By Zach Bostic
Unbeknownst to the public, Collegiate kindergartners can, in fact, pronounce “Glockenspiel”—a small percussion instrument comprised of metal bars that create a certain individual pitch when hit. Although the syllables are sometimes muddied by the pre-legible minds of the six-year-olds, their abilities are often underestimated. Fortunately, music offers an outlet and acts as a catalyst for mental acuity.
From Junior Kindergarten to senior year, students at Collegiate School have an unending stream of musical opportunities. For the first ten years as a student, music is a required field of learning. Particularly in the Lower School, the foundations of music principles and understanding are set in preparation for future development. In 2013, longtime Lower School music teacher Patsy Hallett retired and was replaced by Christine Hoffman, who is currently one of two Lower School music teachers.
In the years since she joined the faculty, Hoffman, along with the performing arts teachers in the Middle and Upper Schools, has been working toward cementing a strong base to benefit music students in all three school divisions. As demonstrated in a recent class visit, many Lower Schoolers are incredibly capable of developing strong musical vocabularies to carry forward into their future.
Hoffman’s tidy music room in Reynolds Hall is very welcoming, with whimsical but informative art describing music theory or instruments. Taunted by the instruments stored visibly in cubbies along the walls, a sibilant “Yes!” often breaks through the hush of the classroom at any possibility of getting to play. Following specific instructions, the students quickly manage their way through setting up the instruments, only lacking focus when their excitement overwhelms them. The classroom is outfitted with a multitude of xylophones and glockenspiels, all of which are equipped for use by Lower Schoolers; some of the bars are removed to ensure students cannot play dissonant notes. Following the setup, the first grade students play a game that gives every child a chance to play each instrument and begin to grasp the principles of keeping a “steady beat,” as Hoffman describes it.
Here’s a recording of Hoffman’s students in action.
Similar to the Lower School, sixth graders in Middle School music teacher Connie Tuttle’s music classes play tubano drums to continue building a foundation in rhythm and dynamics. Creating enough rumble to penetrate the hush of the occasional Upper School assembly, the tubanos are an easy way to connect with the energetic nature of most Middle Schoolers. Interestingly, similar to the Lower School, the instruments neatly strewn through Tuttle’s room seem to be just as taunting to Middle Schoolers as those of Hoffman’s classroom. As a continuation of the foundations made in the Lower School, Tuttle also uses xylophones and glockenspiels in Middle School. The older students often work on more complex songs and rhythms, occasionally even able to improvise. In addition to the playing and active music-making, Tuttle, with some input from Director of Choral Music Dr. Lynn Atkins and Band Director Bryan Hooten, teaches music history, covering many major eras and styles.
Lastly, in the Upper School, participation in the music program becomes voluntary. However, the scheduling freedom afforded to students does include a mandatory arts requirement. This can be fulfilled through both visual and performing arts classes or, though less common, private lessons. Each student must participate in two semesters of art to graduate. The three main options of group instrumental performance, with multiple small subsidiary groups, are orchestra, jazz band, and guitar ensemble. Orchestra, the largest of these three, packs nearly 45 student instrumentalists into the band room. With so many players, the band room is often bursting with euphonious volume. Each group can be heard at least once a year during their respective concerts, which are certain to impress any listener.
In certain situations, Upper School students with express interest in music can participate in Honors music, which includes participation in a music theory class taught by Hooten. As a final step in the Collegiate music program, music theory offers specific teaching in music fundamentals. In many cases, music theory prepares its students for advanced study on the college level. Luckily for theory students, Hooten taught music theory at Virginia Commonwealth University before coming to Collegiate.
The music department as a whole has attempted to bridge the gap between the more advanced music programs in the Upper School and the more basic, yet important teachings in the Lower School. The glue of the whole program exists in one main principle: starting in the earliest classes, students learn Solfège. Better known as Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, and Ti, Solfège is a universal set of hand signals and syllables that match the intervals of a musical scale. Hoffman states that Solfège is one of ways that younger students can begin understanding the difference between low and high pitches. Thus, in her classroom, Hoffman uses Solfège to teach the children simple, yet effective songs to aid in visualizing the musical concepts. Similar teaching methods are utilized in the Middle School also. And, if an Upper School musician (especially an honors student) finds themselves on the spot, they may be asked to sing a part in Solfège as well.
Ultimately, the Collegiate School music program is based on the ideas of interactivity and creativity. Director of Visual Arts and Lower School art teacher Dana Dumont has always believed in the importance of connecting the students of all grade levels, stating that “there’s a great and permeating joy in the sharing of inspirations, and in maintaining a considered call and response of creativity with students, peers and mentors.”