Get the exclusive (almost) Weekly Digest.

    What Composer Study Looks Like

    August 18, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    Welcome back to the What Ambleside Looks Like series, where I tell you what Charlotte Mason said about these things, and then confess where I fall short in order to make you all feel better! If you missed my posts on picture study or hymns, don’t forget to check them out.

    Before I get started, I want to remind you that when I say “Ambleside,” I’m talking about Years One through Six–the elementary curriculum–and not Years Seven and up {also called House of Education}. In addition to this, my oldest child is only nine and beginning Year Four next week. So when I’m discussing all of this, I’m talking about young, beginning students, not advanced students. There is a difference, and we must keep in mind that what is good for young beginners is rarely sufficient for advanced students, while what is good for advanced students is not appropriate for beginners.

    If we think we can approach our students the same way all of the way through their education, we are fooling ourselves. We have to deal with the nature of the student, and a Year One student, who is six years of age, is quite different from who she will be in Year Five when she is ten.


    To begin this discussion, I think it is most helpful to quote part of what one of the AO Advisory, Wendi Capehart, says on the music page:

    In music study the same principles apply as do in picture study, nature study, and nature notebooks. That is the principle of attentiveness and good observation. The goal is not to have children who can give a lecture on music theory. It is to have children learn to enjoy classical music and tell one piece from another just as naturally as they learn the difference between, say, The Farmer in the Dell and When the Saints Go Marching In – because they are both familiar with and fond of what they are hearing. The more they are exposed to good literature, the better they get at reading the themes and language of literature. In art and music, the more they are simply exposed to pictures and music, the more they learn to ‘read’ the themes of the world’s classic compositions.

    It bears repeating what I learned from a lecture by John Hodges {conductor, musician, and composer, as well as director of The Center for Western Studies}, which is that exposure breeds taste. I remember reading once in regard to food that some children require ten separate tastes of a food in order to acquire even a tolerance for that food. This is why we always made our children take one. single. bite. of whatever it was they thought they didn’t like. Just one. We knew it would pay dividends later when they had learned to tolerate–or even like–those foods. The same goes with music. If you ever hear someone say they “hate” classical music, chances are they were never really exposed to it.

    Wendi goes on to say:

    With reading we don’t begin with the mechanics, the grammar and punctuation, nor we do we begin with a biography of Beatrix Potter before we read Peter Rabbit. With music, we should begin in much the same way – with simple exposure. Our children may read and be familiar with Beatrix Potter’s children’s stories for years before we would move on to Shakespeare, biographies, the history of “English Literature.” So they can simply play around with music, listening to it, plinking away on musical instruments without being burdened with facts about the lives of composers, music theory, technique, and composition. In other words, those of us who do nothing much more than play the tapes and CDs, occasionally humming along, of each term’s composers, need not feel guilty.

    Wendi says that adding music appreciation to the PNEU {Charlotte Mason’s schools} was a bit of an afterthought, and I’d say that Volume Six concurs, in which Charlotte quotes from a lecture given at an Ambleside conference in the 1920s:

    Musical Appreciation––which is so much before the eye at the present moment––originated in the P.N.E.U. about twenty-five years ago. At that time I was playing to my little child much of the best music in which I was interested, and Miss Mason happened to hear of what I was doing. She realised that music might give great joy and interest to the life of all, and she felt that just as children in the P.U.S. were given the greatest literature and art, so they should have the greatest music as well. She asked me to write an article In the Review on the result of my observations, and to make a programme of music each term which might be played to the children. From that day to this, at the beginning of every term a programme has appeared; thus began a movement which was to spread far and wide.

    Musical Appreciation, of course, has nothing to do with playing the piano. It used to be thought that ‘learning music’ must mean this, and it was supposed that children who had no talent for playing were unmusical and would not like concerts. But Musical Appreciation had no more to do with playing an instrument than acting had to do with an appreciation of Shakespeare, or painting with enjoyment of pictures. I think that all children should take Musical Appreciation and not only the musical ones, for it has been proved that only three per cent of children are what is called ‘tone-deaf’; and if they are taken at an early age it is astonishing how children who appear to be without ear, develop it and are able to enjoy listening to music with understanding.

    If the first goal of what we in Ambleside commonly call “composer study” {which I think is a bit of a misnomer} is exposure and acquiring taste and appreciation, the second goal brings us back to the verse I shared earlier in this series:

    Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. {Philippians 4:8}

    In her fourth volume, Charlotte writes:

    Many great men have put their beautiful thoughts, not into books, or pictures, or buildings, but into musical score, to be sung with the voice or played on instruments.

    The music we introduce, then, is another source of great thoughts–of true, honest, lovely things to think upon. The second goal is nothing less than the enlarging of the soul as it feeds upon virtuous ideas.

    Wasn’t This About Doing Composer Study?

    Yes, well, sometimes I first need to remind myself of the goal. Depending upon our aim, our methods will be different, right?

