The journey has been epic. In the first months, we began an exploration into the instruments of the orchestra. We listened to recordings and live performances, drew multiple sketches and Venn diagrams, interviewed "experts" from the upper grades, and observed technique classes and ensemble rehearsals. It wasn't long before the students could identify the instruments by sound and sight, name their strings, and describe their tone. We wrote and performed a play called "Are You My Instrument?" based on the book by P.D. Eastman, "Are You My Mother?" In music class, their lead music teacher, the mastermind behind this process, began calling them an orchestra and teaching the etiquette of rehearsal using terms like conductor, rest position, and ready position. She showed them a timeline of how they would learn to be an orchestra together.
The children ranked their top three instrument choices, and with a few compromises made for the sake of balance and body type, they were assigned to sections. Parents, teachers, and students worked together to create an orchestra of papier mache. The building process took several weeks, and when it was finished they had hand-made violins, violas, cellos, and basses that from a considerable distance could have passed for Stradavaria.
The first day of rehearsal was magical. We practiced moving as one from rest position into playing position. Each student was determined to show excellence at every step. For several weeks, we rehearsed the steps to good instrument position, relaxed bow holds, and "butterfly arms" bowing through toilet paper rolls. There were songs involved to accompany the movements, and their practice culminated in a performance for the school community and the presentation of certificates from the Head of School.
This week they received their real instruments, and the enthusiasm throughout the class has been electric. On the first day of rehearsal, several parents reported their children woke them up early saying they were so excited they couldn't sleep. But once the instruments were in their hands, the excitement turned to austere focus. Each student carefully put the instrument into rest position and followed each instruction with the utmost care. So invested are they in the process that we spent the better part of one lesson practicing how to safely remove the instrument from the case, and not one student has shown the least sign of boredom.
They understand from everything leading up to this moment that they are on a journey, which will someday take them to the orchestras upstairs, and maybe someday to the orchestras they watched in Fantasia 2000. For now, they are learning to unzip the case and attach the sponge.
I am learning through this process that children can and will do amazing things when they are truly prepared. Many of the challenges I have dealt with in my orchestras this year have been a result of confusion that began before the students arrived in my class. What is an orchestra? Why should I want to be in one? What are all of the parts of my instrument for? These are questions that precede "how can I keep a straight bow?" and "what should be the angle of my index finger?" and as I have begun to fill in these gaps their behavior has drastically improved. When the "why?" is answered, the "how?" becomes relevant, and teaching can be more like guiding than like pulling.
The potential in this kindergarten class is incredible. They have all the same tendencies of any beginners I have worked with--tight thumbs, tendencies toward slouching, difficulty getting used to the alignment of shoulder, head, and fiddle--but as a class they are developing the mindfulness to consider these challenges one at a time and address them. They are able to exercise self control for the sake of their orchestra, and they approach new techniques and new music with wonder and care.