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  • Writer's pictureMillie

Erlkonig, and getting kids into classical music

A student told me off-hand the other week that he didn't think classical music was something he would ever be interested in listening to. He compared it to "elevator music." So I came in the next day with a lesson to prove him wrong.

And what's a better song to start with than Erlkonig? I'll wait...

Introducing the lesson

This is a listening and discussion-based lesson. You could easily alter it and turn it into a writing assignment...even a drawing activity if you wanted. But I kept it simple.

I started off by telling my classes " (student) told me the other day that they didn't think classical music would ever be something they enjoyed listening to. But the number one issue when people say they don't like classical music is because they don't always understand HOW to listen to it."

We discussed that classical music often has a purpose or tells a story. What they were going to listen to today told a story. Their job was to listen to the music and figure out what that story is. I did tell them before I played the song for the first time that it would be someone singing, but they wouldn't understand because it's not in English. So, if they could figure out they language, they could get clues to certain words.

This got them excited. So, off we went.

When I hit play, and the piano started, I mentioned that the piano represented something. That got them thinking, and the conversation continued as we listened. I asked prompting questions like:

  • What do you think the mood is?

  • How many characters are in the story?

  • What do you think is happening in the story?

  • Is it a happy or sad ending?

  • What does the piano represent?

It's important to give the class a second to discuss with each other. They'll bounce ideas back and forth off of each other if you guide them and give them the space to do so. When they got close, I would give them a hint, or confirm whether they were correct.

To wrap up our discussion (which took maybe 20 minutes. we got really into it), I told them the history of Erlkonig: the fable the text originated from, info about Schubert, etc. THEN, they got to see the animated video:

As you watch the video with your students, point out how the singer changes the quality of his voice to imitate each character. Show them where the daughters are when they pop out of the woods, and tell them to watch really closely at the end when Erlkonig finally grabs the boy!

This activity was a literal. smash. hit. with ALL of my classes. They wanted to keep listening to more! If you give this a go, here are some other pieces I'd consider having your classes listen to:

Songs that tell a story
  • Wagner: Elsa's Procession to the Cathedral

  • Vivaldi: The Four Seasons

  • Penderecki: Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima

  • Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique (you might want to tone the story down on this one if you're doing it with younger students)

  • Verdi: Dies Irae

  • Mozart: Lacrimosa

Tone Matrix-y, quirky, graphic
  • Schoenberg, Berg, etc. Great with a lesson demonstrating how tone matrixes work

  • Bolcom: Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise. Sprechstimme!

  • Cage: 4'33" (if you want to have a deep philosophical discussion about what music IS).

  • Cage: anything prepared piano

I'm getting carried away. You get the idea. Pick something YOU like, because if you're into it, the kids will be, too.

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1 Comment

Abigail Sease
Abigail Sease
Oct 14, 2022

I absolutely love this idea for getting students into listening to and enjoying classical music. Students need the skills and knowledge to know how to listen to classical music in order to appreciate it. Thank you for sharing this great lesson! I hope to implement a lesson similar to this in the near future! P.S. I have also had a middle school student refer to classical music as elevator music.

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