Ancient Tunes, Young Ears: Teaching Early Music to Kids
Fifteen years ago, when I started teaching, I was a standard classical violinist. But then I discovered historical performance - the practice of playing repertoire from past ages with historical-model instruments. The sounds captivated me so much that I devoted myself almost entirely to music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. I'm a specialist in a musical subculture, playing tunes as much as 800 years old, sometimes using instruments that most people have never seen.
For a long time, it didn't occur to me to bring this music into my teaching studio. I've continued to teach basic modern violin technique, because it keeps the students' options open to explore many different kinds of music. Early music is such a niche market that hardly anyone teaches it to pre-college students.
But a handful of American teachers are introducing children to early repertoire and playing styles. Some kids - like some adults - are just drawn to the music. Despite its rarity, it is no less accessible than other styles.
My own work in this field began by accident one day. Instead of bringing my violin to the teaching studio, I had only my medieval fiddle. I mentioned to my students that I wouldn't be able to demonstrate on the violin this time, and as a curiosity I pulled out the instrument (often called by its French name, the vielle) to show them.
Vielles have flat backs, minimally-arched bridges, and gut strings that are usually in some kind of drone tuning. My instrument is violin-sized and can be played with little change from basic violin technique. My students that day - two brothers, aged 12 and 14 - asked to try it. The fleshy grain of the strings and the instrument's deep, hollow resonance had them hooked within seconds. They wanted music to play on it.
A few weeks later, they asked not only to focus exclusively on medieval music but to combine their private lesson times, so that they could share a double-length session. We started tuning up their lowest string from G to A, to use it as a drone string with the D scale on the string above. Soon they had commissioned a vielle of their own from a local instrument builder. Next, these remarkable young people started teaching themselves to play "on the knee," as the vielle was often held in the Middle Ages.
Led by the eagerness of students like these, I've been learning how to teach medieval music to young people. Below are some of the techniques I've used both below in lessons and also in a mixed-instrument class. They work for adults too! And mainstream students on modern instruments can enjoy these activities as much as budding specialists like my boys.
Getting Our Bearings
Even before we've played any medieval tunes, I want the students to get a sense of how the music feels and works. So I usually begin by teaching a scale in the Dorian mode.
The medieval modes are a different set of building blocks than classical major/minor scales. There are eight modes, each with its own pattern of half steps and whole steps. The Dorian mode has a minor third and seventh degree and a major sixth. It is exotic enough to be intriguing, but not daunting:
Instead of looking at sheet music, we explore the mode by ear. I start holding a drone on the first note of the scale. In tonal music, this note would be called the "key" note or "tonic." In a modal context, it's called the "final," because almost every medieval tune ends there.
Now the students start an upward scale, with me directing them to move by a half or whole step for each note. I ask them to listen closely to the quality of the relationship between their note and the drone. Which notes are the most stable and pure-sounding? Students who are used to listening closely to their intonation recognize the final, the fourth, and the fifth. Which are the most dissonant? The second and seventh. Which are somewhere in between? The third and sixth.
The first thing I want students to start hearing is the way consonance and dissonance work in medieval music. By listening for the purest intervals first, we've begun to hear in a new way. The intervals of the third and sixth, which are building blocks for the chords we're used to hearing in classical and popular music, actually sound unstable in the context of most medieval music. In general, they were actually considered dissonant!
(Meanwhile, there's a side benefit of playing with a drone. The continuous note gives students a framework to better hear and refine their intonation.)
Soon, we'll start to use the awareness of consonance and dissonance to start harmonizing melodies. For now, we're beginning to get a feel for the mode as a musical landscape. I ask the student to play the scale again and really feel the different kinds of intervals, leaning into the dissonances and resting in the stability of the perfect consonances. The students begin to sense how the notes have a kind of kinesthetic tension with each other: the dissonances seem to pull the melody along towards more stable places.
This feeling for the modal scale opens the door to easy improvisation. Improvisation was a crucial part of classical music study all the way into the nineteenth century, and it's never too early in a student's training, no matter what the style -- to let them learn to improvise. Improvisation develops listening skills, musical understanding, creativity, and confidence.
Beginning without meter or tempo, I play a few notes of slow, free improvisation and then let the students try it. We take turns. Whoever isn't improvising holds a drone on the final. (If there are more than two people, someone can also drone on the fifth.) As we move from note to note, we are noticing and emphasizing the feelings of tension and repose. Students and listeners are often surprised at how sophisticated and fully-formed the resultant melodies can sound, even when the notes are very simple -- all because we've begun to develop a sense of how to get around intelligently in the modal landscape.
Next we add a the structure of rhythm -- probably in 6/8, since medieval writers suggest that this kind of meter was often preferred. Once that's comfortable, we can really take off. In later lessons, we can start to shape our melodies more artfully. Most people tend to fall into regular four- and eight-bar phrases, for example, but a significant proportion of medieval tunes use more flexible phrase lengths. We can develop agility with five-, six-, and seven-bar phrases by setting out to improvise melodies with those lengths.
