In 1936, Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev was presented with an unusual challenge. He was asked by the Children's Musical Theater in Moscow to produce a piece of music especially for children, something that could spark their interest and inspire a lasting love for music beginning in the very first years of school. He accepted the offer, and in a matter of weeks he created one of the most well known pieces of music for children, Peter and the Wolf. As teachers and musicians, we still face the same challenge today: How can we get students to engage with music? How can we get them to listen actively in a way that promotes constructive learning in addition to enjoyment? Prokofiev created an introductory lesson plan, and he embedded it directly into his composition. To answer these questions, we need only to follow his example.
Using only instrumental music and the voice of a narrator, Prokofiev retells a classic Russian folk tale. "Peter and the Wolf" is the story of a young boy who ventures out into the forest to capture a wolf, befriending many other animals along the way. The instruments "act out" each character in this twenty-five-minute symphony conveying all of the events of the story solely with the use of sound. Part of the fun for teachers is deciding which recording to use in the classroom, many of which are voiced by celebrities. Some noteworthy versions include the voices of Sting, David Bowie, David Attenborough, and, my personal favorite, Sir Patrick Stewart, among others. The narrator is one of the things that make this piece unique, because it shows that the composer laid out a welcoming foundation for students that he maintained throughout the symphony.
One of the central ideas of Peter and the Wolf is that a character's voice can be represented in myriad ways, following any whim of the imagination. The use of symbolism is woven into countless literary classics that kids will read as they grow up, and having exposure to these characters at a young age lays a wonderful foundation for learning about more abstract ideas like metaphors later on. Have the students talk about what various animals sound like, or have them create noises in the classroom and try to relate those sounds to nature. Wrinkling paper could be the sound of leaves, or falling pencils could be the sound of raindrops. If you have the resources, this is also the perfect time to bring in a few small instruments to let the students experiment and get acquainted with what the instruments look like. Even showing them pictures of the instruments will give them a much-needed mental image to hold on to while listening. They may be amused to know that a fully assembled bassoon is almost as tall as a grown woman, and certainly taller than the average elementary school student. These preparation activities allow the children to feel more comfortable with something they've never heard before and are a perfect complement to other activities that can be done while the music is playing.
During the story, each character appears several times, represented by its specific instrument. The students can be divided into small groups representing each character; each group should listen for their parts. Another option is to give each group a different scene from the story to draw. For example: "Suddenly, something caught Peter's attention. He noticed a cat crawling through the grass." The students can listen for this event in the music and add their pictures to a story board as the music is playing. The class can use what they hear in the music to create their own group illustration of the story. Or, it might be more fitting with older students to discuss the moral intention of the story instead. Is this a story about a boy who disobeyed his grandfather, or is it about a boy who acted bravely to save the forest animals?
Peter and the Wolf presents endless possibilities for children of all ages to discover and indulge in the fantasy of music. The instrumental backdrop provides a rich landscape of sounds to spark the imagination, while a friendly narrative voice welcomes the listener into a new world for the first time. This children's symphony is one of the great works of classical music, but it is not the only option for integrating music into the classroom. Students could choose songs that they feel represent the current reading assignment and present their reasoning to the class. They could also analyze song lyrics as if they were poetry. There are endless ways to get students involved with music on a more personal level, and I enthusiastically invite you to add them here. Have you taught Peter and the Wolf in your classroom? What are some other ways that we can use music to strengthen our lesson plans and spark the imaginations of our students?
Jamie Spagnola is a Customer Service Representative at the Great Books Foundation. She also holds a BA in music from the Bower School of Music at Florida Gulf Coast University.