    In Volume Four, Charlotte tells us:

    Use every chance you get of hearing music {I do not mean only tunes, though these are very nice}, and ask whose music has been played, and, by degrees, you will find out that one composer has one sort of thing to say to you, and another speaks other things; these messages of the musicians cannot be put into words, so there is no way of hearing them if we do not train our ear to listen. A great help towards learning to hear music is to know the notes, to be able to tell with one’s eyes shut any note or chord that is struck on the piano or sung with the voice.

    She mentions two things here: knowing the name of the composer {that, eventually, we might recognize his work whenever we hear it} and having what is commonly called perfect pitch. I would say that the former belongs to composer study, while the latter belongs to solfege or other music lessons.

    As I searched through her volumes, I found that Charlotte’s primary emphasis was upon really listening to the music. Again and again we see her using everything in her power–including music exposure–to train the attention. She wants her students to graduate with the ability to be fully present in their lives.

    On the In Memoriam page {where Charlotte’s former friends and comrades wrote about her after she passed}, one woman says:

    [T]hrough Musical Appreciation she prepared children to understand and enjoy concerts.

    Later, another writes:

    [T]he musical appreciation which is taught in the P.U.S. makes one able to understand in some measure the work of a musician, as well as having one’s senses pleased by it.

    Charlotte herself writes, in Volume Five:

    Let the young people hear good music as often as possible, and that under instruction. It is a pity we like our music, as our pictures and our poetry, mixed, so that there are few opportunities of going through, as a listener, a course of the works of a single composer. But this is to be aimed at for the young people; let them study occasionally the works of a single great master until they have received some of his teaching, and know his style.

    I think we can use all of this to put together a nice little list concerning the qualities of music appreciation as taught by Mason and her friends:

    • The focus is upon hearing the music.
    • Most of the time, the information the children receive concerning the pieces listened to is quite simple, and might often be as simple as only learning the name.
    • The children ought to enjoy the hearing.
    • Works studied ought to be a number of works by a single composer, that the students might learn something of the style and message of that composer.

    Do you see what is missing? Music lectures. Composer biographies. Charts. Graphs. Timeline figures.

    The noise, noise, noise, NOISE!

    Now, I for one do make a timeline figure {because I am a timeline nut…I have issues, people!}, if the composer whose works we are studying happens to have lived during the period of history we are studying, but that is hardly the point.

    Composer study–which is, more rightly, a study of six works by a single composer–is very, very simple. Play the works. Listen to them. Name them {and, obviously, we name the composer}.

    I do not do this formally. Rather, I put on the works while we are doing chores or some other activity {like painting}. The children might dance or march around, depending on how the music makes them feel. My oldest is probably ready to do this formally, now that he is in Year Four. We shall see if his mother is ready.

    Sometimes, I purchase an Opal Wheeler biography and leave it lying around the house on the off-chance that my oldest wishes to learn more about the composer.

    But that’s about it.

    I know that lots of supermommies out there like to make a composer lapbook and do composer crafts and talk about all the details of the composer’s life. You can do what you like. But if you are feeling pressured to make composer study into Composer Study {if you know what I mean}, well then…relax. One of the goals is to enjoy it, and you can’t possibly do that if the stress of it has just turned your shoulders into knots.

    Listen to the music. Name it. Breathe. Enjoy!

    In these younger years, that is enough.

    One final note: In my opinion, a child’s musical education is not complete without actually studying music formally. Ambleside officially suggests that this begins in Year Four. Our family begins at age eight {which tends to fall in Year Three}. Personally, I think any younger is not necessary and possibly detrimental, depending on the child. So much of the information we are tempted to drown students in during composer study can be learned, slowly and steadily, during formal music instruction. Chances are that adding in musical study around year four will naturally enhance a child’s appreciation during composer study.

    Get the (almost) weekly digest!

    Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

    Powered by ConvertKit


  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts August 27, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    Mystie, I feel very affirmed that you (and Dawn, I believe) are doing it this way!

    Jennifer, You can!

    Step 1: Buy CD
    Step 2: Read titles
    Step 3: Push “play”

    He he. 😉

    Or you can just come by my house. I charge a frappacino for admission.

    Just kidding!

  • Reply Jennifer August 19, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    I wish I, myself,could sit under this teaching for the year! It sounds so beautiful and romantic. Enjoy your year!

  • Reply Mystie August 18, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    That’s exactly what we do, too, though I should be better about announcing the composer’s name when I turn it on. On accident, though, I have found that letting my readers turn it on (we play it off the computer, so it’s on an iTunes playlist), makes them learn both the composer and sometimes even the piece’s name.

    Last year I left library books about the composer laying around, and had Hans come up to me and ask, “Do we have Mozart’s Symphony in C-major?” I blinked, looked, said no, but immediately we found a 69-cent copy in the iTunes store and I bought it! 🙂 He now thinks of that as “his” song.

    Here’s a weird thing. When my oldest was a baby, we played a classical music CD on repeat all night to help him sleep, continuing until he was probably 2 1/2 or so, because the white noise helped block out the fussing of his his poor-sleeping brother. The CD started with Vivaldi’s Spring. When Vivaldi was our composer last year, Hans adamantly insisted we start with Spring every time and every time it came on he mentioned how it was his favorite song. Strange. Maybe we should have done that for all the children. 🙂

  • Leave a Reply