Another Op’nin, Side by Side and Day by Day

Recently I began teaching a Musical Theatre class for 3-6th grades, so young people around 8-12 years of age. The idea to create the class for this age group was simply inspired by the fact that in the community I am in, this age group showed GREAT interest in the subject. Perhaps inspired by the recent skyrocketing popularity of Frozen, and Idina Menzel (a well-known performer who has graced the Broadway stage for well over a decade.) At any rate, when you’re in the position of creating programming – give the people what they want, right? The class was created and is our most populated class – well…it ties with the Creative Dramatics class with the Frozen theme 😉

Being that my initial interest in the arts was music – I’ve been singing for as long as I’ve been talking, and my first experience in theatre was in the musical Gypsy at the age of 12. Musical Theatre is at my core being. I love it! – and I LOVE sharing it! Thus I began my lesson planning…and suddenly I hit a wall. How would I focus this class? Would we simply focus on the singing, dancing, and acting part – developing those skills? That in and of it self is a BIG task…but something felt lacking to me. You can learn about singing, dancing, and acting in other classes – why take a MUSICAL THEATRE class?! It struck me in my thinking and planning, that this could be an opportunity to also teach these young people about the art of Musical Theatre. This idea, that this class would not just be about singing, dancing, and acting (all things I love dearly), but would also incorporate knowledge of the art form pierced right through me and I was immediately charged with my new responsibility.

I put together lessons that would cover 3 well-known Musical Theatre composers over the course of 10 weeks. For this first class (I am hoping to have many more) I chose Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, and Stephen Schwartz – making sure to pick someone from the early 1900’s and then spanning to current composers. The truth is, I’d love to make a class about each of these composers individually, but I also liked the idea of giving the students the opportunity to compare/contrast the different sounds and styles.

As we are only 3 weeks into the course, I cannot accurately speak to the success of my decision to include these educational components – and not just as a mention. In teaching before, I’ve always made sure that I let the students know the name of the person who wrote the song they were to learn and to mention the name of the show…but in THIS class, the students knowledge of the composer, song, and show are given EQUAL weight and importance. For the first 2 classes I was doing more of the sharing of information – after conversation around What is a composer? Why are they important? – which I’m happy to say the students eagerly engaged in dialogue and when one of their own was able to define composer it became that much more exciting – for me and them! We have conversations about Cole Porter and talk about how the music makes them feel, other shows he wrote, the plot of Kiss Me, Kate, etc. (They are learning “Another Op’nin, Another Show” from Kiss Me, Kate)

I was a little dismayed that yesterday, when we checked in at the beginning of class only ONE of them had looked up an interesting fact about Cole Porter and remembered it to share; that he had written over 800 songs! (I’ve since gone back to look into that fact discovered that he is credited with 881 compositions! WOW!) While I was delighted that this one student had brought in a fact to share, I began thinking of ways to get the other students as excited about their “homework.”

Next week they are all supposed to share an interesting fact about Stephen Sondheim as we begin our exploration of who he is and I’ve decided that its time to engage the parents as well! Emails have been sent out encouraging parents to help their little artists in this endeavor. I’m very interested to see what outcome this will have! I’m hoping, of course, that it not only further engages my students, but that it also further engages the parents to take part in learning about the arts…fingers crossed!

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