“Old Roger is Dead”

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Area: Music, Other Areas
Grade Level: Primary/Elementary School
Topics: art, Death, Music
Estimated Time Necessary: 60 minutes or more

Lesson Plan

To better understand and consider music's inherent philosophical qualities and experiences.
The premise of this lesson is to engage in musicking itself as a philosophical  practice. This is achieved through the performance of “Old Roger is Dead,” a British folk song and its accompanying ring play, which helps us to better understand and consider music’s inherent philosophical qualities and experiences. Specifically, it creates opportunities for performers to feel, consider, and think more deeply about the embodied nature of music alongside aspects of human life, such as death.

Whole Sequence Breakdown:

Welcome and warm-up (c. 5-10 minutes)

Brief initial discussion (10 minutes)

Learning of the song and ring play (20 minutes)

Whole-group share and discussion (20 minutes)

Possible extensions (for extra time, or additional lessons)

Welcome and Warm-up

  • Welcome students and share any updates, or follow-up on points from the last session.
  • Warm-up question: “If you had to pick one song to represent your life today, what would it be and why?”
    1. My example: “Between Song” by Meredith Monk. I really enjoy the way that this song makes me think, and the way that it musically represents the idea of betweenness.
  • Encourage students to give some more information about some of their choices, especially overlaps and differences in the types of songs they suggest to represent their lives.

Brief Initial Discussion

  • Begin a brief conversation about music and death: “Did you know that many cultures include music in their rituals and practices around death?”
    1. Leave open time for children to discuss and bring up examples. Feel free to follow up with some questions, like, “Can you tell me more about what that musical experience?”
  • Fill in gaps as necessary with some of the following information:
    1. For many cultures, death can be a celebration of one’s life, and therefore they play the deceased favorite music.
    2. There are some cultures where specific music is reserved only for when someone dies.
    3. Death is very common topic in music; there might be some reasons behind this other than just the fact that it’s something we all inevitably deal with.

Learning of the Song and Ring Play

  • Using this YouTube video of a second grade music class as a guide, as well as the notation and description of the ring play provided at the end of this lesson, teach the song and ring play to the children, preferably using a whole-part-whole sequence. Some brief suggestions would be to:
    1. Provide some guided listening instructions before playing the whole song once
      1. “Listen closely and see if you can tell me the story this song tells when I’m done!”
    2. Break the song down into parts. First have the students sing they the ending “hi-ho…” phrases with you; then move onto whole verses, with space between.
    3. Finally, sing the whole song together once before adding in ring play movements
      1. I encourage my students to remember that all parts require “acting like someone or something you’re not,” so to feel free for anyone to play any parts.
  • As you learn the song and ring play, and hopefully perform it all together (with children taking turns in various parts, possibly even with two performances happening in small groups simultaneously for more opportunities for different parts), prompt students to think about the narrative and characters, and to try to lean into that musically.
    1. You can also make some musical decisions together about how to perform certain parts in line with these things.

 Whole-Group Share and Discussion

  • Ask students to share their impressions of the experience of performing this song and ring play. Consider especially the role performing the music played in that.
  • Whereas many lessons can and should center student-questions, this is an especially good lesson for the teacher to direct some questions towards students. You can find examples of questions on the “Discussion Questions” tab in the lesson plan.
  • Follow the thread of the students interests and inputs! If there is one question or point they seem to have a lot to say about, press on. If/when there are lulls in the conversation, give some time, but afterwards, feel free to follow-up with questions or statements on the conversation that is happening (for example, “So I think what I’m hearing is…, is that correct? If that’s true, do you think that…” and etc.)
  • If possible, give the students time to perform the piece once more.

Possible Extensions 

  • Help students create and perform their own song about death.
    1. Follow-up with questions throughout about what choices they’re making and why, especially with regard to how it will feel to perform it, and how they want it to feel and why.
  • Explore some contrasting musics from other cultures that relate to death and death rituals (for example, an Appalachian murder ballad like “The Two Sisters.”)
  • Explore philosophizing about music and musical experiences by changing the topic/words/actions of this song and ring play.
    1. Afterwards, ask them how it affected their experience of the song.


Discussion Questions

  • Was the music and ring play what you expected when we began discussing music and death? Why or why not?
  • How did it feel to pretend to be dead?
  • Did the music help you understand what it was supposed to feel like?
  • How does this song represent life cycles? Is that reflected in how you performed it?
  • Why do you think there's so much music about death?
  • What were the differences in what you thought or felt when you were the chorus versus Old Roger?


This lesson plan was created for PLATO by: Jack Flesher, University of Washington.

This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

If you would like to change or adapt any of PLATO's work for public use, please feel free to contact us for permission at info@plato-philosophy.org.