Musical literacy and expression is an important component of Waldorf education, and anyone who’s seen student performances at Steiner knows how students’ musical education is being tended and nurtured. Whether it’s our 9-12 year olds performing in Presto Strings ensemble throughout Berkshire County, or members of the earlier grades singing and playing Choroi flutes, we are fortunate to have a rich music program that includes both vocal and instrumental music integrated throughout the curriculum.
Waldorf teachers utilize music’s unifying gesture from the very beginning. In Early Childhood classrooms, when teachers sing and children instinctively imitate the song, the classroom is calm and relaxed, and moves gently through transitions such as dressing in winter gear or tidying up after snack. Waldorf early childhood teachers are sometimes called “child whisperers,” and music is one of their most effective methods! They might also pick up and softly strum a harp or lyre during stories and before nap time.
At Steiner, instrumental music lessons start in first grade with pear wood interval flutes that have one or two holes. The children learn form – how to sit like musicians, hold their instruments and care for them, and practice proper breathing technique while playing their instrument – and they learn to differentiate tones by ear. In second grade, students move to the pentatonic flute, which has the notes of the pentatonic scale from D to E (and no wrong notes, as they all sound good together). In third grade, students begin to play the Choroi diatonic flute, based on the more complex diatonic scale. Starting in fifth grade, students learn the recorder, and by the time they reach middle school they become part of a recorder ensemble with soprano, alto, tenor and bass recorders playing multiple parts, and often provide the music for their own dramatic performances. As in singing and in dramatic roles, they start in unison in the younger grades, branch into parts as they become more experienced and accomplished, and eventually step out as soloists. By middle school, students participate in both chorus and orchestra.
In The Guardian, Mo Costandi writes, “Musical training has what psychologists refer to as transfer effects; in other words, learning to play a musical instrument seems to have a far broader effect on the brain and mental function, and improves other abilities that are seemingly unrelated.” Studies show that learning to play a musical instrument not only increases grey matter volume in various brain regions, but can also strengthen the long-range connections between them. Other research shows that musical training also enhances verbal memory, spatial reasoning, and literacy skills. “Music probably does something unique,” explains neuropsychologist Catherine Loveday of the University of Westminster. “It stimulates the brain in a very powerful way, because of our emotional connection with it.”
The strings program at Steiner starts in third grade. Students have the choice of violin or cello. They learn in groups by instrument, as part of their school day, for the first two years. In fifth grade, they can continue with strings or choose any orchestra instrument. Individual after school lessons often start in fifth grade as well, and students may audition for advanced extracurricular ensemble groups Presto and Allegro, which present their “Meet the Strings Family” and perform at various community events, schools and venues including The Norman Rockwell Museum, Hancock Shaker Village, The Colonial Theater, Pine Cobble School and St. Mary’s School.
Music Director Eileen Markland discussed the Steiner advantage for students, for whom music is not an “extra” but an integral part of learning: