was very surprised at the reaction it elicited from a small handful of adult listeners. Nevertheless, the alternative versions the song has inspired (there are many) are quite delightful - and I love introducing my kiddos to them. It's another reason to live at the library - so many things to discover!


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