Posts Tagged ‘music appreciation’

The African Orchestra, written by Wendy Hartmann, illustrated by Joan Rankin
published in 2017 by Crocodile Books, Interlink Publishing Group

That buzzing cicada? That crackle-snap of a seed pod breaking? The thunder of hooves as a herd of zebras races across the plains? The burbling of a brook freshened by a mighty rainfall?

All those sounds woven into the wild, vast, haunting, lovely, lush, bleak African landscapes, found their way into African musical instruments as humans invented ways to replicate nature’s songs.

Thought-provoking ideas, lyrical text, and marvelously inventive, artistic images capture the natural world of Africa and the emotion of its music. A brilliant concept and collaboration to muse over with children ages 3 and up.

You can pursue the idea of nature-inspired music with these brilliant guides to classical music:

Listen to the Birds, music selection and explanatory notes by Ana Gerhard, illustrations by Cecilia Verela, translated from Spanish by Heléne Roulston and Sabrina Diotalevi
first published in Spain in 2010; English edition 2013 by The Secret Mountain

Amazing Water, music selection and explanatory notes by Ana Gerhard, illustrations by Margarita Sada, translated from Spanish by David Lytle
first published in Spain; English edition 2016 by The Secret Mountain

Gerhard chooses 20 classical selections for each book, with themes and sounds that convey birdsong and water respectively.

For example, Vivaldi’s “The Goldfinch and Saint-Saën’s “Aviary” from The Carnival of the Animals are included in Listen to the Birds. Schubert’s Trout quintet and “Alla Hornpipe” from Handel’s Water Music are included in Amazing Water.

Background for each piece is provided which might be best read by a parent to dole out judiciously, as well as brilliant listening notes that accompany the included CD, drawing children’s attention to specific aspects of the music and explaining how these reflect the subject. There are also brief bios of each composer and a glossary of musical terms, and all of this is presented on pages dominated by joyful illustrations.

This is a great resource for homeschooling families, for example, who could putter through one volume over a 20 week period with children as young as 3 or 4.

There is one other title in this series, Simply Fantastic, which explores fantasy-oriented musical selections.



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Each week of February — Black History Month — I’ll be posting a list of excellent titles for you to explore, grouped by topic. I’m starting out with a jazz theme. Learn and enjoy!

jazz on a saturday night cover imageJazz on a Saturday Night, by Leo and Diane Dillon
published in 2007 by The Blue Sky Press

The Dillons’ introduction to jazz is a lovely place for anyone to begin learning about this iconic American musical form.

The text of the book is brief — a rhythmic description of an epic, fictional, jazz ensemble, made up of the greats who meet up for one cool performance. It’s a Dream Team with folks like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Ella Fitzgerald. Brief bios of all 7 musicians are included in the closing pages, as well as a list of favorite recordings to get us started listening.

jazz on a saturday night illustration dillon

As always the artwork is phenomenal. The Extra Bonus Treat here is an accompanying CD made by the Dillons in which they teach us about what makes up a jazz ensemble. In under 20 minutes, the two of them talk to us conversationally — very much a Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood sort of feel — telling about each instrument. We get to hear the different kinds of sounds each one can make. Then we hear what kind of music happens when two of them play together, and then more. Finally, we hear the whole ensemble play a piece in which we can pick out the individual instruments — how clever that feels!

JazzOnASaturdayNight illustration leo and diane dillon

Kids as young as 4 or 5 can learn way more than you might guess from this understated, brilliant book. Then move on to learn about some African American jazz artists whose names are perhaps not quite as familiar, such as …

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Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills, words by Renée Watson, pictures by Christian Robinson
published in 2012 by Random House

Florence Mills was born in 1896, the daughter of former slaves. She began singing and dancing in her childhood in Washington, D.C., and went on to become one of the stars of the Harlem Renaissance.

harlems little blackbird interior watson and robinson

Read the story of this talented and generous woman, accompanied by Christian Robinson’s exciting, sizzling art, with ages 5 and up.

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Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrations by Frank Morrison
published in 2014 by Lee & Low Books Inc.

Love this story of a little gal that picks up a mighty big instrument and then proceeds to dominate with it! Melba Doretta Liston was a legendary trombone player, composer, and arranger.

little melba and her big trombone illustration frank morrison

Hip, swingin’ artwork accompanies this upbeat story for ages 4 or 5 and up. A lengthy afterword fills in a lot more history for you, with a selected discography so you can hear her sound for yourself.

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The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend, by Ann Ingalls & Maryann Macdonald, illustrated by Giselle Potter
published in 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Children

Mary Lou Williams was a child prodigy with an uncanny ability to both learn and create music from a young age. She went on to travel and boogie with the “Kings and Dukes and Earls of jazz” for almost 60 years, a phenomenal success, a rare female jazz pianist for her time, and a kind mentor for others.

the little piano girl illustration detail giselle potter

Giselle Potter’s naive illustrations are rosy-warm and appealing. Ages 4 and up.

