Next Wave Master Class- Routines and Artistry in Early Childhood Music at Conservatory Lab

Conservatory Lab community members board and staff members and alumni represented the school with skill and pride at the Next Wave Summit, hosted by our sister organization, the Center for Artistry and Scholarship on Saturday, October 19, 2019. Next Wave shared educator- and community-developed innovations that foster democratic practices and creative approaches to racial and social justice in education.  

Conservatory Lab community members presented discussions and workshops throughout the day including:

  • Conservatory Lab board member Lisa Wong facilitated a conversation with Esperanza Spalding (the amazing musician), Dr. Vikram Patel (head of the Global Mental Health@Harvard initiative), and Shaw Pong Liu (musician, teacher, and activist) reflecting on what happens to students’ resilience when they have real and deep access to the arts.
  • Flow with Me: Yoga in Communities of Color, led by K1 teacher Taheera Massey and her colleagues from 33 Degree Yoga
  • Eighth Grade Capstone Projects: Art, Activism, and Social Justice, led by middle school science teacher Elizabeth Schibuk four Conservatory Lab alumni, now ninth graders.
  • Increasing Student Ownership through Student-Led Work, led by Conservatory Lab board member Tyrone Sutton with colleagues and students from Boston Arts Academy
  • Lunch chats featuring principal Nicole Mack, El Sistema director Tess Plotkin, and board member Lisa Wong. 

Conservatory Lab Resident Artists Joshua Garver, Will Lynch, and Alexandria Ramos participated in the opening plenary, setting the tone for active learning by giving a 30-minute master-class. They showcased Conservatory Lab’s El Sistema-inspired early childhood program with students in Grade 2, who re-enacted their musical development from when they were 4 years old in K1 to where they are now in Grade 2. 

The master class showcased how the ECE model at Conservatory Lab is organized to give students as young as age 4 the building-block technical skills they need while still developing their artistry and freedom of expression. The key to their progression is strong routines. The structure allows them to learn how to use their bodies as good musicians and good listeners so they can work together. At every level, instruction includes structured moments to build skills, and opportunities for students to share their artistry and creativity. 

In K1, students work with Ms. Ramos, using a mnemonic for their class agreements called “The Five.” Ramos scaffolds this mnemonic with multi-sensory engagement. Students use these reminders so they can have fun and be safe in music class while playing a game of sound and motion with her. Each step of the process is repeated in a sing-song voice with hand gestures in a set rhythm. Students, hear, see, and move to remember what they are learning. 

Ramos explained the creative part of the process to the audience, “As we conclude this routine, individual students who are good models of musicianship are chosen to create their own sound and motion.” She went on to joke, “It’s sometimes hard to choose only a few students, because pretty much all of the students are good models.” When the students create their sound and motion, the whole group repeats it in the song the same way the mnemonic is repeated. 

Setting up this strong foundation for musicianship through a structured routine leaves space for creativity. The invitation to participate at the end of the routine allows the youngest Conservatory Lab musicians freedom to explore, and gives them a chance to shine in a group of their peers. 

In K2, Mr. Lynch incorporates new skills into “The Five,” putting respect for instruments into action. The routine still gives students a multi-sensory mnemonic and adds practice of how to hold percussion instruments quietly at rest, ready, and playing positions. Each instrument has a different set of positions, and students remember the different techniques for each instrument by practicing this routine.

The Five is…

One, Participate

Two, (Raise a silent hand)

Three, Respect your friends

Four, Respect the instrument

Five, safe body criss cross (if they’re in chairs, they say flat feet, on the edge)

Students take great pride in being able to move from rest to ready positions without making a sound. It showed up on stage as Lynch led them through the musical-instrument equivalent of red-light green-light. The circle of students beamed out at the audience as they expertly and soundlessly moved their bells and tambourines from their laps to elbow height, and back. 

This playful practice gets them ready to hold and use orchestral instruments. 

Using the same guided sound and motion style activity that Ms. Ramos used in K1, students in K2 use instruments to build on the rhythms they explored with their hands, feet, and voices. Adding news skills stretches each young musician’s artistry. As students copy each other’s sounds, they must adapt the motions: a bell, drum, or rasp each requires a different motion. Students demonstrated this technical expertise by preserving the original creator’s rhythm, but producing beautiful layered sounds. 

As students pretended to move into Grade 1, Mr. Garver showed the ways that they use an expanded mnemonic routine called “The Ten” to give students good form: back in a straight line and feet forward on the chair, and ending by creating a balanced position for plucking their strings with an L-shaped finger. 

The Ten is…

0 Rest Position

1 Stand Up

2 Feet Together

3 Make a V

4 Take a Step

5 Sway like a tree in the wind

6 Show your strings

7 Eye on the button 

8 Float on down

9 Rest Your Jaw

10 Sit on the edge

L Chant: I love music, yes I love music, really love music, so I pizz-i-ca-to. 

Catching students up to where they are today in Grade 2, the Aretha Franklin Orchestra demonstrated a call-and-response improvisation game that students play. Just as in the earlier grades, the student leader creates a rhythm. To add a bit more complexity, the others in the orchestra play back something that is either the same or different notes, but the same rhythm, and soloists may repeat back something exactly the same or completely different. The resulting in a fun musical game that sounds complex, layered, and alternately harmonious and cacophonous.  

This structure allows Conservatory Lab’s young artists to explore the sounds their instruments make individually and as a group. As they move through the year, Grade 2 students start out with open strings and single-note rhythms, mimicking the monotone sounds that students could make with just hand-claps, and then modify to more complexity by moving to multiple strings and adding fingerings. 

The Grade 2 students and Mr. Garver closed out with audience participation, showcasing their classic crowd-pleaser. Garver started a rhythm, “Stomp Stomp Clap,” and once the audience was fully engaged in stomping and clapping he starts his solo and cues the students to play the chords of We will! We will Rock YOU! 

The audience was so engaged during this that they gave the students and teachers of Conservatory Lab a standing ovation.