Unit 2: Violin Basics
Lorrie Heagy from Glacier Valley Elementary School in Juneau, Alaska, spent time in Venezuela with the first class of Sistema fellows. She is the founder of JAMM, Juneau Alaska Music Matters, which introduces all kindergarten and first-grade students to violin through in-school music classes.
Lorrie collaborates with kindergarten teachers JoAnn Steininger, Kaye Peters, and Carly Sigler, preparing kindergarten students to play the violin through song combined with movement. Holding their paper violins, the students sing “Parts of the Violin,” which helps them learn about the parts of the instrument, to the tune of “Lightly Row,” one of the first songs they will learn to play on real violins. Youngsters sing the numbers one through nine as they go through the ritualistic steps necessary to get into “ready” position before playing.
Singing is integrated throughout Lorrie’s curriculum. She instills in youngsters the belief that “if you can sing it, you can play it.” Students sing notes to understand how they function, they sing to develop pitch discrimination, and they sing to express musical phrasing. Holding paper violins, students sing a song they know by heart — Glacier Valley’s arctic version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star(light)” — as they practice bowing with dowel rods.
Inspired by the Eric Jensen book Teaching with the Brain in Mind, Lorrie incorporates five key elements when teaching music — movement, emotion, relevance, novelty, and pattern. Story involves all five elements, and is key to keeping students engaged. When the kindergarten teachers learned to play the violin themselves, they discovered the need for students to build upper arm strength. The team transformed the familiar song “Five Little Monkeys” into an activity for that purpose by having children move the accompanying finger play from chest height to above their heads. As students imitate Lorrie’s “alligator” hand snapping, they are building their ability to watch non-verbal cues from a conductor.
Lorrie uses the familiar folk song “The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night” to help kindergartners develop an appropriate way to hold the bows for their paper violins — by positioning fingers to make the hand look like the head of a fox. This activity combines choreographed movement, repetition of lyrics and melody, and a narrative hook, using music to make an emotional connection to students.
First graders who learned basics on paper violins are now playing real instruments. Lorrie works with them on “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” asking students to find the patterns in the music and the tricky measure where the pattern is similar, but different. To challenge students to memorize how to play the song, she uses “levels” — like those in video games — as she gradually removes scaffolded support. To facilitate class management, the music room does not have chairs, music stands, or sheet music. Lorrie posts the music on the front wall so she can monitor how well students are following the notes. To assess the class’s ability to sing and play from memory, she asks the students to turn their backs to the music.
“Boil Them Cabbage Down” is a more challenging piece the students are learning to perform at a folk music festival. After playing the first part, they “freeze” and sing the second part, while Diane Barnett — a violin teacher who collaborates with Lorrie — models how it should sound.