As early as the first exploration with medieval music, we can visit a medieval dance form, the estampie, which consists of improvisations with a refrain.
The first step, after choosing a mode, is for a student to come up with a phrase of several bars that ends on the final. This is called a closed ending. It will be used to conclude each "verse," or punctum, of the improvisation. Next, the student (or another student) makes a slightly different version of that phrase, one that finishes on a note other than the final. Called an open ending, this phrase will mark the halfway point of each punctum. The pattern goes like this: improvisation; open ending; improvisation; closed ending. (In a true estampie, the second improvisation would be an exact repeat of the first, but we won't worry about this until much later.)
Now we can let each player in turn improvise a punctum, with everyone joining in to play the open and closed endings. This is a wonderful way for students to learn how to cue and respond to other players, since the improviser has to indicate when it's time for the ending. Whether in a private lesson or a group class, I take my turn improvising right alongside the students.
For students who are making a side excursion into medieval music, this much, along with an actual medieval tune or two to carry away, is enough for substantial exploration. If students want to go deeper, we'll work on developing repertoire and an awareness of harmony.
Memory and Repertoire
Unlike today, when we're used to reaching for information stored in places outside our heads, people in the Middle Ages needed to develop agile memories to retain what they wanted to know. Folk musicians today, with their repertoire of tunes at their fingertips, are probably closer to the experience of a medieval instrumentalist than musicians trained by reading sheet music. For this reason, I teach students their first few medieval tunes by ear or by rote.
I start with the Cantigas - songs from the 13th century Spanish court of King Alfonso X that tell wonderful and sometimes humorous stories about the Virgin Mary. Kids (and adults!) love hearing about the miracle of the dancing pork chop, or the fresco painter who was saved from a fall by holding onto his magically suspended brush.
I also teach one of the medieval estampies that survive in writing. The estampies are fairly complicated tunes, with ornamental notes that are too fast for less advanced students or those who are new to learning without sheet music. So I start with simplified versions of the pieces, with the ornamental notes stripped away from the basic structure of the melodies. Here is my simplified version of part of a French estampie from the late 13th century. (All the examples given here are in modern, rather than medieval, music notation.)
Later I show the students the original version with all the notes, so that we can talk about the difference between underlying melodic structure and ornamental notes. Again, this is second nature to folk musicians, but for classically-trained players, it's a huge step.
After these first few tunes, if students are comfortable readers, I'll send them home with a variety of melodies to read through and choose their favorites to learn. The goal of learning a new piece is not only for the students to memorize it, but to truly make it their own. This might mean adding ornaments to simpler melodies or thinking about instrumentation (adding other players for doubling, droning, or percussion). Eventually, they will want to add harmony parts.
I begin teaching about harmony as soon as the students know a few tunes. Medieval music didn't work by means of chord changes, the way we generally think of harmony now. Harmony parts could either be drone-based, moving away from the final only occasionally, or they could be entire melodies unto themselves, measuring ever-changing consonances and dissonances against the tune.
For this second kind of harmonizing, I start by teaching some common patterns for the end of a phrase. Many medieval tunes end with the seventh scale degree moving to the final. This is often harmonized with the second degree:
We play these together, listening to the interval of the third that's formed between the second and the seventh, and hearing how it resolves to the pure unison.
This is a good time to point out again that thirds are felt in medieval music to be unstable. (Medieval music from England, where thirds were prized for their sweetness, is an exception to this rule.) This is very different from all the tonal harmony we're used to, where thirds are considered the stable basis of harmony.
Now we can look for cadences in the tunes we know where we can add this harmony. This is part of the humorous cantiga about the pork chop:
We try other common harmonizations such as parallel fifths:
Eventually, we can begin applying these kinds of harmonies to entire melodies. Here is the melody of "In taberna quando sumus," a drinking song (you don't have to tell the kids that!) from the 13th century German song and poetry collection known as the Carmina Burana:
In Taberna (melody only) - Listen to this example
First, I show the students which notes are structurally the most important. These are the ones we'll harmonize. This results in a simplified melody:
The pair of brothers I mentioned earlier harmonized this with me in a lesson recently. Once they heard where to change the harmony notes, I went back to playing the real melody. Here is the simple harmony the younger brother devised for the first section. The boys can also be heard playing their harmonizations below:
In Taberna (Harmonized "A" Part) - Listen to this example
For the second section, the older brother added some variety by ending on the less stable interval of a third:
In Taberna (Harmonized "B" Part) - Listen to this example
Next, I asked each boy to add a third part to the section that his brother had already harmonized. Here's what they came up with:
In Taberna (All Three Parts) - Listen to this example
So now we had two distinct harmonies, either of which could be used alone with the tune, as well as a three-part version that used all the material simultaneously. These three different ways to set the melody gave us a wonderful and completely unique arrangement of what had been a simple tune only ten minutes earlier.
When I asked the boys why they like playing medieval music, they mentioned not only the tunes and the sonorities of the instruments, but also the opportunity to put their own creative stamp on the music they learn. "You're never just playing the notes," one of them said.
That's a noble goal for music students in any style. LM
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