Singing in lower school – a practice report

By Laura Koelmans, February 2021

When one walks through the corridors of our Amsterdam Waldorf school in the mornings, one can hear children’s voices singing in each one. It is one of the most exhilarating aspects of our work: that the school resounds with music. “The songs have penetrated into the walls of the building,” said one colleague as we bade farewell to a respected class teacher on her retirement who had for several decades taken care of singing and music in our school.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

Children and teachers come and go, the building remains and also the songs remain. New songs are sung and not every song remains for ever but there are many which keep being sung with happy enthusiasm. Songs which are properly part of the school.

Songs which build community

The kindergarten children (in the Netherlands, children enter pre-school at the age of four) are very closely connected with open senses to their environment. Singing in these classes is a matter of course, creating structure and beauty at the same time. The many songs, verses and games help the child find their way through the day. There is a song to start the day, for eating, there is a song for going outside, washing hands, for the story, for everything that happens in the day. Dreamy and still completely immersed in imitation, the children sing along and the transitions from one to the other happen as if by themselves.

All teaching at the Waldorf School is permeated with rhythm. We make an effort to let the school day breathe. “Compression” and “release”, in Goethe’s words, alternate: in every lesson and on every school day, during the week and over the whole school year. Concentrated work is juxtaposed with relaxation; sometimes the direction is very deeply inward, sometimes we look far out into the world. Singing is a great help in this.

It is not just that the daily rhythm is accompanied by singing but also the rhythm of the year. The festivals that are celebrated each year have their own songs and it is a great joy to recall the songs a year later. It often turns out that the melody is immediately there again, but lyrics, even long lyrics with many verses, have also been retained in the memory.

Class 1 – dreaming singing

When the children entered class 1 after two years of preschool, the wonderful time of the first seven-year period was not quite over. In the circle, the open eyes looked at me and every song was a little enchantment. So in the first school year, just like in kindergarten, the songs were our hold on the rhythm of the day – I only had to start, after one or two notes the children were already into it and knew what was coming.

Imitation – a wonderful educational tool – is still very strong at this age. When I raise my arms, all the arms join me immediately. In this way gestures were created to accompany many songs and we had a lot of fun with them.

The songs of the big school are absorbed by class 1 pupils like hardly anything else. The children sense that the songs belong to the school community and that if they can also sing these songs, they have become part of the big school.

But music is not only about making a sound. Silence is also part of it. And that is also experienced in this first school year. What can you hear when you are very quiet? One child was allowed to be king and was in the middle of the circle, asleep. Eyes closed, but ears wide open! Around the king lay some “treasures” – objects from the classroom, keys, a little bell, something from the seasonal table. And then, very quietly, a “robber” child came and stole a treasure. Quietly! Quickly the child went back to their place and the next robber came. When all the treasures had been stolen, the king was allowed to guess where they had gone. Here comes the breathing again: loud and quiet alternate.

Class 2 – antiphonies

The yearly rhythm returns, but the children grow and new topics are in order in class 2. Like the creatures in the fables, the children clash; resolving the quarrels was not always easy. In playing and singing, we tried to find each other again. But the naturalness of imitation in gestures was no longer there and so I went in search of what was now appropriate.

We sang a lot of antiphonies in which one voice sings something and the group responds. So the imitation was no longer simultaneous but somewhat delayed, and that called for alertness. That was fun! In the beginning, I led the singing, later it was a child or a small group in a circle. And then it really started! One child led the singing without the others knowing who it was. Without seeing one other. One child went into the hallway and sang outside the door, and everyone responded. Here listening was the order of the day again. And when that all went well, one child was allowed out into the street – we were now on the second floor – and sang from outside, so loudly that we could answer well!

In this year group, singing had an inspiring and harmonising effect. Even if they were running riot in the playground, in the music lessons the class seemed like one voice, very closely connected with each other.

Class 3 – inner experience

In class 3, gestures were really no longer appropriate. The children became too big for it. The songs, however, acquired more content and sound. We liked to sing songs with many verses, songs for each main lesson, for stories. Many beautiful Hebrew songs were sung – especially because it is customary at our school to celebrate Passover in class 3 in connection with the story of Moses. In the craft main lesson, too, there was many a song that was often sung subsequently when some work had to be done. The major and minor moods occurred, and especially the minor mood often went down well. The experience of music becomes more inward at this age, the volume often lower as a result. Depending on temperament, each child experienced their own one in each song.

There were moments of joy when the class was working intently and one child began to sing very softly. Other children joined in and although the work continued undisturbed, a quiet song sounded through the classroom. The strong inner experience of this song was palpable.

The imitation which is so natural in class 1 no longer exists in class 3. But experience teaches us that it does not disappear completely, especially in singing. Even when singing with young people or adults, it is noticeable how inwardly everything the choirmaster or conductor does is absorbed and mirrored. This is clearest when one has accidentally made a small mistake in leading the singing. The mistake will be heard again and again ...

Here it is also about less concrete things like posture, breath or the inner mood. These are also adopted by the choir or the class. As a teacher, it is a training path to become aware of these barely conscious things and to work with them.

Class 4 – polyphony

And then, in class 4, we finally get to polyphony, singing rounds and songs with a simple second part. The Rubicon has been crossed and the children experience themselves at this age of nine, ten as an “I”, alone in a certain sense, no longer completely connected to their environment. In polyphony, it is important to listen to what the other parts are doing, but at the same time not to lose oneself. The I is experienced in relation to the whole. That this is not always easy becomes apparent when you start singing rounds with a class 4. Some children cover their ears at first so that they don’t lose track of their own part. But then they discover that you can’t sing together like that because you can’t hear the other part anymore and you finish much too early or too late!

Other children listen so well to the other parts that they lose their own and suddenly discover that they are joining in with the other group.

It is a nice way to discover with the class how being loud and quiet at the same time can now be used simultaneously. Singing your own part with conviction, listening to the other parts in parallel. Having fun when the parts are rhythmically different and then knowing exactly when to continue.

It is worthwhile singing rounds and two-part songs in unison for a while. Only when the song comes naturally by itself should polyphony be tried. This prevents mistakes and inaccuracies. It is also a good exercise to wait – the children often know that it is a round and would like to sing it in several parts immediately. But if you wait, the reward when it works is all the greater.

Singing in lower school has many facets. Of course it develops musicality, both in doing and in the experience. The voice is slowly conquered and used more and more consciously. After the Rubicon, there is often a certain fear of singing. Singing alone is inconceivable. But if singing is cultivated daily, the children grow on it and also reach the point again of revealing themselves. Singing in a group – especially in polyphony – is a space where “I” and “all of us” have their place at the same time. In this way, singing promotes class and school community, it structures the rhythm of the day and the year, allows the day and the year to breathe. And no less importantly, it brings joy and beauty.

About the author: Laura Koelmans is a music teacher and class teacher of a class 5 at the Geert Groote School in Amsterdam.

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