‘An American in Paris’ by George Gershwin – School Project

This resource, by composer and music educator Rachel Leach, is designed to help you and your class use George Gershwin’s 'An American in Paris' in the classroom, using themes and rhythms from the piece to create your own version. It could be 'A Brit in Birmingham', 'Year 4 in London' or perhaps even 'Gershwin Class in Tokyo'!

Roaring traffic, car horns, the footsteps of a traveller… George Gershwin’s An American in Paris paints a vivid picture of a bustling city 90 years ago. But what might it sound like today as imagined by a Key Stage 2 class?

We’ve outlined the background to the piece and how to listen it, and included a creative project that shows you how to create your own classroom compositions inspired by Gershwin. Please feel free to adapt the ideas below to suit the resources you have and the needs of your children.

These resources are © copyright Rachel Leach, London 2018 (see About the Author section at the bottom of the article for more information).

Resources needed:

  • A recording of Gershwin’s An American in Paris in full – there are many versions available online or on CD.
  • Classroom percussion instruments and/or any orchestral instruments your children might be learning (some of the task can easily be adapted to work with body percussion/voice)
  • Paper and pens/pencils for children for drawing activity, and large paper/pens to note down your class piece at the end of each session

George Gershwin (1898–1937) and An American in Paris

Born in Brooklyn in 1898 to immigrant parents, George Gershwin began learning piano at 12 years old, and developed such skill that he left school at 15 to work full time as a ‘song-plugger’ (a musician who demonstrated new songs to music publishers, in the hope that they would buy the songs and release them to the public, performed by a famous star). One of his earliest compositions, “Swanee,” became a massive hit in 1919 when recorded by famous singer Al Jolson, and Gershwin quickly became one of the most sought-after songwriters of the 1920s and 30s.

Throughout his life, however, Gershwin struggled with his position within the musical world and, despite enormous fame and wealth, he dreamed of being taken seriously as a ‘classical composer’. An American in Paris, from 1928, is one of his ‘serious’ pieces, and describes a journey through Paris.

Gershwin was so desperate to be seen as an orchestral composer that he travelled to Paris to take lessons with the great composer Maurice Ravel. The two men became friends, but Ravel stated that he could not teach Gershwin – he thought he was too accomplished already. Whilst in Paris, Gershwin was inspired to write a short piece as a ‘thank you note’ to his hosts, and so this piece was born.

Gershwin said: “My purpose is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city and listens to the various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere.”

The piece is a tone poem (which means it tells a story) and features a recurring ‘walking’ theme complete with the sound of French taxi cab horns. Towards the middle of the piece, a second famous theme emerges: this one is said to represent Gershwin’s feelings of homesickness and longing for his home in New York City.

This piece inspired a whole musical film, also called An American in Paris, which was made in 1951. It starred Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, and won 6 Oscars. The music for the rest of the film was also by Gershwin, and includes the famous song ‘I Got Rhythm’, with words written by his brother Ira. The climax of the film is a 17-minute ‘ballet’, which cost half a million dollars to shoot – that’s about 5 million dollars in today’s money!

Listening task

Listening to music in the classroom can be difficult, but giving children a task to do as they listen can improve their ability to focus.

1. Have a class discussion about Paris and look at some images of the city online. Ask your class to imagine they are wandering through its streets. What do they see?

2. Give out paper and pens and ask your children to draw a quick picture of a person walking in the middle of the page. Encourage them to make this sketch quite small and simple.

3. Play a recording of An American in Paris – just the opening 30 seconds or so. Explain that this jaunty tune represents walking. Play it again from the beginning, but this time keep the music playing. As you listen on, ask your class to draw the things their character on the page might see in Paris as they walk through the streets. Encourage them to use the music as inspiration – what it is describing? Stop the recording at about 6’30 when the music gets slow and sad.  Here are some examples, with thanks to Evie (age 10), Noah (age 8), Sam (age 6) and Talia (age 10).

4. Have a chat about the resulting artwork and make a quick list on the board of all the things that have been described and drawn.

5. Now, ask your children to turn their page over and draw a face looking sad in the middle of the sheet. Explain that sometimes when travelling away from home, it is possible to get homesick. The next section of music describes this feeling. Their walking character is missing his or her home in America. Encourage your children to draw the things this character might miss from home (or things from America) as you listen on from about 6’30–11’00.

6. Again, have a chat about their findings and make a list on the board.

7. Finally, listen to the rest of the piece (11’00 – end). It might be fun at this point to watch an orchestral performance (there are many versions online). Afterwards, have a discussion about this ending. Is the walking character happy or sad at the end? What happens to them?

Creative project: your class version of An American in Paris

This project has been designed to be created over four sessions, but you can adapt it to fit the time and resources you have available.

Session 1 – Walking

1. Stand your class in a circle and ask them to slowly march on the spot. Challenge them to start and stop together, and keep an even, steady pace. Sit your children down and ask them to join you in making the sound of footsteps by tapping their knees alternately – left: right: left: right.

Explain that this is an essential ingredient in the piece you are going to compose together.

2. Now, ask a volunteer to come forward and make the sound of footsteps using an unpitched percussion instrument such as a drum. Choose another volunteer to find a contrasting sound to alternate with the footsteps you already have, so they create a steady walking pattern, like this:

3. Next, ask the class to think of some words they might say as they walk along. They might say ‘walking along on a sunny day’ for example. Use these words to create a rhythm over the footstep beat.

