"Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature can not do without." ~Confucius

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Making Spooky Stories with "Danse Macabre"

When I was a new teacher, a dear friend, Heather Henriques generously shared some of her teaching materials with me to help get me started, and I specifically remember this one because all the kids enjoyed it every time we brought it out around this time of year. It confirmed to me that children are able to comprehend classical music and have fun with it.
Thanks, Heather (if you read this!), for your help in lending me materials those first few years! :-)

This is a super-simplified version of the activity, since I do not have 2nd graders, but a 4 year old and a newly-turned 3 year old.

 What is"Danse Macabre", you may ask (click on the title to listen!)?
Danse Macabre  is a piece of music by the French composer Camille Saint-Saens. The piece is a "symphonic poem" meaning that it's a musical description of a literary work.

The basic story behind the poem is Death coming out at midnight to awaken his other spooky friends. He tunes up his fiddle and starts into a waltz as they all join him. They dance, run and leap throughout the night, but then when the rooster crows that morning has come, Death plays a mournful tune as they all depart.

So, we made it a little more munchkin-friendly by picking our own spooky characters and incorporating some of the story, but letting them fill in the rest.
This is a great way to help children understand music, by helping them describe it in actions and story.

The boys picked out three characters - a ghost (a Boo), a bat (Pat) and a jack-o-lantern (Peter).
I found some clip art, resized and printed them out. Then we grabbed some popsicle sticks to attach the pictures to.

As the boys were coloring, I played the piece and described our simple story.

"It's midnight!" (you can hear in the orchestra twelve tones played by the harp to signify the clock striking 12:00).
"Out comes Peter the Pumpkin.... He plays his violin and wakes up his friends to come out and play!"
(Then you can hear two distinct musical melodies or themes. We used one for the ghost theme and one for the bat theme.)
"Out comes Boo the Ghost! He's so excited to see Peter the Pumpkin. They dance and jump and sing."
"Now, it's Pat the Bat flying in for the fun; and he is excited to see his two friends."

... Throughout the song, we incorporated lots of things the friends did together. Some were my ideas, some were K's.  Things like... playing hide and seek, jumping, racing, flying, dancing, falling, climbing, playing, meeting new friends, etc....  And we tried to listen closely for  the first melody which was Boo the Ghost's theme, and the second melody which was Pat the Bat's theme (in the second picture, you can see K - who, yes, is dressed up as a pirate - pausing to listen for what the music sounds like, so we know what type of activity the friends are doing. Love it!).

K got into it, although this was the first time we'd done something like this, other than Peter and the Wolf.
But, most of the time, J just listened and watched us..... I think he'll get into it more when he's a little older. :-)

After we finished Danse Macabre, K wanted to do it again to a different piece of music. So, we tried it to Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King." More creativity!

You certainly don't need to use Halloween characters - grab some other animals who are awake at night and make up a story of their nighttime activities (like owls, bats, and cats)!

So, give it a try and let your child create and imagine to music! You'll be surprised how much fun it is. :-)

Below is the link again: (This is a YouTube link - remember to be aware of images on these types of sites. I wish they were clean and safe, but sometimes, they are not; other times, it's fine. Just fyi!)

 "Danse Macabre"


  1. Love it! So glad you remembered. . .and can use it with your own sweet guys!

  2. This is great, Marji! Thanks for the idea. I love this one and your Halloween clapping game as well! - Lauren Shockey