Ever wonder where some of these childhood songs got their start? Ever hear of Stephen Foster? Did you know he is considered to be the composer of “Folksongs for the American People”?
If you answered “no” to most of those questions, don’t feel unlearned; until lately I was in the fog too (not sure if you find any comfort in that!). However, I recently received two biographies of famous composers from Zeezok Publishing, in exchange for my review. And, what fun I had learning about Stephen Foster, as well as composer Edward MacDowell! Forget the fact that these books are geared toward kids about 6-12 years old! Their simple yet engaging story lines had me reeled into the young lives of these genius men; both of whom showed musical brilliance from an especially young age.
Stephen Foster and his Little Dog Tray, by Opal Wheeler told a lively story of a child musical prodigy growing up in the early 1800’s. At age 2 “Stephy”, as he was called by his family, was imitating tunes he had heard on his sister’s guitar. He loved to hear the African American servant girl sing her soulful melodies and often went to church with her, taking to the spirituals sung by the folks there.
As he matured, Stephen foster acquired skill in playing many instruments; most simply by picking them up and playing around with them. Eventually, he would become one of the greatest American composers, with people all over the world recognizing and using his songs. From “Camptown Races,” to “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” we have all tried out a tune or two from this talented man. Have your children? I wouldn’t assume so; folksongs aren’t as common nowadays; we must intentionally expose children to them.
Wouldn’t it be great to know what shaped the soul of such a musician when he was a child? You can actually do better than just reading about Stephen Foster; you can also hear his music on the CD that comes with the set, as well as print out music and coloring pages that coincide with the the book. Furthermore, the study guide is helpful for asking pertinent questions, doing character study, and finding out a little more background info on the composer, as well as giving timelines of what was going on at this point in history. (Please note that author Opal Wheeler uses the language of the day, referring to African American’s as “colored” and “Negro”, as well as referring to the popular “Minstrel” shows in which white performers put black makeup on their faces and sang and spoke in an imitative manner. This is merely an honest recounting of the times and is not done in a derogatory way.)
The other book and study guide that I was given was that of Edward MacDowell and his Cabin in the Pines by Opal Wheeler and Sybil Deucher. Edward was another very talented child who lived from the mid 1800’s until just after the turn of the century. Your young musician may feel better about their 30-60 minutes of practice when they read that he was required to practice for two hours at just 8 or 9 years of age. This was especially tough on the young boy because he was a dreamer that would much rather invent his own songs than practice scales and someone else’s music all day long. He was also quite a talented artist and an avid reader that longed to visit the far off places he read about.
Eventually he would have the chance to visit many European countries, his music opening the door for him to study and to play; the beauty of the countries inspiring more music for him to compose. His talent would pave the way for him to be one of America’s most famous composers, writing songs, (which, I admit, are not as familiar as the folksongs from Foster) and eventually returning to teach music.
Both books were long enough to be chapter books, interesting enough to be read by slightly older students and sprinkled with illustrations by Mary Greenwalt to keep younger readers pulled in as well. Furthermore, there are musical scores from each composer placed throughout the book and available to print out from the CD-Rom. I will add that the music on the CD-rom is lacking in depth. It is merely a simple (keyboard?) recording of the tunes, without any words. However, if you wanted to get a deeper appreciation for a particular song, the internet would easily give such access.
Each book from Zeezok publishing is $12.95 and the study guides are currently free with the purchase of a biography (normally $4.95). If you buy two sets of biographies ($35.80), you will also get the companion CD for free (normally $7.95). They are pre-grouped so you will want to check out the website to see how they are paired together. Of course, there are many other titles in this Great Composers series: Mozart, Bach and Brahms to name a few! Look at all the great selections and learn more by clicking here.