Enhancing Stories Read in the Elementary School Classroom Through the Use of Musical Sound

This Article is based on Creative Music Language Field Research conducted in the Phillipsburg Public Schools and published in The Reading Teacher.

Enhancing Stories Read in the Elementary School Classroom Through the Use of Musical Sound
"Read us a story," chimed; the children! "Sure," said the teacher, "I really don't have any new ones today, but why can't we try to do something different with one of our favorites. Let's use musical sounds to make the story more fun!" A new idea? Not really, but an idea that can be put to good use by elementary classroom teachers and music specialists who would like to obtain new plateaus of creativity, attentiveness, and interest from students. While oral reading activities are important and are mandatory in many elementary classes, they can be passive in terms of student involvement. After several readings of the same story, students can add luster and excitement to the action by interpreting it with sound. Additionally, music is correlated with an important subject area and continued when the specialist is not available. These activities should be group oriented and do not require a great deal of musical background or expertise by either teacher or students. After providing initial explanations as to how activities may be conducted, the busy music specialist may not have to be consulted except for information on availability and location of sound sources from the music or supply room. However, communication and participation between teachers will probably occur as the neat creative results that occur will be too important to let pass unobserved. The main requirements for this activity are a quantity of sound sources (rhythm, Orff, or homemade instruments) and a desire by both teacher and class to experiment with musical sounds.

Getting Started
Initially, an inventory should be made of available sound sources. Rhythm instruments should be considered first because of both availability and ease of playing. While classroom rhythm-instrument kits, purchased from supply catalogs, do not provide the best quality sounds, they are a source of conveniently available materials. However, if quality sound sources can be obtained, they should be given preference. The superior sounds obtained from these sources will allow for better results and a higher sense of accomplishment by the students. The music specialist involved in such a project can aid in obtaining quality instruments by developing avenues of cooperation as budget time draws near. (If each teacher would add just one item to their budget, they a large variety of instruments would be available to all concerned. Twenty-six teachers purchasing one instrument each, will probably win approval versus one music teacher budgeting for 26 instruments!) The following instruments have proven value in the enhancement of stories and may be readily available in the music room, learning resource center, or individually available from colleagues:
  1. Hand Drums (sometimes available from physical education instructors).
  2. Maracas.
  3. Bell Spray (jingle bells on a strap or wrist band work just as well.
  4. Claves (sticks).
  5. Whip (can be made from two pieces of wood).
  6. Bongos.
  7. Tambourine.
  8. Cymbals (good ones can be borrowed from the band director; he can also benefit from the school instrument consortium you are developing).
  9. Cowbell.
  10. Wood Block.
  11. Triangle.

This list indicates only a few of the many possibilities, and other rhythm instruments should be considered in relation to the plot of each story. As a public school music teacher, I was fortunate to receive a donation from a student's parents of an old drum set. It provided quality sound sources, including the much needed bass, snare, and tom-tom drums, in addition to quality cymbals. (Many times these instruments are available and parents are only too happy to provide them when asked--especially in terms of drums!) Nontraditional sound sources including: venetian blind slapping, book slamming, tacks rattling in an empty paper-clip box and a homemade nail xylophone are also possibilities. Once the sound sources have been identified, experimentation by the teacher and students should take place. Explore musical concepts! Are the sounds: long, short, sharp, high, or low? Can you make them fast, slow, loud or soft? Can you describe each sound in some way--what impressions do the students receive from each sound? Discuss them as part of a science exploration unit emphasizing terms such as vibration, attack, decay, duration. Explore metal, wood, and membrane sources as to the varying timbres and why they occur. Through this activity, words such as mellow, hollow, silvery, jangling, and others can become part of the student's vocabulary.

The Story
Actually most stories can be enhanced with sound sources immediately by the children; however it is a good idea to have the first such undertaking well guided by the teacher in cooperation with the music specialist. Once students become aware of the process and possibilities, their ideas will abound in creativity and abundance. Identification of main story characters are an initial first step. For example, if one of the characters in the story is a King, "regal" sound sources can be substituted for his spoken name. Or, each time his name is mentioned, the sound sources may serve as an accompaniment to the spoken work. Action verbs, such as walking, jumping, and fighting are good places for the substitution of sound sources. The action could be realistically depicted by the sounds. Walking can be rhythmic in nature: fighting, might include many of the louder instruments and the sound duration increased. If a story has many places where enhancements are to be included, the teacher should develop a pictorial representation of characters and actions on a large sheet of paper. Using this aid, the instructor (or a student conductor) can point to the pictures when the sound is to be produced. A small diagram of the instrument (or its name) can be placed next to the character or action to help students play at the proper time. Once the musical enhancement has been created, the words of the story could be omitted as a variation. By playing just sounds, a composition of representational nature will result. This sound piece presents many possibilities for interpretation by others as a creation with a plot, but without verbal expression.

