The Music Project

Michele Baird and Jean Stafford
DeSoto Prekindergarten, DeSoto Grade School
DeSoto, Illinois


DeSoto is a small rural town in Jackson County located approximately 10 miles from Southern Illinois University. DeSoto Grade School is a feeder school to Carbondale District #95, which is one of the larger school districts in southern Illinois and houses prekindergarten through eighth grade. A state-funded prekindergarten program has been housed in the DeSoto Grade School for the past 17 years. The lead teacher, Michele, has been teaching prekindergarten for 18 years. Michele and her co-teacher, Jean, have been working together for 3 years. The DeSoto program has mixed-age, half-day sessions, with up to 18 students in each session. Children in DeSoto often enter PreK when they turn 3.

When this project was conducted, most of the children in Michele’s morning class were attending PreK for their third year. The returning children were familiar with project work. The majority of the afternoon group were very young 3-year-olds. Of the 34 children who took part in the project, 20 were boys and 14 were girls. Two children with IEPs were fully included, and a consultant assisted with adaptations and strategies once a week.

This project was conducted during 2008.

Phase 1. Beginning the Project

The topic of the project resulted from a conversation that the teacher had with Alicia, age 4. Alicia was drawing a picture of two girls, and above the girls’ heads, she had drawn musical notes. Jean pointed to the notes and asked what they were, and Alicia responded, “Music.” Jean asked, “Where does music come from?” and Alicia responded, “I don’t know.”

The next day, Alicia drew the same picture with some friends, and she pointed out to them the music that was in her drawing. Her friends also began drawing musical notes everywhere they could. Jean observed this interaction, and she asked again, “Where does music come from?” The response was the same: “I don’t know.” At pick-up time, Jean showed Alicia’s mom the picture and asked whether Alicia took music lessons or whether music was a significant part of her family’s activities. Alicia’s mom said there was little music in the family and that Alicia was not exposed to any music through lessons, family, or church.

Over the next few days, the girls continued to draw “notes” on almost any surface they could find: the blackboard, an easel, paper in the writing center. They even transferred some of their notes to transparencies and projected them onto the walls and the ceilings (Figure 1).

Jean and Michele discussed the children’s interest in music. Jean and her husband are both musical. They enjoy blues music; both play instruments, build and repair instruments, and have a large collection of instruments and music. Jean and Michele were not sure whether there was enough interest from the children to support a project. They were hesitant, because they had begun the year with a cooking project that was successful, but then tried, unsuccessfully, to launch a project on shoes. Therefore, they decided that before creating a web with the children or committing to music as a project, they would set out a variety of simple instruments as provocations and see how those provocations engaged the children’s interest in learning more about instruments.

On the following Monday, the teachers hung spoons with a little striker (a small metal rod with a loop on one end) from a frame on the science table. The children were interested, but the spoons did not produce much sound. The next day, the teachers put out a big triangle and a small triangle and asked the question, “Do the triangles sound the same or different?” The children’s hands-on research proved that the size of the triangle did not matter; both triangles sounded the same (Figure 2). What was the most fascinating to the children were the vibrations and how music came from the vibrations of the triangles. The teachers noticed the children putting their faces and or hands near the instruments after they struck them. They could feel something. The teachers used the term “vibrations” so the children could label what they were noticing. When the children struck the triangle it vibrated, and when they put their hands around the triangle, the vibration stopped—and so did the sound. “Was this music?” That was the question the teachers asked, inviting the children to think about the interconnections among those vibrations, the small instruments, the representations of musical notes, and the music children could hear in the listening center.

Next the teachers went to the music teacher in the building, who gave them some simple bells to share with the class. The children discovered that the same principle applied: if the bell was vibrating, it was producing sound; and if something interfered with the vibration, the sound stopped.

The children continued to be interested in musical instruments, so the teachers decided to help them explore what else makes music. The teachers started the discussion by asking, “Do you have family members who play music?” and “What instruments do you know?” The teachers asked parents to participate by bringing in instruments and sheet music, telling stories about music, and playing instruments.

