Lesson by David Thaxton
I start my formal recorder instruction during the fall semester of my students’ 4th grade year. By the time October rolls around, they typically are able to play c-c’ with the exception of f. After Introducing the fingering for forked f (I use baroque fingered recorders), they are ready to reinforce it using in a descending tetrachord pattern in a slow tempo. Benjamin Britten’s “Old Abram Brown” is the perfect piece for such a pattern and makes wonderful seed material for a terrifying story with many opportunities for repetition.
Download PDF of this full Lesson Plan here.
Lesson Plan: Old Abram Brown
Materials: Soprano Recorders, Autoharp*, Burned Pages**
*Does not need to be terribly well tuned or in good mechanical shape
**Print out four pages on buff colored paper : Old Abram Brown and the three recorder parts. Carefully (preferably outside) burn the edges, and crumple them repeatedly until they are worn and soft. (See Below)
Preparatory Lessons: Teach the fingering for forked f, and practice in the context of a falling tetrachord
Cautionary note: This contains a story enhanced with sound effects that can be extremely terrifying for some students. If you have students who are sensitive to scary things, you might want to counsel with them beforehand and give them a signal such as a wink or other gesture so they can plug their ears or close their eyes. You may also give the class permission to plug their ears and close their eyes if they get too scared. You might also have a particularly sensitive student be “in” on the story, and give them the job of taking a picture of the class with a camera, phone, tablet, etc. at the moment when they are all being startled.
The story begins…
A long time ago, when I was first teaching, I was hired to be the music teacher in a small town way out in the country. When I moved out, I was met almost immediately by the principal who seemed very eager to welcome me. The moving van was barely unpacked before he insisted that I come take a tour of the “new” school. As we walked up the sidewalk from my house to the school, (it was a VERY small town) we walked past a towering red brick building with a bell tower and a carved stone at the top that read, “County School 1908.” The windows had all been boarded up and heavy smoke stains blackened the bricks above every window. The doors were chained shut and locked with a heavy padlock. “Is this the ‘new’ school?” I asked jokingly. The principal was not amused. “No,” he barked curtly, “This is why we had to build a new school. There was…an accident.” And with that he paused, looked up at the empty bell tower and whispered, “ad mortem.” We continued up the street to the shiny new school that still had manufacturer’s stickers on the windows and fresh paint on door frames. Walking through the halls, he pointed out the cafeteria, the new library and at last, my room.
It was an empty room. No instruments, no books, no chairs or even a desk. The only furnishing at all was an old file cabinet in the corner. It was rusty and stained with soot. “Are there any music books? Instruments?” I asked. “Nope. Just that.” He replied and jerked his thumb over to the rusty cabinet. “We couldn’t find the key, so good luck.” And with that, he left. I spent the rest of the day making bulletin boards and writing music onto butcher paper charts, and when the sun had gone down, and everyone went home, I found a crowbar and a hammer in the janitor’s closet. After ten minutes of pounding and prying, the old file cabinet finally came open.
Inside, it reeked of smoke and was mostly empty, except for two things. This old fire-damaged auto harp, and this burned piece of paper with a song on it. (Show class the autoharp and the song, then begin to play the chords and sing the song – note: this is not the most appropriate key for young voices, but is good for recorder, so I do not have the students sing it at this point.) Having accomplished my goal, I packed up and headed home. (begin softly playing open strings on the autoharp to make a creepy sound as background)
As I passed the old burned school on the way, a balled up piece of paper that had been caught by the wind rolled up the sidewalk and hit my foot. I reached down and picked it up and unfolded it. I was surprised to see it was only one measure of music printed with the words, “ad mortem.” “Isn’t that what the principal had whispered?” I thought. (Show class the paper, and begin to play the notes on recorders: A, G, F, E while teacher sings and plays along on the autoharp.)
