Some of my favorite listening lessons are from Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals. My youngest students like guessing what animal Saint-Saëns was trying to portray with the different instrument sounds and musical styles. I have found that they are very intuitive listeners and can often guess the correct animals! With first graders, I lead the students in describing the pitch, style, and tempo, then discussing what animal that might be. After they get the hang of that, I let the kids act out their guesses for the next animal song, and finally draw a picture for a third. They ask over and over to “play the Carnival of the Animals game.”
For the past few years I have introduced orchestra instruments in the second grade because it ties in so nicely with the second grade curriculum for physical science (Ohio Academic Content Standards: K-12 Science, p. 67). We talk a lot about how instruments from the different families change their pitch and volume, and I play lots of listening examples. Many of my examples are reviewed from Carnival of the Animals. There are no brass instruments used in any of the short pieces, but quite a few feature specific instruments (Fossils=xylophone, Cuckoo in the Woods=clarinet, Elephant=double bass, Swan=cello).
In third grade, we need to review the orchestra families and instruments, but I never found a meaningful way to approach it… until now! Saint-Saëns was my composer of the month for March, so we were listening to Carnival of the Animals anyway. It opened the door to discussing the instruments and how the composer used them to create the impression of the different animals. The kids, of course, were already pros at this discussion after being exposed to the pieces in first and second grade. One of the third grade classes decided that they wanted to come up with their own ideas for new animals. I sent them home with the instructions to brainstorm animals they would like to “compose” for. I subsequently did the same with the other two third grade classes. During the next class period, we made a ridiculously long list of animals on the SMART Board. I broke the kids up into groups of four or five, and they had to decide unanimously on the animal they would be “composing” for. This took some serious negotiation in a few groups. Once an animal had been chosen, it couldn’t be chosen by any other group, even in the other classes.
Since we didn’t actually have the resources (or the time, with only a few weeks of school left) to compose for orchestra instruments, I asked the kids to design posters for their animals, indicating the instruments they would choose to represent each animal. Once the animals were selected, the kids drew a scene on scrap paper of their animal and the instruments they would choose to represent it. Many groups asked me to play clips of specific instruments, to project images of instruments or animals, to look up their animal’s habitat or diet, and for my opinion of their instrument choices. I was blown away by how detailed the posters were becoming!
These third graders were so articulate as to why they chose specific instrument sounds, that I knew this had to be more than just a poster project. The final few class periods were devoted to finishing a final copy of their poster, writing a short script about their animal and instrument choices, and filming each group’s project. Below is a video of one class’s completed projects. (I swear the kids wrote all of the script.) The other classes’ videos can be seen on my Vimeo page.
Here are some close-ups of a few of the more detailed posters. (Click on any photo to view larger.)
And here is the overflowing bulletin board display of all 18 finished posters!
The final results – both the posters AND the videos – were amazing and you can see just how much thought the kids put into choosing instruments appropriate to their animal. However, I don’t know if I would do this project again for a couple of reasons. First, it took FOREVER. From instrument review to finished videos took us about eight 50-minute music classes. Second, this was an entirely student-driven project. Next year’s third graders might want to go an entirely different direction. In either case, I’m sure that this Carnival of the Animals poster project will be a spring-board for my teaching of orchestra instruments for years to come. (I’m already trying to figure out how to do something similar with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf!)