We met the teacher, Becca Clemens, at a mutual friend’s wedding last May. At first she thought the idea of having melodicas in an elementary classroom was crazy, but then she began to think it could work.
Becca applied for and received two grants from the county: a $1500 arts education grant to buy a class set of our melodicas, and a $1000 travel grant to pay for us to come to the school and teach the classes as a guest artist.
There were five different classes using the melodicas, grades 3rd through 5th, and the class sizes ranged from around 16 to 28 students. Becca and I co-taught the classes, and I did my best to model how she had been teaching them throughout the semester (she is a fantastic teacher).
Classroom procedure went as follows: Students came into the classroom and sat down in rows. Then, each row went up one at a time to pick up their mouthpiece tube from the sanitation bucket which contained cleaning solution (Dawn). They washed their tube off in the sink, picked up their numbered melodica from the cubby rack, and sat back down. Once all the kids were sitting quietly with their melodica cases in front of them, we began the class.
I started by reinforcing good hand position, thumb on C and pinky on G, and I had the kids check each other. Then, I demonstrated how to play C, D, E, F, G in quarter notes, and the students responded as a group. Then, I had the students play the pattern either individually or in pairs so that I could check their hand position and fingering.
After that, we moved on to a sequence of call-and-response, singing and playing. First, I sang a pattern (e.g., C C D) and the students sang it back to me as a group few times. Then, I played the same pattern on the melodica, and the students played it back to me. We repeated this a few times until they really got it. Then I sang a new pattern (e.g., C D E), they sang it back to me, I played it, they played it, and I kept sequencing new and slightly more difficult patterns.
Next, I introduced the concept of intervals. I showed them how to count up from C to G, explained that we call it a fifth, and notated it on the white board. Then we did the call-and-response sing/play on C and G, ascending and descending. After that, I said, “What song does this sound like?” I played C and G forte and accented, and many of the students said, “Star Wars!”
After that, I led them through a similar sequence introducing the fourth (Here Comes the Bride), third (When the Saints Go Marching In), and second (Happy Birthday). Then, I played the intervals to them and had them guess which interval/song it was. They were actually pretty good at it!
Next, we projected one of the simple songs they were learning on the smart board. We counted it with a drum beat, sang the letter names while fingering, and played through sections of it together. This took up the rest of the classroom time.
The district arts coordinator came to observe and film one of the five classes. As someone who had previously taught piano and elementary music, she thought what we were doing was very cool because we were introducing ear-training, basic understanding of the piano keyboard, as well as rhythm and reading notation.
Overall, we now have the groundwork in place. We know that having melodicas in a general music classroom is tenable, and call-and-response singing and playing will likely be the core of our pedagogy.
Moving forward, there are several things for us to consider, including: intonation and repairs for the melodicas, separate tubes for each student, making layered arrangements for multiple melodicas and even bucket drums, creating online curricula/supplementary activities to keep students engaged and progressing outside of the classroom, etc.
We are now looking to get other pilot programs started so that we may continue to test ideas and develop curricula before we begin to scale it. It will likely take a few years to make this curriculum highly effective and to iron out logistical wrinkles, but we believe there is no limit to the impact we could have through music education at scale.
We are deeply grateful for Becca’s initiative, and for your continued patronage which is making all of this possible. Thank you for being part of the journey, and we’ll keep you in the loop as things progress.
Joe and Tristan