This phrase can then be turned into a short tune on a xylophone, like this:

If you just use the white notes (or even just C, D, E, F, G) you will make music without any nasty, clashing sounds.

4. Try putting these two ideas together, the footsteps and the tune, like this:

5. Split your class into small groups and challenge each group to make a short ‘walking’ piece featuring footsteps and a jaunty tune derived from a sentence. Each group will need to have the footsteps pattern and a short tune on top, so they will need a range of different instruments, both pitched (e.g. xylophone, glockenspiel, chime bars) and unpitched (e.g. drum, shaker, guiro, woodblock, tambourine).

6. Bring the class back together and hear each group one by one. Encourage the rest of the class to give some feedback on each piece – are the footsteps neat? Does the tune fit on top? Has everyone got a role within the piece and can everyone be heard?

Remember to write down what you’ve done for next time! You might like to do this on flipchart paper so it’s nice and big, and easy for groups to read when you revisit this material later.

Session 2 – The sounds of your city/environment

1. Take your class on a walk near school or just around the playground. Ask them to be quiet as they walk and really listen to the sounds around them – the sounds of their city or environment.

2. Stop at a safe place where there is lots to listen to and ask your children to be completely quiet and to make a mental list of all the sounds they hear during one minute.

3. Back in the classroom, write on the board all of the different sounds your children heard in a long list. Then add a column to the right and add words describing the sounds – were they long? short? high? low? loud? quiet? rustling?

4. Divide back into your smaller groups and ask each group to choose a different sound from the board. Make sure that the groups have chosen contrasting sounds.

5. Challenge each group find a way to represent their chosen sound using either voices, classroom percussion instruments or any other instruments/resources you might have. Encourage them to think carefully about what sort of instrumental/vocal sound is best but if using instruments, they must use the same ones as in the last session.

6. Ask each group to perform their ‘city-sound’ to the rest of the class and explain that they have created a musical motif, just as George Gershwin used the sounds of French taxi cabs as a musical motif in his piece.

7. End the session by layering up these sounds to make a quick soundscape (this is just for fun – you probably won’t revisit the structure of the soundscape again). Point at each group when you want them to come in, and indicate with your hands when you want them to stop. When the groups are confident at watching you as the conductor, you can nominate individual children to have a go at conducting this.

Again, write down what you have done!

Session 3 – A musical walk around your city

1. Begin by reminding your class of everything they have explored so far (the walking music and the city sounds).

2. Split back into groups and give each group about 5 minutes to put their two pieces back together, making sure that everyone plays the same instrument as in the last lesson.

3. Now, challenge each group to join their ideas together so that they have one piece featuring all three ingredients as follows:

a. The footsteps
b. The walking tune
c. Their city sound

4. Hear each group one by one and give some feedback. Make sure that everyone knows what they are doing, and that their music is the same every time.

5. Spend the rest of the session writing down the order of events in each piece, ready for your final session.

Session 4 – Homesick

1. Remind your class of the second part of Gershwin’s piece. In this section, the music turns sad as Gershwin expresses his feelings of homesickness for America.

2. Get out the same instruments you have been using so far in this project and make sure children are sitting in their groups.

3. Get all children standing up and watching you, then teach them to perform this pattern using claps and knee taps:

4. Then, challenge those with unpitched instruments to play it. You could perhaps split it between two different sounds – ‘knees’ could become a drum and ‘clap’ could be a shaker, for example.

5. Encourage the players of pitched instruments to add a ‘moaning’ sound on top like this:

Decide how many times to play these patterns, and name this piece your ‘Homesick Chorus.’

6. Now, ask each group to spend about 5 minutes putting their walking/city sounds piece back together and hear each group one by one.

7. Finally, challenge your children to make one big piece out of everything they have made so far: the group walking pieces, the Homesick Chorus, and the city sounds. Encourage them to think about the story of a person walking along in a foreign city as they create their final structure. Maybe they can they use the ‘Homesick Chorus’ to help move between groups or, like Gershwin, have one idea that keeps returning.

8. Finish your exploration of Gershwin’s An American in Paris with a performance of your new piece to an invited audience. Don’t forget to share any recordings with us at the LPO – we would love to hear your work! Details of how to share your work can be found below.

Taking it further:

  • Now you have walking music, you can make your character travel anywhere, and you can create music to describe all the places your character travels to.
  • Use Gershwin’s piece as the basis for a story. Perhaps your walking character could write a letter home describing all the things they see.
  • Turn the story of the American in Paris into a play and use your music as a soundtrack.

Sharing your work

We would love to see or hear your performances and compositions for this project.  If you would like us to share any of your work, you can send in any audio, images or video to [email protected] (please send any large files via wetransfer or other filesharing service rather than direct email).

About the author

Rachel Leach is one of the UK’s leading composers and animateurs. For 20 years she has been devising and leading education projects with the UK’s top orchestras and opera companies delivering creative projects to a huge range of people across London, the UK and the world. She regularly presents BrightSparks schools concerts for the LPO and is the creative mentor on our flagship KS2 project: Creative Classrooms.

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