A few years ago, we had the opportunity to review the first installment of the Great Musicians Series from Zeezok Publishing. The newly released Music Appreciation: Book 2 for the Middle Grades program picks up where the first level series leaves off. The composers are included in this music curriculum are from the Romantic era: Frederic Chopin, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner, Stephen Foster, Johannes Brahms, Pyotr (Peter) Tchaikovsky, and Edward MacDowell. Units are divided by composer, with four or five weeks allotted to each; and each composer is a self-contained unit, so you can begin anywhere in the program, not just at the start. It makes the most sense, from a timeline perspective, to follow the sequence presented in the book. However, because they are self-contained, a family could study composers from a geographic/world history perspective. Chopin is from modern Poland, while Schumann, Wagner, and Brahms are German; Foster and MacDowell are American composers. I think this flexibility is helpful as a homeschool parent.
|Not pictured: Tchaikovsky and the Nutcracker Ballet, provided via eBook
Most music appreciation courses focus on music styles, and students listening to pieces from to hear the differences between each era: Renaissance vs. Classical, Baroque vs. Modern. I don't think this is a bad thing to learn, because each style is a reflection on its position in history. Last year, Matthew completed a (different) music history course that taught these nuances, and even just after eavesdropping, I can now easily tell the difference between epochs when I hear a "classical" composition. However, I think what can happen then is pieces within a genre start to sound homogenous. Celia will play a violin piece, and I couldn't tell you the difference between Handel and Bach. I've learned to listen for what makes a piece inherently Baroque vs. from the Romantic era, not what makes each composer different. I also know little about what motivated each man. Zeezok provides music study from a different perspective.
These biographical studies focus not only on the composers and their music but also on their family lives and character. For example, Schumann's courtship and marriage to Clara Wieck are discussed. Wieck, a lauded pianist in her own right, was a fundamental inspiration to her husband, and, like her husband, a champion of other composers.
Often, it is the salacious or scandalous stories of composers that endures, so I appreciate the perpetuation of the good character traits. I also appreciate that the program does not shy away from them, either; while highlighting Tchaikovsky's closeness to family and generous nature, it does include a note about his troubled relationships with Désiree Artôit and Antonina Milyukova. However, it presents them in a concise, factual manner, with no little color commentary (and no discussion, outright or inferred, to modern biographists conclusions about Tchaikovsky's struggles with his sexuality).
The student book includes comprehension questions that correlate to the biographies, as well as information about other facets of the composers' lives and related music theory information. Journaling opportunities (prompts are provided; students will need a journal notebook or could use a word processing program) are also liberally offered, allowing students to work on writing skills (short answer, self-reflection, creative writing, etc.). Each unit ends with an overview quiz.
A significant difference between Level 1 and Level 2 series is the use of QR Codes. In the first series, we received a case with several CDs containing music selections. As the student reads each composer's biography, musical selections are woven in. This meant every time we reach a composition, we'd have to hunt down the CDs, find the player, etc. It also made it difficult to take with us if we were doing schoolwork at a doctor's office or the karate dojo. Having QR codes that linked to an online (YouTube) music library was far more convenient; all kiddo needed was to borrow a phone or iPad with an internet connection.
Additional QR Codes are peppered throughout the book for if the student wishes to learn further about a person or topic. Additionally, related topics and (optional) suggested activities are included with each composer study. While each student requires his own consumable workbook, this makes the program suitable for multiple grade levels. The publisher notes that while Book 1 is written for grades K-6 and Book 2 is for grades 5-8, they are easily adaptable across a range of educational abilities. A younger student could complete the program solely based on what is contained within the biographical texts and added information, with assistance as necessary, while an older student can work independently and has resources immediately at his fingertips for further research.
One of Celia's favorite "added information" bits was about the conductor. She has played in a local youth orchestra for several years now and has become used to following a conductor. Using context clues from the tenor of the music, she has learned what the conductor is trying to convey, but she had an "aha!" moment when she read about how conducting isn't just arm movement but body language as well. Now, the mantra, "Always look back to the conductor!" makes so much more sense; just watching his arms from the corner of her eye as she reads the music in front of her only gives a fraction of the information she needs.
Here, Celia is playing with her summer camp's String Orchestra (she is seated in First Chair, Violin). Dr. Erwin is leaning toward the violins, to pull vibrancy and strength from that instrument section. Her movements are purposeful, not over articulated or dramatic "feeling the music."
For more about our experience with Level 1 of this series, click here:
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