Catholic Activity: Singing and Acting
Puppet Shows and Music at home help bring liturgical and catechetical messages home.
Together with dancing goes singing, about which we as a family know very little except how to sing. We have a modest collection of records (and a record player which now plays, now does not) and we can read music well enough to pick out tunes with one finger on the piano. There is the radio (pretty carefully supervised), and a little sheet music we have bought, some we have been given. Our friends who go to the Trapp Family Music Camp have sung for us the things they learned, and given us help with our attempt to interpret chant notation. And our school music supervisor, who teaches charming songs at school, gave us a lovely Huron Indian carol (which the neighborhood children are learning for the next carol sing). Then there are the books of Christmas carols and the songs in Laughing Meadows, the Grailville song book, and there are many fine American folk songs recorded on children's plastic records.
All these things satisfy the appetites of children for good songs, and vastly minimize the temptation to pick up the sophisticated and often very vulgar lyrics of popular music. Even in homes where radio and TV are carefully supervised, it is futile to think that children can be kept from hearing these tunes and memorizing the lyrics, but we can help them form judgments about singing in the same way as we can about dancing, by having them sing what is good in order to please God. Several years ago a popular recording star had youngsters all over the country singing with her, "Lover, it's immoral, but why quarrel with our bliss?" And we wonder why youth centers with their supervised dances to such music as this do not help as much as we had hoped to keep the barriers to moral danger intact.
A voice is a gift from God, and we can teach our children to listen not only to songs, but with reverent wonder to voices, and to judge if the voice and the song are reflecting any of the glory due to God Who gave the gift. Listening to fine recordings of great choral music can help them develop a sense of the anonymity which should mark group singing, where soloists are a distraction rather than an addition to all-together singing the praises of God. And we discover now and then that fine operatic recordings communicate to them audibly ideas they have struggled to put into visual form. Such is the Whistling Aria from Boito's Mephistopheles. After debating which of the pictured forms of the devil was probably most like him, hearing that eerie whistle dart about so diabolically left no doubt in their minds as to how he sounds and how fast he gets about.
When children sing all their songs for God and sing together often in our families, they are creating, just as surely as when they use their hands to draw or their bodies to dance, and our homes are warmer and more full of love for the harmonies we have created with our voices.
Acting should be part of a child's creative activity, too, because it is such a happy way to learn, to develop his observation of the nature of simple things and explain in a combination of all the arts the many things children want to explain. Little children love to act out spontaneously the things they see around them, like a chair, or a table, a clock, a cat; and little boys profit enormously from special occasions for indulging their animal spirits. John does a magnificent imitation of a goat chewing her cud — more goaty than even the goats. When this is his contribution to a session of "What am I," the screams and howls are lovely satisfaction for the goat in him and he behaves better in public for it — well, for a few days, anyway.
One year on Mardi Gras we had family charades to describe what fault each one would give up for Lent. This is a good way to make fun of yourself, admit your weakness, and face up seriously to the kind of mortification which would be most important for you. One child came in chewing on a thumb. Another slugged imaginary playmates with such abandon that we were moved to great compassion for the real playmates. Another carried a pillow and a dinner plate, symbols of the two daily chores most repugnant and most successfully avoided. One grown-up came in jawing silently and wagging a finger this way and that, and another grown-up said: "Oh! I was going to do that!" We were properly overcome to see our faults displayed publicly, and as not one act was greeted with any dissent, it was a penitent group who wagged their way to bed that night, well aware that Lent had come just in time.
Charades are never-ending fun for children; I have never heard them say they had too much of them. Puppets they love, too, and they are easy to make and use. Our easiest puppets have been hand puppets, made with stuffed socks, faces painted or embroidered, costumes designed from leftover scraps of material, yarn, beads, buttons — anything that is around. We have had them for liturgical feasts, such as Epiphany, the three elegant Magis with jeweled crowns, oriental hair-do's and robes, and for ordinary Punch and Judy shows, and one for Thumbelina made with a really live thumb. Our stage is an old threefold screen. We took each panel apart, slip-covered it with sprigged yellow calico, cut a square window in the middle panel for the stage and tack gray flounces with red ball fringe across the top and sides for a curtain.
Rehinged so that the wings fold back, it is easily stored away when not in use, and even portable when we want to lend it to other puppeteers. Friends of ours devised a stage with two deep flounces to tack across the top and middle section of a doorway, with a space open between for the performers.
Even tiny children can maneuver hand puppets, and the illusion is too complete that all they need do is wag the puppets to a folk song record or a Christmas carol in order to carry their part in a family entertainment. One of the reasons puppet shows are especially successful with small children is that they submerge their self-consciousness in the antics of a tiny little person they do not identify with themselves, and the laughter of the audience never seems to be directed at them — a puzzlement many small actors find it hard to understand when they appear in person. Songs like "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," and "I've Been Working on the Railroad," which the audience can sing with the puppet, are a great success. Graduating from these to reciting nursery rhymes and little poems provides plenty of material for small fry who are not able to memorize lines of plays or carry on dialogues between two puppets at once. Older children can write their own scripts and invent stage business which they are sure is hysterically funny; for these it is especially profitable to suggest tableaux and simple recitatives relating to the liturgical feasts.
Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961