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Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum, written and illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker
published in 2008 by Schwartz & Wade Books

Art Tatum was another child who gravitated to music and the piano at an early age. Despite severely limited vision, which grew progressively worse, Tatum was playing professionally by age 16, and went on to play, improvise, travel, record, planting his star firmly at the top of the world of jazz.

piano starts here illustration robert andrew parker

This book is written as though Tatum is narrating his life story, with a sweetly personal tone. Parker’s watercolor illustrations also convey a lovely humanness, warmth, and joy. Ages 4 and up.

There are so many more exceptional biographies available at your library of other jazz legends, so don’t stop here!

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gershwin's rhapsody in blue cover imageGershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, by Anna Harwell Celenza, illustrated by JoAnn E. Kitchel

George Gershwin was only 26 years old when he had the surprise of his life!

Already a successful songwriter, George was taken completely off-guard when a New York newspaper announced he would be premiering a concerto at an upcoming concert. In just five weeks. The problem was:  aeolian hall flyer from abbeville dot comGeorge hadn’t written any such thing!

George protested! He exclaimed! He insisted he could in no way write an entire concerto in five weeks, having never written one in his life! Yet the concert organizer was unmoved. “Of course you can do it,” he replied. “You’re George Gershwin.”

George agreed to “give it a shot.”

And wow! what a shot! Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, that wailing, jazzy, dancing, bluesy, soaring piece of music, was received with wild enthusiasm from its first gershwin's rhapsody in blue illustration joann e. kitchelperformance in February, 1924. Gershwin managed to wrap up in his music an entire landscape of Manhattan, a cultural melting pot of melody. Brilliant.

Anna Harwell Celenza has written a highly-engaging, spirited account of this piece of music and the musical genius who wrote it. This is music appreciation at its best, easily accessible to early elementary children and up. A recording of the piece, performed by George Gershwin and the Columbia Jazz Band, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, is included. Listening to this after reading the story is an even more exciting, interesting experience, as we notice more about the music, and know more about the man behind it.

JoAnn Kitchel’s colorful, ink and watercolor illustrations exude 20s style, with art deco borders, flapper fashions, and all the dazzle of Manhattan. She george gershwinwonderfully whisks us into the neighborhoods of New York in another time.

Celenza has written a number of other titles as well, collaborating on some of them with Kitchel. These books introduce Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, Beethoven’s Eroica, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and Bach’s Goldberg Variations. A treasure trove for exploring some gorgeous music with young people.

Here’s the Amazon  link for the Gershwin book:  Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

And a YouTube link of the same recording included in the book, with an explanation of how they went about making it, using a “1925 piano roll” and attempting to reproduce the sound of the original performance.

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Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, by Leonard Bernstein, edited by Jack Gottlieb 


…there’s no limit to the different kinds of feelings music can make you have.  Some of those feelings are so special they can’t even be described in words.  Sometimes we can name the things we feel, like joy or sadness or love or hate or peacefulness.  But there are other feelings so deep and special that we have no words for them, and that’s where music is especially marvelous.  It names the feelings for us, only in notes instead of words. 


This is Leonard Bernstein, and it is part of his answer to the question, “What does music mean?”  Bernstein tackled this question in one of his beloved Young People’s Concerts given in New York City primarily during the 1960s.  These concerts, featuring the New York Philharmonic, brought Bernstein’s incredible flair for teaching and deep love and understanding of music, together in a series of televised programs which captivated the nation.  Many young people’s concerts have been inspired by him, but none, I think, obscure the pure genius of his productions. 

This book provides Bernstein’s script for fifteen of the concerts, along with some very nice black ink illustrations –in keeping with the black-and-white era broadcasts.  Because the musical selections on the programs were played by an orchestra, Bernstein substituted other short musical examples in this text, written out for the piano.  Here you can find out what Bernstein taught about American music, Impressionism, and humor.  You can read his lucid explanations of sonata form, intervals in music, melody, and concertos.  You can meet Sibelius and Berlioz.

Bernstein’s text flows very conversationally, as he builds up our understanding one analogy, one musical example, one clarifying remark upon another. My 2005 edition also includes a listing of all the concerts and the excerpts played in them, as well as a biography of Bernstein. 

If you are seeking to impart music appreciation to kids, you will be helped and inspired by this book.  Read it for yourself, share nuggets of it with your children, play some of his examples on CD, give them some paints and paper to illustrate what they’re hearing…magic!  

The original broadcasts — 53 of them — are available on DVD now.  My guess is that for many kids today, the black-and-white picture, the dated narrator’s voice, which brought back memories  of the Mr. Science films we watched in grade school!,  an audience made up of little boys in suits and girls in prim dresses and hairbands…may prove challenging hurdles.  If you help them past that, however, Bernstein’s lovely giftedness as a teacher is as mesmerizing as ever.  

You can hear the first 10 minutes of the “Folk Music in the Concert Hall” program through this link.  Give it a listen all the way through to see how, like the Pied Piper, Bernstein draws us into his world of music. 


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