The next day, I brought my new-found discoveries into the office to show the principal. He was quite pleased until I sang the song and played the harp. (Play song again) All the color drained from his face and his eyes turned a dull gray. “Ad mortem,” he whispered. “Get out of my office.” Well, I could see he was going to be of little help today, I wonder why he was so grouchy? I showed a bunch of other teachers from the school, and they did the same thing. With terrified looks, they whispered “ad mortem” would not speak to me. (continue playing open strings softly on the harp for mood)
Lunch time came and I walked down to the sandwich shop on Main street. I sat next to a bunch of old men at the counter joking and laughing. As I was waiting for my order, I absentmindedly sang the song again. The laughter stopped and three of the four old men plunked down some money on the counter and hurriedly left. The one man remaining, the oldest of the lot, looked me in the eye and rasped “Leave the dead alone, son.” (single open strum on the autoharp) “What do you mean???” I said. The old man leaned close and said, “You’re new here, so I’ll fill you in.”
He proceeded to tell me about the old music teacher that had taught at the school since it opened in 1908. He had been the only music teacher at that school for ninety years. He never left. Not ever. Not even to go home. He just stayed up in his room every day with his deep sunken red bloodshot eyes, and the long brown coat he wore every day. Everyone was terrified of the man. Many a little brother and sister who showed up to music class without practicing their scales and modes were sent to the “practice room” – a closet from which none of them ever returned. His name – Abram Brown. (Creepy and quiet autoharp textures throughout)
The old man pulled a carefully folded piece of paper with charred edges from his coat pocket and placed it on the counter, and stared me straight in the eye and said softly, “Until the fire…ad mortem…until death.” Leaving the paper, he put on his hat and slowly shuffled out the door. (Show paper with part 2 – may be played at this time, or saved until a later lesson.)
Well, many weeks went by, and I mostly forgot about that odd little song and the creepy story. Until I found myself working late one night doing report cards on the night before Halloween. I had lost track of the time and was the only one left at school, so I turned off my lights, locked my door and headed home in the dark, when things got strange. First, the moon went from a milky white to a blood red. (slow strum of harp) And the stars, one by one, started to blink out. (single random string plucks) And as I approached the old burned school, I could hear a banging sound. (bang on the keys of the harp arrhythmically) The door had been unchained and was swinging on its hinges banging open and closed in the wind. So I went up the steps to have a look. (ascending random strings plucked) I pushed open the heavy door. (scratch pick along length of wound strings to make a scratchy sound) “Hello?” I called out, but no answer. (tap ring finger on the wooden body of the harp, decrescendo) As I walked into the old building I could smell the burned walls and I could see the iron staircase to the second floor that had twisted and scorched from the heat of the fire. I climbed that staircase, and at the top there was a long hallway of classroom doors. The first one on the right said only “Mr. Br… Mus…” because the fire had melted off the right side of the sign. As I opened that door (scratch strings slowly again) I could tell that this was where the fire started, for even the floors were burned black…except for one smooth rectangle in the corner where it appears a file cabinet stood. It was there that I could see a piece of paper lying on the floor. I picked it up, but could not read it in the red moonlight, so I put it in my shirt pocket. As I stood up, I saw another door labeled “Pract…Roo…” I walked over (soft brushing on the harp) and pushed that door open (harp scratch). But as soon as it opened I could feel ice cold air pouring out of the darkness. (louder brushing open strings, up and down) I looked into the void and saw two glowing red orbs. Like eyes. (Slightly louder) I reached my arm out to see if I could touch them and… (WHAM! Strum the open strings as loud as you can. This is where the children’s skeletons try to leap out of their skin through their mouth. Be warned)
Wait a moment for the startled class to come back to their senses…and continue…
It was then that I woke up. Lying in my bed. At home. Safe. (E7, Amaj…ahhhh…)
But I noticed a couple odd things: 1) I was still wearing my shoes, and they were covered in black soot. And 2) I was still in my work clothes, with an old piece of paper sticking out of my pocket. (show part three paper)
Sing song with the recorders and harp one last time.
This story will be requested many times. Each time, we add another element, two recorder parts, three recorder parts, mallet parts, sing the song, sing it in a round, movement. The key is knowing your kids and knowing how much to turn up or down the scare factor. One of the joys of being a music teacher is that we get to repeat and refine our lessons. Feel free to add your own story details and musical elements. The power of the story and the art of the telling will have you and your students coming back to it repeatedly and adding their own touches.
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