Whole Language Creation of a Story with Musical Sound
An opportunity for literary creation by the class can be provided through inclusion of sound sources. Developing an original story, complete with sound, writing it down as prose (or poetry) and recording it on cassette, ties in many of the tenets of the whole language approach.. Once the story is in written form, it may be illustrated and then duplicated in book form for each member of the class. As it involves musical sounds a cassette recording can be included with the copy enhancing its attractiveness. (While not the purview of this article, try to integrate other areas such as drama, art work, and creative movement in your venture in addition to the language arts and music elements; then develop a videotape of your initially created literary masterpiece.) Imagination should be allowed to run wild! For those students who find creative expression difficult during the initial stages of production, a broad title such as "The Ghost Walks" or "Indians On The Warpath," will serve as an icebreaker necessary for "brainstorming."

Another idea for original participation is a story composed about members in the class! Students' hobbies, pets, home activities, and play provide ample material for fashioning a neat title, plot, and text. Divide the class into groups and give each group a chance to think out an idea. Once the idea has been developed, the group should interpret it using their sound sources. As the sound interpretations and ideas are displayed for the class, try to thread them together into a complete story. Record the presentation on your cassette in its entirety and then write down the story and corresponding sounds as they are played back. Sound notation can be simple, utilizing graphic symbols which indicate when sounds are to be played.

Class Participation
As many members of the class as possible should participate. While it certainly is ideal to have a realistic and accurate portrayal of the text, it is more important to involve a majority of class members. This activity, because of its nature, allows students who may not be involved at other times to participate with the group as equal contributors. The interaction value alone is reason enough for including song enhancement on a regular basis.

To Perform or Not to Perform, That is The Question!
Creativity and interest generated will amply suffice as a final educational goal. Occasionally, the class may wish to perform their creation for other students. It has been my experience that at this moment, somehow perfection and polish needed for such a performance can negate creative and fun aspects that have been gained. However, each instructor must decide home much value and worth can be derived from such a performance. If self-esteem needs are met for individuals who badly need this attention, then by all means perform the enhanced story for peers or parents.

Music or Noise?
Up to this point, the role of the music specialist has not really been discussed. Certainly, freedom of interpretation should be allowed for by students, but the term "Musical" is used in the title as sometimes students forget themselves in their excitement. Obviously, a drum can be played musically and ALSO in a "very" nonmusical manner. Musical organization is also a weakness of this activity as certain formal musical aspects may be completely lacking rendering the activity musically of little value. As activities of this nature are initiated, the music specialist can do many things to aid in "musical" renditions. If barred instruments (Orff xylophones etc.) are utilized, certain chords or pentatonic scales may be illustrated as a way the instruments will sound best. Recommendations, and demonstrations of ostinatos, rondo forms, and verse-choral formats are another way MUSIC and not noise may come to be created and produced. Illustrating how maracas can be played or the way to hold and play a wood block or triangle can be regarded as part of the specialist's role. Observations of performances and non authoritarian suggestions by the music specialist can help each class render music as enhancement to the stories read. The music specialist as originator of such a cooperative activity in music class should not be precluded; however, a joint venture between classroom teacher and music specialist is a recommended route as it provides many opportunities for integrative, and cooperative educational activities.

Stories read in class can be enhanced through the use of musical sounds in a creative manner. The classroom teacher need NOT have an extensive background as music specialists are available to give advice regarding the musical aspects needed for development. Through the use of available sound sources, main characters and designated actions can be portrayed. Student ideas and participation should be actively solicited. Involvement of a large number of students within the class should be considered a major goal. The enhancement process need not be complex. Detailed scoring and sophisticated resources are not a requirement. Any classroom teacher desiring to add life to stories previously read should try to enhance them with sound. The music specialist will find through this activity a means for creativity if pursued with the application of Orff techniques in mind. Both students and teachers will find the results will far exceed the time and effort put forth in the development of this activity!

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