by Hanna Vock
Mrs. Becker was a music teacher with heart and soul. In addition, as a class teacher she had to teach a 3rd grade with 28 children, in everything except mathematics and sports. Her class was a very average class in terms of performance.
After one year of rehearsals, she performed the opera „Pollicino“ five times with her pupils in the Great Concert Hall of the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hannover (University of Music Hanover). And all children reached the class goal of the 3rd and 4th grade, nobody had to repeat the class.
How did Mrs. Becker do it?
She inspired the children for the exciting story of the opera: it is a mixture of the fairy tales „Hansel and Gretel“ and „The Thumbelina“, and there is also a man-eater.
The music of Hans Werner Henze (1926 – 2012) is so modern that an estimated 1 percent of all listeners could say with certainty whether or not this particular tone was struck by the singing child. This took a lot of pressure off the children, but did not prevent them from practicing with unbelievable diligence.
My daughter, who „gave“ a man-eater´s daughter, often sang parts (not only her own) from the opera at home. Often she suddenly fell: „Oh, I was singing off-key.“ Parents: „We didn’t notice.“ „The other parents don’t realize it either, but Mrs. Becker notices it.“ And until the performances, the children could really sing the difficult parts properly.
Mrs. Becker convinced her headmistress to take part in the project and to warm up the restrained school authorities. The initiative for the project came from a professor at the conservatory, the opera house then took over the production. Three grammar schools (one each was responsible for the scenery / the animals of the forest / the orchestra), two primary schools (movement choir / brothers and sisters) and the Hanover Opera House (director, dramaturgy, conductor, six opera singers who took on the adult roles) took part.
There was a great deal of excitement, from the first rehearsals in class to the visit to the opera house stage, getting to know the adult participants (and their voices and instruments), costume and make-up rehearsals, dress rehearsals and at last the performances.
She transferred her own enthusiasm for the music and the project to the children.
In my opinion, this was one of the decisive factors for the success: Mrs. Becker acted with great pedagogical self-confidence, experience and sovereignty. Let me shed some light on that.
A modified timetable and the worries of the parents
When the rehearsals started, the children received a modified timetable. It was unusual. Every day the first or last lesson was reserved for rehearsals, depending on when Mrs. Becker had lessons in this class. There was just a big A or B on the plan.
The class was divided into two groups (A and B). Both were equal and later performed the opera. In each line-up there were, according to the requirements of the opera, six brothers of the eponymous hero Pollicino and seven daughters of the man-eater. (To their disappointment the man-eater daughters did not get a costume, but should bring their „most beautiful nightgown“.
The advantage of dividing the two casts was that hardly any child missed a rehearsal, as they could rehearse with the other cast if necessary. And so the great frustration that would have arisen if a child had not been able to attend the performance due to illness was avoided. At least once every child was attending a performance.
For the timetable the double occupation meant:
If one A was in the timetable, the cast A had to be there, the other (B) had these hours off – and vice versa.
Towards the end of the school year, when the performance dates were approaching, Mrs. Becker expanded the rehearsals; there were now two additional afternoons a week for rehearsals in the opera house.
But even at the very beginning there was unrest in the parenthood: The children would miss too much lessons and would not achieve the class goal. Those were the worries of the parents.
At the parents‘ evening Mrs. Becker performed very confidently. She described to the parents how enthusiastic the children were already about the project, explained the learning value of the children’s opera project and that the children experienced a great boost of motivation to cope with the „other things“ (German and the other lessons teached by Mrs. Becker). The execution of the rehearsals was linked to the children’s learning progress, their attention and activity in the remaining lessons and the reliable completion of their homework. The kids knew that.
It worked! And I still have the sentence that Mrs Becker confidently recited in my ear today:
We can manage the necessary little bit of reading and writing too!
Sometimes an analogy comes to my mind: the „little“ housework (which many women who are not working away from home feel used to the full) does the working woman and mother „by the way“.
One child in Mrs. Becker´s class decided on its own initiative not to take part, three other children were forbidden to take part by their parents. As the school year progressed, the parents of the children involved became calmer. The smarter ones noticed that the opera rehearsals also contained a lot of German lessons: the children had to read the text over and over again, the plot was repeatedly illuminated and discussed from different sides – and much was done for the children’s memory – some children learned the text completely by heart. Not to mention the increase in endurance and discipline!
And the material lessons did not have anything arbitrary on the subject (as for example The toilet flushing / Our spring flowers / Rain-Ice-Snow) but the real functioning of a theatre and the musical instruments.
The „lack“ of a few hours per week had absolutely no negative effect on the children’s learning success.
The performances were a complete success. They were always sold out, there was frenetic applause. The children found themselves in the press and fought for autographs of the adult participants they admired. By the way, the „man-eater“ was a fine guy and also asked the children for autographs. When asked why he was doing this, he said:
„That’s not a gag. The children have done a tremendous job. Respect!“
Because of the great success there was later, when the children were already at the secondary schools, a resumption with several performances.
Date of publication in German: June 2012.
Translation from German: Hanna Vock
(Sorry, there is no money for a professional translator. If you discover any gross errors, please let me know. firstname.lastname@example.org)
Copyright © Hanna Vock, see imprint.