Punchinello – Improvising Movement
“Punchinello, you funny fellow!” This is a song that I do each year with my first graders because it’s so much fun and has some awesome curricular connections. In my district, one of our first quarter curriculum goals says that first grade students are supposed to learn a song to sing with a I chord accompaniment pattern. The Punchinello/Punchinella song is great because it repeats over and over with a little variation and uses a I chord accompaniment. The song also expands a student’s vocal range while sitting mostly in the Do-La range. The repetitions of the musical patterns allow them to learn and internalize the music quickly and then gives them a platform to work from. So many great connections![su_spacer]
Teaching the Song – The Process
I preface the song with a story like this: “There once was a really funny clown. He loved to make people laugh and so he told jokes, he made funny faces, he did cool tricks. Even his name was funny. It was ‘Punchinello.’ Can you say that? Punchinello (for my ELL kids they need this repetition now because they’re going to have to sing it in a second)… but most of all, he loved to dance. He danced in so many funny ways that people laughed and then they tried the dance moves too. They loved to try Punchinello’s funny dances!” This song really is about the Punch and Judy character Punchinello and could be a fun culture connection if you did it with older grades. For first grade, I cool it with that deeper stuff and stick to the clown story.
Then we learn the song. We start with the first phrase first, “What can you do Punchinello, funny fellow?” and we talk about how everyone is asking Punchinello to show off his funny dance moves because they want to try to dance like him. We repeat the phrase, singing until they’re comfortable (this is the hardest part to teach and takes the longest, the rest of the song is a variation of this phrase). Then we move on to “we can do it too…” and sing through that until we’re comfortable. I stop teaching music there and start teaching the movement.
Watch Punchinello Dance
First, get students into a circle. Here’s a quick way that I have students make circles: with first grade I say “everyone stand up and make a class circle holding hands.” For some reason the words “class circle” really help. Once we’re in the circle and holding hands I tell them to “drop hands” and we’re there. This is the quickest way I’ve found to make circles. (Please tell me your tricks about making circles–I’m always looking for new ideas with this sort of thing!)
After we’ve sung through the song once in this circle formation I say: “Well now I get to be Punchinello and I’m going to do a funny dance while you sing.” So we do the first phrase and they sing and I do something easy and silly. I make a quick repeated nonlocomotor action that they could emulate: the sprinkler, the Charleston, jumping, shaking my hips, whatever. When we move on to the words “We can do it too…” they get to do my dance move as they sing. We do this pattern several times of I show a motion while they sing and then we all do the action while they sing. I want them to see that they can do anything for a dance move and that the action needs only be a short and easily repeated dance move. It shouldn’t be long or complicated and I demonstrate that long dance moves are hard for anyone to remember. I make a short example saying, “I could do this… or this… or this… see, it doesn’t have to be long or crazy.” We try this out a few times with me showing actions on “what can you do” and them repeating on “we can do it too!”
Then it gets really fun. I tell students that there’s one more part to the song. A few more words that they need to know. “Choose one of us, Punchinello, funny fellow…” We learn and sing these new words. And then it’s THEIR turn to be the dance leaders. I choose one kid to kick us off and as we sing that kiddo gets to show off their silly dance move. We match their funny dance move and I make sure to really congratulate them and tell them how great their chosen dance move was.
The first few times through I will stand on the perimeter of the circle and dance the actions with students and sing and dance just like they do. Then once we’re comfortable enough with the process I move to the piano and play while they sing. I play the I chord (appeasing my district curriculum and providing a good framework for the song) and watch as students do the dance. It’s nice to be able to sit down and let them do this song on their own because my first graders are doing something really well and I don’t even have to be involved to correct or guide. Hooray for autonomy!
The song is easy and could literally go on without ending. Kids love it and I think that I get tired of boom-chucking a I chord long before they get tired of singing and dancing the actions. With some classes I have to remind them to sing and tell them that they can’t JUST do the dance. We’ll stop the dance if they stop singing.
Dance Details – Everyone Gets a Chance
Asking students to stand in front of their peers and lead/improvise a dance move can be scary for them. Some kiddos will be jumping out of their skin to be in the Punchinello spot and make other kids do their funny dance. Other students (especially primary/ELL students) will not want to lead the dance and be the literal center of attention. Here’s what I do for those timid kids so that they don’t feel a huge pressure to jump in the middle of the circle. The first few times we sing this song I make it easy on kids. When we get to “Choose one of us” verse I let kids raise their hands if they want to be Punchinello and make a funny dance. I don’t pressure kids who don’t want to try it and I don’t require that everyone lead. My thought is that some students need time to adjust to the song and have fun trying out the funny stuff that other kids come up with. If students can get comfortable with the idea of silly dancing, they might be more willing to lead the dance on another day.
After trying this song on multiple days (or maybe a few weeks later we will come back to this song) I push kids a little further out of their comfort zone and start to ask all kids to improvise the dance. I add a new action. On the verse “choose one of us,” the former Punchinello skips around the circle and on the last word of the phrase “Choose one of us, Punchinello funny YOU!” they stop. Whoever they stop on gets to be the new Punchinello.
Some kids will not like this. They don’t want to go into the circle and be the center of attention and are scared that they won’t come up with something to do. So, I show them some easy things to do. I show them they can wave their hands, shake their hips, tap their toes, or shake their head. I show them that “you don’t have to do something big or crazy, just something fun that everyone can do.” This usually dispels the fears of most kids, but if not I tell them that “if you can’t think of anything else to do, just hop! Everyone can hop and it’s fun and easy.”
So, all in all a great little song with a I chord accompaniment and it gives students the chance to move and improvise dance movements. I love how easy it is to learn and sing and how it gets kids to move and improvise. Doing this song early in the year makes movement games and improvising so much easier down the line.