Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Hoedown with Aaron Copland

Our second year students are getting in the cowboy groove with composer, Aaron Copland.

Aaron Copland
Two features set Copland apart from other composers we learn about in Let's Play Music: he was an American, and he lived very recently (1900-1990).  It was very important to Copland to help define a style of classical music that was truly American.  The U.S.A. is relatively young, so most of the classical music being performed when Copland was a student sounded old and sounded like it came from Europe.  Well, most of the classical music we still listen to in Let's Play Music does come from Europe!

In a television interview (WATCH HERE), Copland was asked, "why can't you write (music) in the (same styles from the)  past?"  He answered, "It wouldn't be natural! Why should we limit ourselves? We have rhythms that Chopin never thought of.  We have a wider range; a more complex, more dissonant language....the language of music has really advanced with the times."

An American Style

Copland, raised in New York, witnessed the rise and popularity of jazz music.   Jazz was genuinely American music.  He knew Americans could learn to learn to love classical music as much as they loved jazz, and he wanted them to have a type of classical music of their own.  So, he incorporated musical elements from jazz and folk music to compose classical music that was all-American. He believed it was possible to interest more Americans in classical music by writing something just for them. The piece we study,  Hoedown, from the ballet, Rodeo, is a perfect example of an exciting and sophisticated classical piece derived from folk tunes (cowboy songs).






Ballet, Radio, Movies, and More
Copland lived during a time when photographs, radio, and movies were invented and became common.  He saw that it was important to write music that people wanted to use in new formats.

 In a 1935 radio interview (listen here), he was asked, "How would you describe your music today?" and Copland answered, "I wouldn't want to describe it, because I might limit it. I think of it as different kinds of music for different reasons and purposes and media, and I hope it sounds like ME despite its variety."

Indeed, he did compose for different media: ballets (ie Billy the Kid, Rodeo, Appalacian Spring) and movies (Of Mice and Men, Our Town, Heiress) as well as classical concerts (like Third Symphony, Clarinet Concerto).  He wrote music to be incorporated into popular venues, and in doing so reached a very wide audience.  You can even see Aaron Copland, himself, conducting in this 1958 television series (watch here).

I like to challenge my Let's Play Music students to begin to notice the divers ways music is used and enjoyed in our modern society; perhaps one day these youngsters will emulate Copland's flexibility and write the music for concert halls, ballets, movies, television, commercials, cartoons, video games, and ipad apps! Next time you play a game on a phone or tablet, take a moment to notice the music; what do you think about it? Does it set the right mood for the game or scene? Would you like to write this kind of music?

Hoedown Ballet
A hoedown is a musical dancing party, featuring square dancing or country dances.  In class, our  cowboy and cowgirl puppets come together for a barn dance.  Copland wrote the music for a the ballet, Rodeo.  Although this clip is a little fuzzy and old, it's my favorite because I love the Baltimore Ballet choreography, and I love that they perform live with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.


   
Hoedown Animation
Here's a different type of video: this delightful animation from artist Eleanor Stewart is set to Hoedown. Similar to the cowboy puppets we use in class for each theme, her characters are set for each theme in the music.  You'll see them repeat as the musical sections repeat.  This animation also shows the written musical score: the pages and pages of musical notes musicians read from as they play.  Let's Play Music students will enjoy hearing themes presented in this different type of puppet show.

Hoedown from Rodeo from Eleanor Stewart on Vimeo.

So How Do You Compose A Song?
Aaron Copland wrote music in a style that was new, and he wrote music to be used in new ways.  In the biography, Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man,  he shares a bit about his own creative process.

"Somehow, suddenly, a musical idea occurs to you; either a whole phrase, or three notes, or a series of chords, something that seems pregnant with possibilities for development. Once you have the kinds of ideas that fascinate you, you're no longer in a position to decide the nature of the animal. It's going to take its essence from the musical ideas that occur to you.... Some musical ideas are too short, they don't seem long enough to carry you through ten minutes of music, so you have to start searching about for other ideas; contrasting ones that seem to fit with the original ones."

Take it from Copland: there are are many ways to begin a song.  Even if you only have a few notes that make a tune you like, or a few chords that progress in a cool way, it is enough to begin. When your student begins composing in Year 3 of Let's Play Music, encourage him to tinker and find the small bits of sound and melody that become the seeds of a composition.  It doesn't take much!

You Can Go To The Hoedown!
A hoedown is usually not for ballet dancers- it's a party regular folks. At the end of the day, the farmer puts his HOE DOWN and goes in form some music and merrymaking.  Are you sad that wild west cowboy days and barn dancing days are long past?

Well, I have great news for you: you can still attend a hoedown in your area (Click Here to Find One)! The type of dancing will be contra dancing (similar to square dancing), and the music is usually folk and bluegrass played by fiddles and banjos and piano.  The caller will teach you a few dance steps, then call them out as the music is played.  You'll learn quickly because the same few steps will be repeated many times during the song.  The caller will teach you a new pattern for the next song. 



Can young people attend contra dances? You bet! Generally the pace is a bit too quick for the four-year-olds to learn the steps, so they end up clapping on the sidelines, but if you attend a family dance, they'll have a few simpler songs to make sure everyone gets to dance (check with your local group). Tweens and teens will easily master the steps, and I have seen several children as young as seven participating just fine, too.  I hope you'll feel adventurous enough to go on a family outing and to a dance in your area.

Put Your Hoe Down and Dance
Now that you've seen some Hoedown ballet and some contra dancing, why not make up your own moves to Hoedown to dance with your family?

-Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music Teacher

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