Mini Unit-Studies Using Musicals
What if I told you that I had accidentally discovered a magic formula for adding music appreciation into your homeschool without needing to prepare anything or even finding extra time during the day for it?
What if I told you your kids would probably love it and it would lead to creating connections, discussing big ideas, and having so much fun you’ll want to do it over and over?
In an accidental stroke of genius (ok, ok, it was an act of mild desperation!) I fell upon a simple formula of repeated listening + movie watching + an archived SQUILT LIVE! lesson to create a mini-unit study of a musical.
My goal had really only been to shift attention from the squabbling that was happening in the car that day to something else, anything else. So I decided to spontaneously blast the song “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music in the hopes it would surprise everyone into quieting.
When the song ended, I gave a short introduction to the widowed Captain, his 7 mischievous children, and their new governess. They asked to listen to it again. And for the 15-minute drive to our jiu jitsu class, our car was filled with The Sound of Music.
Thus, our beloved tradition of Musicals in the Car was born.
Learning About Musicals
Musicals often tell a story so to truly understand a musical album, they need to pay close attention to the music and lyrics in order to follow the plot through the songs. To pay close attention, they need to be quiet without distraction. And what better place to listen without distraction than a regularly scheduled and routine car ride?
By listening repeatedly to a musical in the car, they’ve come to realize how emotion can be portrayed through melodies, harmonies, and instrumentation in order to support the story. And best of all, musicals have led to thoughtful discussions on topics ranging from family to history to poetry.
It’s natural learning at its best, using time already spent in the car, and very little planning for me. (Now, every time we drive to and from jiu jitsu, we listen to a musical, picking up where we left off. Simple as that! Little by little I narrate the story if I can, weaving in just enough detail so they get the general gist of what is going on.)
After a couple of weeks of listening to The Sound of Music in the car, we had a family movie night and watched the film. They loved it and the story became clearer. And then, my favorite moment occurred when the Nazis arrived onscreen and my oldest turned to me and exclaimed, “There are Nazis in this? You never said anything about Nazis!”
(Pro tip: leave out a few details of your narration to be discovered during the film.)
Using the SQUILT LIVE! Archives
Capitalizing on their obsession, I turned to the SQUILT Archives and searched for a lesson on The Sound of Music.
I just knew we needed Miss Mary to tell us all about it. My oldest loved the checklist sheet of facts and my younger ones enjoyed learning the hand motions for solfege. As we listened to the overture, they confidently named the songs they heard weave in and out.
Wondering if I could repeat the magic I decided to try it again with another musical. I peeked at some of the other musicals in the SQUILT Archives and decided the next musical would be Fiddler on the Roof. It would be a good contrast to The Sound of Music.
So using the simple formula of listening in the car, watching the film, and an archived SQUILT lesson, we began again.
Just a few songs into Fiddler on the Roof, they immediately noted the tone and mood felt very different than The Sound of Music because the musical language was not what they expected. The great thing about repeated listening is that they become very familiar with the music even if they don’t yet have the language to describe in detail what they hear.
That comes with time and more SQUILT LIVE! lessons.
They quickly became obsessed with Tevye: his conversations with God and his earnest desire to be a good father and husband.
My goodness, when you allow time and space for kids to listen closely and repeatedly, they make such insightful connections!
They noted how Tevye clung to traditions tightly yet often boldly broke those traditions for the sake of his daughters’. They could hear in his various conversations with God that he struggled to do what was he thought was right while clinging to what was comfortable.
Another advantage of the car as a a learning space space is that it can be a welcome change that allows kids to take more risks in expressing their thoughts and views regarding big issues because it is a more casual setting and devoid of pressure. When mom’s eyes are fixed on the road, there is freedom that sometimes doesn’t exist in face to face conversations and it allows for even the more hesitant observers to contribute their ideas.
Like with our first musical, we watched the film after a couple of weeks of repeated listening and the kids were riveted. The poverty and persecution of the Jewish people became very real onscreen. The kids saw the Jewish traditions and customs in conjunction with hearing the minor harmonic melodies. And Tevye lived up to listening ears’ expectations so much so that they quote him to this day.
We absolutely loved this SQUILT LIVE! lesson!
We learned about the origin of the play, watched videos of the songs, and even though we weren’t actually having a live conversation with Miss Mary, we did have a meaty discussion about history and the persecution of Jewish people. The archives work brilliantly for conversation starters in my family and we end up discussing themes long after the lesson is over.
