KETCHIKAN, Alaska — The plain little music room next to the entryway of Tongass School of Arts and Sciences Thursday was aswirl with dancing students singing a song about the aurora borealis.
"If we are shifting colors of swirling light, will we be marching like robots?" music teacher Katie Gaggini asked her fourth-grade class.
The students shook their heads, intent on Gaggini while they waited for their turns to dance in the center of the group with her.
Four or five at a time joined Gaggini in the center of a circle made by the remaining students, raised their hands in the air and gyrated, waving their arms to mimic the undulations of the northern lights.
"Movement has been a big thing this year," Gaggini said.
Gaggini, in her second year teaching music at the school, said she has been striving to loosen up and show the children how to enjoy music and dancing in an instinctive, unselfconscious way.
"I'm your crazy music teacher and we're going to do crazy stuff in here," she said she tries to convey to her students.
Gaggini said she actually has had to teach herself to let go of her own self-consciousness, and told her students that she has had to work to become less so.
"Feeling the music and having fun" is the main focus of her lessons, she said.
"I want them to experiment with what their voices can do," she added, helping them to realize that "it's OK to be silly."
Gaggini is trained in the Orff Schulwerk method of music instruction, and, this past summer, completed her second level of training. That method, according to the organization's website at www.aosa.org, is "based on things children like to do: sing, chant rhymes, clap, dance, and keep a beat on anything near at hand."
The idea is to teach children the fundamentals of music the same way that language is taught — by immersion in the sounds and rhythms.
Sharpening the awareness of the subtle differences between rhythms in different types of music is one of Gaggini's goals for her students. For instance, when a half step is removed from a song, she calls their attention to the resulting dissonance, "and the need to resolve."
She said her students are realizing that they are capable of hearing the difference between a major key and a minor key as well.
She said she, as a 24-year-old graduate of music, couldn't improvise without written music in front of her, when she first began to train in the Orff method.
Then, as she practiced listening rather than only reading, as she was used to, she had a "wow" moment and realized, "This is not hard," she said.
She added that she does teach her older students to read music as well.
Gaggini has planned a Winter Coffee House concert for TSAS for Dec. 12 at the Saxman Tribal House.
She has written the music for several songs her classes will perform, she said; for some other pieces, she chose Orff songs from the program's book, and for others she chose poems that she matched with her original music.
Loren McCue, the school's art teacher, is planning backdrops the students will paint to match their songs, Gaggini said.
Gaggini said her program also ties into is Lane Johnson's physical education classes. Johnson also uses music and rhythm for different aspects of his program, Gaggini said.
Students at Tongass School spend a half hour, two times weekly in Gaggini's class. Students also are given the choice to take her special classes in the many "enrichment class" offerings at the school. She just finished a folk-dance series for third- through sixth-graders, Gaggini said.
She also said she is looking forward to taking a group of fifth- and sixth-graders to the Juneau Folk Festival this spring, with Tongass School teacher Matt Olsen.
"I love this school because they're really supportive," Gaggini said.