At Honolulu Waldorf, music molds students into competent communicators

Summit + Honolulu Waldorf School

Oahu K-12 Schools
Place ʻĀina Haina
Text Will Caron
Art Will Caron
Thread School of the Future

At Honolulu Waldorf School, the goal in educating each child is to help them find meaning, passion and purpose in life, and to contribute to the creation of a better world for all. Through a curriculum based on the developmental stages of the human being and on the integration of art and academics, Waldorf children learn to meet the world with clear and creative thinking, compassion and moral strength, and with the courage and freedom to act.

In an era of budget austerity in public education, many students—particularly in underserved communities—have no access to music classes. In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that some 1.3 million public school students each year are deprived of any opportunity to learn about or play music.

Budget cuts are passed on to music and arts programs first, deemed less important than math and STEM because they lack an obvious or direct avenue toward wealth generation or extraction. And this is tragic because decades of research has shown that music contributes greatly to developing critical thinking skills and dispositions that show up in cognitive measures; to detectable gains in spatial and mathematical capacities; and to early-age measures of intelligence.

The work of Frances Rauscher and Gordon Shaw in late 1990s, which showed that listening to Mozart piano sonatas gave college-age students a small boost in spatial reasoning skills—the so-called “Mozart Effect”—has led to diverse scholarly investigations about how music positively contributes to academic success, reinforced by professional testimonials that echo the research.

Music programs also influence student motivation, because students enjoy music and feel a sense of accomplishment when they become proficient with a musical instrument. In ensemble performances, students gain the people skills necessary to collaborate in a group, while increasing awareness of culturally embedded musical traditions reinforces a wide appreciation of diverse cultures and strengthens place-based identity.

But what children miss most in a musically-reduced or barren environment are the musical experiences themselves. More than missed opportunities for cognitive development, it’s the loss of music itself that will matter most. Fortunately there exists an excellent model to demonstrate the power of musical education in Honolulu Waldorf School (HWS)’s commitment to the musical development of its students.

Lynn Aaberg has been teaching at HWS for 18 years, where a dedicated team of classroom teachers and musical specialists shepherds students through a rich set of musical curricula that take them from kindergarten all the way through high school.

“The class teachers also do music and, in fact, Waldorf teacher training has a lot of music in it: class teachers and kindergarten teachers are expected to sing with their students,” says Aaberg. “The first instrument that they start playing, in first grade, is a small, wooden pentatonic flute.”

The pentatonic scale, built into the flutes, is structured such that anyone can play any note and it will work together with the any other available note. The pentatonic scale is ancient and used in indigenous cultures; it is fitting that the children begin their instrumental education at the beginning, so to speak.

HWS students will end up playing a recorder instrument from first through eighth grade, progressing from the pentatonic to the C-recorder and, eventually, adding in alto, tenor and bass recorders so that, by eighth grade, the students are playing music in all four parts together. This is a unique aspect of Waldorf education.

“It is almost impossible to find a recorder ensemble like this in other areas of the state—except in other Waldorf schools,” says Dr. Jocelyn Romero Demirbağ, Administrative Director for HWS. “To be able to read an individual part and hold it against all the other parts requires the same kind of confidence and ability as standing up for one’s own voice in the world. At HWS, the arts develop skills that students need to succeed with other people in life.”

“We recognize that human beings are musical, and so part of what we do at Waldorf is try to achieve our humanity,” Aaberg agrees. “Music is a five day-a-week thing here, because part of what makes us human is fusing our academics with our arts. We hold music in high esteem.”

In every class from kindergarten through eighth grade, the students sing to begin and end each day. Singing together builds the social capacity of working together and brings a cohesiveness to the group. Beginning in fourth and fifth grade, the students start to sing in segmented parts and then, in seventh and eighth grade, they begin to practice singing in harmony with completely different voice lines.

“There are many ways to use music in learning,” says Aaberg. “So we might use songs to learn the times tables or the states, the alphabet and things like that. When I was teaching second grade, we did all the times tables and every single one had a song: we might be singing the melody of “Turkey in the Straw” to learn the eights tables and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” for nines tables. I have students who are now 14 and 15 years old who could come in here and sing them all to you from memory.”

HWS students entering the third grade can choose between violin, viola, cello and bass; in the sixth grade, they can either stay with a string instrument or select a band instrument. Daryl Stark teaches strings to students in third through eighth grade and has been at Honolulu Waldorf for eight years. He works with the students as they begin their exploration of instrumentation, musical literacy and ensemble work.

