I was asked to do a Year 1 assembly in a local infants school on the topic of sound:
Invite everyone to imagine that they are at a classical music concert. Spotlighted at the centre of the stage is a grand piano. The programme includes a new work by a composer named John Cage. It is in three movements and has the title 4’33’’. The audience applaud as the pianist enters. He places some empty sheets of music on the piano. After a pause, the pianist then opens the keyboard lid and raises his right hand as if preparing to play. For thirty seconds nothing can be heard except for the wind in the trees outside the hall. The pianist closes the lid for few moments, and then opens it for a further period. He is again poised to play, but makes no sound. Rain can be heard beating on the roof. Again the lid is closed and opened. People around you are now whispering to one another: ‘What’s going on?’ Some angrily walk out. After four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the lid is opened. The performance is over.
Explain that you have just described the first performance of John Cage’s work 4’33’’ in New York during 1952. It became both famous and controversial. Sometimes the work is referred to as a silent piece. However, what you actually hear if you listen to 4’33’’ are random sounds.
Interviewed in later life, John Cage observed: ‘People expect listening to be more than listening . . . I love sounds just as they are.’
Reflect that, while people differ in their response to 4’33’’, the composition invites everyone to listen to the music of their environment, and to discover the sound of silence.
Ask the children to be very still and quiet; ask them to listen. What sounds can they hear? After a short time, ask them to open their eyes and invite volunteers to tell you what they heard.
Ask the children to suggest any ‘noise’ words, such as bang, whisper, sizzle, roar, rustle, shout, sing, etc. Repeat each word as it is suggested, with everyone joining in if appropriate.
What are their favourite sounds? (You may have to give an example of your ‘favourite’ sound to start them off.) As they tell you, you may like to make a note of some of the favourite sounds to use in a prayer later.
Ask if they have ever heard their mum/dad/carer/teacher say to them, ‘You never listen to a word I say!’
Ask the question: Why is it important to listen? Possible answers should include:
- To learn (e.g. at school)
- For safety reasons (e.g. the Green Cross Code – listening for traffic as well as looking right and left)
- To enjoy music
Can the children suggest other reasons as well?
Do any of the children like listening to stories? Explain that Jesus told a lot of stories to teach people about God. When he said about his stories, ‘If you have ears, then listen!’ he meant that if you really listen you can get a lot more out of the story.
Ask the children to be still and quiet again. This time they are going to use the silence to think. They are going to listen to their own thoughts. Ask them to think about all the wonderful noises in the world, the noises that they enjoy.
As you bring the time of reflection to an end tell the children that people who believe in God use a time of quiet thinking to talk to God and to listen to what God might be saying to them.
Finish with a ‘thank you’ prayer, possibly using some of the children’s suggestions from earlier in the assembly. Begin with the phrase ‘For the sound of…’ and add a few of the children’s suggestions, and end with ‘Thank you, God. Amen.’
If there are lots of suggestions, you could say the prayer in several verses, each beginning with the phrase ‘For the sound of…’ and ending with ‘Thank you, God’ as a response for the children to join in with. End the final verse with ‘Amen’ so that the children know that the prayer has finished.