Why We Teach Music in a Waldorf School – PART 2

By Jeff Spade – Rudolf Steiner School Music & Drama

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”

— Plato

So how do the elements of music relate to the human being? Think of where these elements live in your body:

MELODY: Where do we experience melody? The leading question would be, “where does a tune ‘get stuck’?” at which point the answer is obvious: Your head! And what are the instruments that produce melody? The original instrument of melody is the human voice and you only have to imagine a young child singing to experience the beauty of their single melody as they imitate the voice of a parent or a sibling. The instruments that are associated with melody are typically wind instruments, including the woodwind and brass families, as they are essentially limited to only producing a single tone at a time.

HARMONY: The subjective nature of harmony naturally lends itself to the chest cavity, mainly the heart. As mentioned earlier, we “feel” the music through our experience of harmony, identifying with major, minor, and other modes from our primary culture. Instruments that are able to produce harmony include the string family, namely the harp and piano* with the caveat that, of course, a violin or cello can play a melody while at the same time have the capacity to play multiple strings and therefore, chords.

RHYTHM: Whether it is through the sound of the drum line of a marching band coming down the street in a parade or through the beat of a disco tune on the dance floor, we experience rhythm in our limbs. If you are sitting or standing while a rhythmic piece is played, you’ll notice your foot tapping or your head bobbing or your fingers snapping almost immediately. We associate rhythm with the percussion section of an ensemble, those instruments that play rhythms but do not represent actual pitch. *

*And yes, the piano is often considered a percussion instrument, and likewise you will find “pitched” percussion instruments such as bells, xylophones, marimbas, and the timpani. One of the most wonderful things about music is that there are rules, and we get to break them all the time!

Through music’s capacity to inhabit the head, heart, and hands of the human being, we recognize not only the impact of music on body, soul, and spirit, but also come to realize that the elements of music form a picture of the human being. It is essential. When we create music, we are actually engaging every aspect of the body. The lungs fill with air, the rhythm flows through the beating of the heart into the limbs, the melody is carried through the thinking capacity, and the experience of harmony moves back through the heart and into our feeling life.

The music curriculum in a Waldorf School is in harmony with Rudolf Steiner’s view of child development. Beginning in the early childhood classrooms, we find the hauntingly beautiful pentatonic or 5-note-scale songs that do not fully center on a dominant tone. The pentatonic scale is found in nearly all world cultures including Native American, most Asian cultures, and in Ancient Greece, where Pythagoras based his “harmony of the spheres” on the five planets.

Students sing together as a whole class, thus mirroring Steiner’s philosophy of education from the “whole to the part.” There is a sense of wholeness and purity to the tunes and as this unique scale is devoid of half-steps, it lives naturally in the consciousness of the small child. The pentatonic scale continues into first grade and is then mirrored with the children’s first instrument, the pentatonic flute.

When students approach the nine-year change, they become more independent thinkers and experience this through their capacity to hold their own vocal part and, thus, sing rounds. Soprano recorders, larger in size and now capable of playing full scales with sharps and flats, replace the pentatonic flutes and the student’s musical journey further evolves.

As students progress from the lower grades through the middle and upper schools, the recorder is gradually replaced by strings, woodwinds, or brass instruments, and students learn to play in both small and large ensembles. In these, they have the experience of playing pieces both in a full section such as orchestra or band, or carrying their own individual line in a trio or quartet.  Vocal music evolves from the singing of simple songs and rounds as a class to singing complex choral arrangements wherein students learn to tune their voices, modulate through many different key signatures, blend with the whole group, and interpret the piece artistically.

And yet it is not only in music class or instrumental ensembles in which students are immersed in music. Children sing and play music daily during their Main Lessons, in their class plays, in special subject classes such as Spanish and German, and during class celebrations for birthdays and world holidays. Music is the glue that holds the spirit of the school together and, like the relationship of music to the human body, it is essential. It is this firmly held belief regarding the importance of music to each child’s development that sets Waldorf Schools apart from our counterparts in other institutions.

Through music we refine the capacity to connect. To harmonize. To resolve dissonance. To heal. To think. To feel. To mature. To make sound judgement. To vibrate. To tune. To move about the world with wholeness. To develop and hold onto that sense that the world is good.

Mr. Spade has been teaching music in Waldorf schools for the past 31 years; prior to joining Steiner, he was music director at Chicago Waldorf School and Kimberton Waldorf School. He has also worked as a guest teacher, mentor, and consultant with the Baltimore Waldorf School, Berkshire Waldorf High School, Brooklyn Waldorf School, Cincinnati Waldorf School, Green Meadow Waldorf School, Monadnock Waldorf School, New Amsterdam School, The Waldorf School of Garden City, The Waldorf School of Philadelphia, and Washington Waldorf School.