“Starting a string instrument has been shown to create a special pathway from the nerve ends of your fingers up to your brain,” he says. “The vibrations of acoustic instruments beneath your fingers encourages the development of a better pathway for hand-eye coordination.”

String instruments have a long history: “When I’m teaching string instruments, I’m going on well over 300–400 years of tradition,” says Stark.

“There’s a lot of repertoire for string ensembles and there’s a lot of different possible variations of string instrument ensembles,” adds Josh Nakazawa, who began his first year teaching lower-register strings like cello and bass at Honolulu Waldorf in August, 2017.

“A lot of the curriculum for HWS incorporates early music, laying the foundation for where it all came from so that the students have a really solid foundation to see how music progresses,” Nakazawa continues. “String instruments also allow for a lot of collaboration and playing in a social-musical setting because of all the repertoire that’s out there for it.”

In sixth, seventh and eighth grade, Stark covers music ranging from the Renaissance to the early Baroque period, the Romantic period and up into the Modern period of the early 20th century. “We do famous pieces by Mozart, Bach, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Bartók and Shostakovich,” he says. “It’s one of the nice things about the string repertoire, as Josh was saying: there’s a huge variety of music we can play.”

Because Stark is also a composer, he can arrange the music depending on the skill level of a group. “More advanced groups sometimes request certain pieces or styles or composers and I try and always honor their requests,” he says. “Certainly with band you can transcribe music, but it’s nice also to play a piece by Mozart or Haydn the way the composer intended it.”

In ninth through 12th grade, Honolulu Waldorf adds the option for students to participate in Hawaiian ensemble, where students can play guitar, ‘ukulele and traditional instruments like the ipu to accompany classmates who are dancing in the school’s hula program. They can also enter into a full orchestra program.

The flexibility of the class structure and the instructors themselves is evident at each level of musicianship. “This past year, for sixth grade, we had a particularly small class,” adds Stark. “So we decided to do a piece that the students wrote together. I wrote the beginning and ending of the piece, but the whole middle of the piece was individual solos for each student. We took letters from their name that correspond to musical notes and they wrote a melody out of that. It’s something Bach did at the very end of his life—that’s where I got the idea.”

Stark even introduced an element of improvisation to the class, showing them how to make variations and giving them the freedom to do whatever they wanted. “I would point to them and at the concert they would just make something up,” he says. “When I first proposed this idea, most of them panicked; they were like, ‘We don’t know how to do that!’ So I told them, ‘We’ll just do it in class,’ and before they knew it, they were having a blast and they had a great time doing it in the concert. I was very proud of them.”

It’s no small feat to get up in front of a large audience of peers and parents and improvise a solo, and it’s an experience that teaches the students that studying music is about more than learning the notes on the page or memorizing what the teacher tells you in class: it’s also about spontaneity, creativity and experimentation, which provides invaluable growth in the student beyond the field of music. To be able to begin discovering this at such a young age is a rare and important opportunity.

“Music lays a foundation for a variety of learning techniques and teaches students about more than theory and technique: it also teaches them a lot about cultural backgrounds, of how we came to settle here and where we all came from,” says Nakazawa. “There are different learning styles that everybody has and music is kind of a conduit or a method by which kids can learn how to learn, learn a way to express themselves and learn a way to do things effectively in their practice. And that’s all transferable to other aspects of your life.”

“To have them be so successful and to be able to be part of a musical group and to work so seamlessly with one another is just a lovely thing for the rest of the teachers to see who know these kids in other ways,” shares Aaberg.

The students’ appreciation for their teachers and the opportunity to immerse themselves in music shows. Stark often lets his students name the pieces he writes for them to play. One group named a piece “Stark Raving Mad” in honor of their teacher. “It really speaks to the affection that they have both for the piece and for their teacher,” says Aaberg. “It was wonderful to see how thrilled they were to come back to the regular classroom and tell me about that piece.”

There’s no doubt that music is a crucial developmental tool, and a part of the Waldorf education that students relish. The devotion of the teachers to creating positive experiences and environments for the students shines through during their performances, and lasts long into the future.

While the fight for music education in schools across the country continues, experiences like those at Honolulu Waldorf School demonstrate the power music has to make immense, positive impacts on the lives of children. There are dozens of statistics available from the research that has been done on the impact of musical education, but it’s the faces of the students, flushed with enthusiasm and joy, that proves the importance of music to the development of the human brain and the cultivation of the human soul.


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