In this early stage of the project, the teachers predicted that the children would learn about different kinds of instruments, make comparisons among physical features of instruments and comparisons among sounds of instruments, and benefit from exposure to different kinds of music and musical notes. They also predicted that the children would produce representational drawings of instruments. They did not expect a “show” to emerge.

Phase 2: Developing the Project

The teachers continued the investigation by exposing the children to string instruments. A volunteer, known in the community as Fiddlin’ Joe, visited the classroom with a bass fiddle that was playable and one that was under construction. The children were able to interact with this very large instrument. They noticed that the strings vibrated and that applying pressure on the strings altered the vibration and the sound. They learned the parts of the fiddle and listened to Fiddlin’ Joe perform. (Fiddlin’ Joe is the husband of the assistant teacher.)

The children then interacted with other string instruments, which were lent by the music teacher, the assistant teacher, and some of the parents. The children used drawings and conversation to make comparisons between features such as the number of strings and the machine heads on the guitar, ukulele, auto harp, violin, banjo, and bass violin. Discussions about these comparisons took place between individual children, in small groups, and in whole group meetings.

Interest in the instruments created a problem, because there were not enough instruments for the number of children who wanted to use them. This challenge was presented to the children. A sign-up sheet was instituted after some conversation to make sure that all children had opportunities to interact with the instruments (Figure 3). (Sign-up sheets were already used regularly in the classroom for a variety of purposes.) Wind and percussion instruments were also introduced by the music teacher, but the children never seemed to be quite as interested in them as they were in the string instruments (Figure 4).

The children made several drawings of various instruments, both from observing the instruments in the classroom and from photographs. Each child chose his or her favorite picture, enlarged it using the overhead projector, and embellished it at the easel. It then became a part of the project documentation in the classroom (Figure 5).

The children listened to CDs and to live performances by guests, gaining exposure to many genres of music (Figure 6). They decided during small group discussions that opera was their least favorite type of music, while bluegrass was their favorite. The teachers and guest experts also shared real music books with the children. (Guests included parents who played the guitar, the elementary music teacher, and several bluegrass musicians who were friends of the teacher.) Some children wrote their own music (Figure 7), and the visiting musicians played the children’s music!

In the art center, the teachers provided materials, pictures, and real instruments for the children to reproduce if they chose. A number of children used this opportunity to construct maracas, tambourines, and drums.

As the group of girls who originally started the project worked on making guitars one day, they began talking about performing and putting on a show. Since the movie High School Musical was so popular with many of the children, they thought putting on their own High School Musical show would be a good idea. The teachers decided that they would not discourage the idea, but they realized that it might take guidance to help the children develop their plans. So the next day, the teachers revisited the discussion with the children. They began by asking what the children would need to do if they wanted to put on the musical. Immediately, many of the children wanted to be the stars of the show. It became quickly evident that there were only two stars and everyone wanted to participate, so the children came to the conclusion that High School Musical was not a good show for them to put on, because they wanted to make sure everyone who wanted to “star” could have the opportunity. So they began their process of determining, “What do we need to do to have a show in our classroom?”

The children determined they would need the following items:

  • Stage
  • Seats
  • Tickets
  • Money
  • Popcorn

They wanted the show to take place outside, but the weather was a problem. A discussion of what they would need to do to make it look like the show was outside yielded the following list:

  • Flowers
  • Sky
  • Grass
  • Clouds
  • Tree

They divided up the jobs and began to produce a backdrop. The teachers noted that the girls were intently focused on the activity and made a point of providing materials the girls decided they needed to complete the backdrop.

Although wind and percussion instruments were never quite as interesting to the children as the strings, one 4-year-old boy selected a Native American flute as the instrument to replicate for his multistage art project (Figures 9-10).

Fiddlin’ Joe visited the class several times to teach the children more about the construction of stringed instruments and to play the music they had written (Figures 11-12).

As they began to produce their musical, the children addressed a number of problems or challenges that arose in many steps along the way. For example, several boys used the big blocks to make the stage, which had to be put away at the end of each session. The boys would come in each day and set up the stage so it could be aligned with the backdrop.

