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Assembly Program-String Instruments Through The Ages

Presented to Head Start through 6th grade students since 1983 sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society

PERFORMER: Tina Chancey
3706 North 17th Street
Arlington, VA 22207
(703) 525-7550

          As an early music player, I have an expanded view of the term “multicultural;” I believe that the past is also another culture, separated from us by time as well as distance. To make music from the past come alive, my program places it in a social and cultural context. Instruments are used to accompany dancing and song and to enhance storytelling, music is presented as a private pleasure, a public accomplishment, and a civilizing influence on rowdy young men. Tunes are connected to historical events. This integrates the arts with other subjects in the curriculum and helps give the students a sense of place and time.

          My program accommodates diverse student populations with little English as well as students with a variety of disabilities by taking advantage of some universal communication tools: music and rhythm, mime and physical comedy, walking into the audience and making personal contact. The English vocabulary of the program is consciously kept very simple; more challenging words are discussed as they are used, and associated with familiar ones. Actions are always described in words, movement is prepared with a verbal transition. Stories are acted out as well as told. As much as possible, I have tried to reinforce the program on both sonic and visual levels.

Program Summary
          As a History Detective, Tina Chancey looks to the past to find out where the violin came from. We all have grand parents and great-grandparents; why shouldn’t the violin have them to? She looks in her closet to find the closest relative, ancestor, of the violin, armed with three clues: it should be made of wood, have strings, and be played with a bow. (We’re not looking for brothers and sisters of the violin such as the viola, cello and bass, but relatives from the past.)

          First she finds the VIELLE (not V-8 but V-L), an instrument from the middle ages, and introduces a jongleur named Marie de Ventadorn who tells the story of how Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned while on Crusade, and his court jongleur found him by playing his favorite tune at every prison in the Holy Land (a story only slightly modified from the truth). Next she comes upon the REBEC (not Rabbit but Rebec), a Renaissance instrument something like a turkey leg, held in the armpit. Guillaume de Machaut (Bill from Machaut) talks about how courtly love was invented to keep the knights out of trouble, and sings one of his own songs (translated into colloquial English) while walking around the audience to demonstrate. The third instrument she discovers is the GAMBA (not Gumbo...), her favorite instrument (and a favorite of the Pilgrims) because it plays high and low, melodies and chords, and even accompanies songs like a piano although it’s much more portable than the piano. The students observe that the gamba is very much like a bowed guitar. Last, she muses on the violin, which Thomas Jefferson called a FIDDLE, and demonstrates Jefferson’s favorite tune, which she played for President Clinton just last week.

          Finally, the students become her “quiz show audience” and vote on which instrument is the closest ancestor of the violin. It seems that the gamba is closest, but how can it be since the students themselves told her that it was a close relative of the guitar? These instruments must all be second cousins with the same characteristics: wooden body, strings and bow. Obviously Ms. Chancey isn’t finished detecting yet, but before continuing on she asks for questions and stays for a verse of Yankee Doodle.

Program Objectives

  • To bring the musical past alive using real people, events and music
  • To show how music was used in daily life in the middle ages, Renaissance, Colonial period and today
  • To provide a cultural context for the development of the violin family
  • To develop the audience’s eyes for detail, powers of observation and comparison
  • To demonstrate that so-called “classical” music isn’t necessarily elitist or stuffy

Connections to DCPS standards
Students explore a variety of heritages from music of many cultures.

From New Elementary Report Card
Students in grades 4-6 will be graded on the following: identifies music of various composers, cultures, styles and forms.

Suggested Pre-Performance Activities

  • Look at and listen to individual members of the violin family, in person or on recording
  • Distinguish between the middle ages and the Renaissance (they both had castles and kings but how were they different?)
  • Teach the songs Yankee Doodle, My Country ‘tis of Thee
  • Discuss Thomas Jefferson, as a man of many interests: inventor, architect, gardener, musician
  • Talk about the different ways that musical instruments make sounds: Plunk, Whistle, Toot, Boom
  • Listen to Peter and the Wolf to learn about the other orchestral instruments
  • Make everyone in the class a History Detective; send them all on a quest to solve an Unsolved Mystery.

Related Vocabulary/Terminology

  • INSTRUMENT NAMES: Vielle (V-L), Rebec, Gamba, Fiddle
  • Indiscreet
  • Portable
  • Jongleur (juggler)
  • Ancestors
  • Courtly Love
  • Dungeon
  • Knight

Resource Materials
“Make your own mouth bow, limber jack, musical washboard, washtub bass,” by Bruce Hutton
“Neo Medieval,” “Luminous Spirit,” “Early American Roots,” recordings by HESPERUS
“The World Turned Upside Down: Music of Colonial America,” Mel Bay Publications, Inc.
“The American History Songbook,” Mel Bay Publications, Inc.
“Playing with Fire,” “Medieval Tapestry,” recordings by the Folger Consort

Listening and Viewing During the Performance

Connections to Other Curricular Areas
History and Social Studies: Every curriculum includes units on the middle ages or Renaissance, as well as the Pilgrims and the American Revolution. The four instruments I discuss are located in these four time periods and that connection can be expanded upon. Further work can also be done on the Crusades (the vielle and rebec were brought from Arab lands, as well as the bow).

Science: This program lends itself to a further consideration of acoustics, the sound-conducting properties of different materials, and the physiological function of the ear. Students can make and play different kinds of musical instruments: drums, mouth bows, whistles, pan pipes. They can study the violin family to learn how longer and fatter strings make lower sounds.

Art: Students can draw pictures illustrating parts of the program: Richard the Lionheart in prison saved by a vielle player; a knight writing poetry; costumed musicians playing for President Clinton.

Music:. Students can learn a Renaissance dance and play some of the tunes from the program on their recorders. They can continue to study different instruments of the orchestra by listening to “Peter and the Wolf” or they can focus upon the individual members of the violin family, in person or on recording. They can launch their own quest for Western European ancestors of the violin such as the Baryton, Viola d’Amore, Lyra da Braccio, or they can look into non-Western relatives of the violin to find a Yugoslavian or Indonesian Lyra, Greek or Turkish kamenj, Chinese Airhu, Indian Sarod.

English: Students can write their own courtly love poem to set to music. They can create further Unsolved Mysteries of their own, set in Victorian England, ancient Egypt, or pre-Columbian Mexico.   

Students should notice/think about

  • How all the instruments are a little bit different, even though they look the same at first glance. How is the difference between these string instruments like the difference between a bicycle and a motorcycle?
  • How does Tina Chancey become different characters without using different costumes and make-up?
  • Is it harder to detect things in the past than in the present?
  • Why do you think it doesn’t work to play a big instrument with a little bow, and vice versa? Have you ever worn somebody’s big shoes and tried to walk around? What happens?

Post-Performance Activities

  • Continue the quest for Western European ancestors of the violin to find the Baryton, Viola d’Amore, Lyra da Braccio
  • Continue the quest for non-Western relatives of the violin to find the Yugoslavian or Indonesian Lyra, Greek and Turkish kamenj, Chinese Airhu, Indian Sarod
  • Create a Colonial Entertainment from the time of Thomas Jefferson with dancing, singing, recitations, and games
  • Learn more about acoustics by making musical instruments out of kitchen gadgets; by studying such phenomenon as rubber bands vibrating at different thicknesses and tensions, glasses of water with different amounts in each glass to make different pitches, a washtub bass, an African tune bow
  • Use plastic water bottles as percussion instruments and make a rhythm band
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