What’s great about SQUILT archives is that you can keep it as simple as just watching the lesson or you can dig a bit deeper. For Fiddler on the Roof, I added a bit more because I was surprised at what I learned through the PDF resources that go along with the lesson. And I ended up watching the recommended documentary about the musical on my own just because I wanted to learn more.
I also (thanks to Miss Mary!) discovered that the work of artist Marc Chagall influenced the production of the play! I grabbed a picture book biography off the shelf called, Through The Window by Barb Rosenstock, so that we could learn about his life and make connections.
When I opened the book to read, I couldn’t believe the very first page was so reminiscent of the first scene of the movie! I showed the page to the kids without saying anything and they too immediately noted how similar it is to the “Traditions” scene. I’m telling you, kids notice everything and will make these connections! And I love it when art and music collide.
Using the car as a space for discussion once again, we compared and contrasted Fiddler on the Roof and The Sound of Music. They blew me away with their thoughtful comments: both musicals deal with themes of family and moving on, Fiddler is sad yet hopeful and The Sound of Music is generally more joyful, Fiddler is more serious and wants you to think a bit deeper while The Sound of Music wants you to feel good in the end.
The more musicals we listen to, the more their musical vocabulary builds and expands helping them make insightful connections in both music and story. And another bonus, might I add, is that this is practically the same type of analysis done when reading literature!
The Three Step Formula for Musicals in the Car:
Now that I knew Musicals in the Car worked, I decided on our third musical. It would be totally different from the first two; we would listen to CATS! I knew SQUILT had a lesson on CATS!, for which I was grateful because I had little previous knowledge. And we followed our same formula.
- Listen to the musical in the car, with me weaving in a few details.
- Watch the movie/production at home
- Discuss and expand with books and activities
When I asked for first impressions, their replies ranged from “it sounds like you’re in a city” to “it’s much more modern than either of the other musicals,” to “just plain weird.” Gotta love kids!
Partway through our first listening, my oldest asked, “What is going on? Everything seems so random! Did I miss the storyline?” And that’s when I explained that the musical is based on a book of poetry by T.S. Eliot rather than a full story with a plot.
I began reading a couple of the poems from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot each day during our read aloud time until we had read them all. We discussed how the poems were almost the same, word for word, as the lyrics. And then we watched the musical. And as I expected, they thoroughly enjoyed seeing the actors dressed in cat costumes and move around as cats.
To finish our CATS! musical study, we watched another archived SQUILT lesson. I can’t express how lovely it is let Miss Mary do the teaching and become a student alongside my children.
We learned about what prompted Andrew Lloyd Webber to write the musical, thought about how talented the actors are to be able to sing the songs and perform the choreography, and we discussed the famous number, “Memories.” And yes, we then compared CATS! to the other two musicals because at this point, it’s a natural next step.
I think sometimes we can overthink things: I’m not a musician, how can I find the time to add one more thing, I don't know how! And then maybe music appreciation either doesn’t happen or it’s stressful for both mom and kids!
The simplicity of musicals in the car, however, has been a delightful surprise.
I have a captive audience primed for listening and the kids look forward to discovering new musical treasures. Add in a movie night for the film version (or at the very least watch youtube videos of songs) to help to visualize the story and understand the music more fully.
Finally, include an archived SQUILT lesson where Miss Mary does the teaching. Congratulations, you’ve got a full blown, mini-unit study that has required almost no thought or planning.
Just remember the formula:
- Listen repeatedly.
- Watch and discuss.
- Learn from an archived SQUILT LIVE! lesson.
Keep it simple with Musicals in the Car and you’ll find a new avenue for natural learning, family connection, and magical memories.
You might also like another post in this series - Using the SQUILT LIVE! Archives: The Music of Africa
*The SQUILT LIVE! archives are available to all of our Plus members. Other benefits include:
- two new LIVE! lessons each month
- access to all previous listening calendars
- curated book and resource lists to go with EVERY monthly theme
- SQUILT Goes to the Movies PDF volume
- FREE Meet the Instruments Matching Cards
- Access to the Plus members online community
- access to bonus events including visits from professional musicians, book clubs, lessons for preschool aged children, and more!
About the author:
Lydia Rosado is a partial nomad (a hazard of being an Air Force wife) and
homeschool mom to 4 wonderfully creative kids. She's the curator of her
home library, adventurer wherever God has put her, and a homebody who loves a good nap.
You can find her on Instagram @happilyevercaffeinated sharing
fun unit studies which include creative art projects, good books, and ways
to layer hands-on learning.