Teacher's Corner

  • Fourteen short classical pieces to spark a child's vision
  • A friend of mine who teaches elementary school recently told me that he used the Rimskey-Korsakov "Russian Easter Overture" as a 'creativity starter' for kids in his class. I immediately thought of a dozen other pieces which I thought would do as well, and after a couple of days came up with this short list. Most of these pieces are approximately 3-5 minutes long (some may run longer) and is primarily 'up beat', but not unremittingly so. Each of these pieces has some sense (I think) of dramatic tension, and expresses some sort of 'plot arc'. Each one is also decidedly 'programmatic' or vividly descriptive of a mood, character, place, or series of actions.

    Adams, John. "A Short Ride in a Fast Machine". This piece, by America's premier living
    composer, is often played at young person's concerts. Mr. Adams says it was inspired by a ride he took in a friend's Ferrari, which he ended up wishing he hadn't.

    Bloch, Ernest. "Scherzo Fantasque". Although not specifically programmatic, (which
    means the composer did not have a specific descriptive intent), I find this is a terrific 'halloween' piece. It's got dancing diabolical bits and dark and spooky bits, compellingly sandwiched together. This is the first of several pieces I'm going to recommend with similar names, which all roughly translate as 'fantastical joke".

    Copeland, Aaron. "John Henry". This is the first of three pieces on this list that distinctly
    describe trains. This one does so with the cleaver use of the melody from the old folk song "John Henry". Copleland is known for composing music using themes from the american west, and this piece clearly describes a steam locomotive from the old west days.

    Gershwin, George. "Cuban Overture" An exciting musical tour of Cuba, which
    begins with a wild flourish, moves on to a sultry slow dance, and returns to the first theme for an upbeat ending. A good supplement to the study of Latin American culture.

    Glier, Reyngol'd. "Russian Sailor's Dance" from The Red Poppy ballet. A classic example of the
    'starts slow, gets faster' dance number. This is a good piece to inspire kids to get up and move, and it's a good Russian character piece.

    Honegger, Arthur. "Pacific 231" This is the second train piece, written in 1923. This is
    another American train, but a distinctly more modern and urban one.

    Lalo, Edouard. "Scherzo" This is another non programmatic piece that really
    sounds like an adventure movie sound track. Non programmatic numbers like this are great imagination starters, as they are open to an unlimited range of interpretations.

    Respighi, Ottorino. "La Befana" ("Epiphany Eve in Piazza Navona") from Feste Romana
    (Roman Festivals) A piece very much a parallel to the Rimsky-Korsakov overture, as
    both portray the secular street festival associated with a religious holiday. This one, instead of being Russian, is decidedly Italian, and jugglers, clowns, drunks, singers, and parades are all vividly portrayed in this composition.

    Rimsky-Korsakov, Nicolay Andreyevich. "Russian Easter Overture" This Russian
    festival begins with a somber Russian Orthodox hymn, but soon breaks out into a brilliant and dynamic festival scene, with a rapid, exiting pace and brilliant colors.

    Rossini, Gioachino. "Storm" (2nd mvmt.) from the overture to William Tell You and
    your kids have already heard the 4th movement, or 'Gallop' from this piece, it's generally known as 'the Lone Ranger music'. You've all probably heard the 3rd movement, 'Dawn', too, and think of it as classic cartoon music. This portion of the overture describes a chase through the forest on horseback during a thunder storm. Exiting stuff!

    Saint-Saens, Camille. "Bacchanal" from Samson and Dalila Admittedly, a French
    romantic portrayal of middle eastern music, but not an entirely uninformed one, an Saint-Saens spent quite a bit of time in North Africa. This is a dance that starts quiet and gets louder and wilder as it goes on. This piece also contains a well known cartoon 'snake charmer' melody.

    Sibelius, Jean "En Saga" The composer who helped to establish the modern nation of
    Finland, wrote this piece to embody the spirit of the Norse Saga, great heroic tales of far journeys, mighty battles, and great deeds. All these things can easily be imagined in this work. Challenge your students to write their own heroic sagas after listening to this music.

    Suk, Joseph "Scherzo Fantastique" The third 'fantastic scherzo' in my list, this one has a
    more romantic tone to it, but is exiting none the less.

    Villa-Lobos, Heitor "Little Train of the Caipira" Our third train, this one climbing
    through the mountain jungles of Brazil. Villa-Lobos, like Aaron Copeland, worked the folk melodies of his native land into his compositions, and these add to the the brilliant orchestration that so vividly portrays the thick jungles, steep mountains, and the tiny steam locomotive climbing through them all.

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