The children also decided that they needed money and tickets, so those were made. As the rest of the class observed the girls creating the backdrop, they began to enter into the conversation, trying to figure out how to fit in and participate. Some of the observers suggested that they would need tickets, and to sell tickets, they needed money—so they now had the job of creating tickets and money (Figures 14-15). As the day of the show approached, a small group of children were discussing going to see a movie, noting that they always had popcorn. They then made popcorn by wadding up small pieces of paper.

Phase 3: Concluding the Project

The culminating event was the “Show.” The children decided as a group, by taking a vote, that the show was for them, and they didn’t want to invite others to come. The teachers realized after the project ended that this decision probably came about because the “Show” went on for several days, and if the class had invited others to attend, the show would be a one-time-only event. Since others weren’t invited, they could continue to repeat the “Show” for as long as they wanted. The shows took place at any time of the day. A show would start when the stage was ready, the tickets were sold and collected, and the popcorn made.

The children decided that each child could perform anything they wanted. Some children immediately took homemade instruments and sang familiar songs.

It became immediately evident that the same children would keep performing day after day. The teacher presented the question, “What can we do to make sure everyone that wants to can have a turn?” The children discussed the fact that some children were shy or felt they didn’t have talent. One of the girls said maybe it would be easier if they went up to perfom together. So the shyer children were able to ask someone to go with them. There was encouragement from the other children, and there was real support for their fellow students. Robert, age 3, seemed to want to perform but wasn’t sure. Alicia said she would go up with him so he wouldn’t have to go alone. He agreed, and they performed together. Other children followed. The teachers noted that most of the children who had been too shy to perform alone were able to do so after being mentored by an older child. Only Sammy, a very shy 3-year-old, chose not to perform at all.

Not everyone performed, but the children considered it okay to be in the audience. One child stated, “If there wasn’t an audience, then there would be no one to perform for.” It could be said that the children learned a lot about different instruments, but the ultimate was the empathy they felt for each other, the ability to work as a team to create the “Show.”

Teacher Reflection

As teachers, we feel that each time we do a project we let go of a little more control of the direction of the project, and we have a little more trust in the children and the direction they will go. Allowing the children to come to their own conclusion about the appropriateness of High School Musical was an eye opener. We only had to provide supplies and a little muscle for the backdrop. The rest was their work!

One thing that surprised us was our own enjoyment of watching this project as it developed. Because it developed so naturally, we found we were not stressed about what to do next… It just happened! We have heard others say that that is the way projects are supposed to develop, but never before had it been so clear to us.

This was a good project. We had a cooking project earlier this year, and the children loved it. They would have continued with cooking indefinitely, but we became bored with it. However, the music project lasted 3 months, and we never got tired of it. Maybe this was because we had so many parents coming in as experts. But we believe it was also because the children were so focused.

What surprised us the most was the language and the vocabulary that became so comfortable for the children. At the end of the project we asked, “Does your family have a mandolin?” as the question of the day. The children knew the mandolin was not one of the instruments they studied, but they knew the resource book to use to find out what it looked like. They used this reference tool to make an informed answer.

The parent involvement was great, we utilized every parent who wanted to be involved, and we believe it helped maintain interest in the project. It gave us an opportunity to articulate the Project Approach and the capability of 3- and 4-year-olds.

When the project ended, we gave the children the opportunity to represent some of the spring flowers that parents were bringing into the classroom. Their very first drawings of the flowers were detailed and truly resembled the flowers that they were observing. We feel the in-depth look at the musical instruments and creating the backdrop for the “Show” gave the children new eyes for looking at details and representing them. The picture of a little red flower was created by a 3-year-old who had been shy, had been reluctant to use any writing utensils, and had a weak pincer grasp. Although the flower is small, it represents the fact that the flower did have two colors, and she wrote “red flower.” This was true success (Figures 18-21). In retrospect, we wish we had encouraged the children to try second representations.