Water Walk by John Cage

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Area: Art, Film, Language Arts and Literature, Music, Other Areas
Grade Level: High School & Beyond, Middle School
Topics: Aesthetics, ethics, Music
Estimated Time Necessary: 60 minutes

Lesson Plan

To explore the ways that John Cage’s performance of Water Walk can facilitate a conversation about the nature of music, with connections to musical aesthetics about beauty.
This lesson is designed primarily as a way to begin philosophizing about music itself, considering both ontology and epistemology with regards to the questions, “What is music (and what is not), and how do we know?”

Water Walk by John Cage

Whole Sequence Breakdown:

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

Brief introduction to John cage and Water Walk  (5 minutes)

Viewing to Water Walk (without giving away the “secret”) (5 minutes)

Small group discussions (c. 10-15 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: “What is one word that you think is beautiful, not for its meaning, but for the way it sounds, and why do you think it sounds beautiful?”
    1. My example: “crunchy”–I love the way it has a natural sense of rhythm/prosody. I also like the hard “cr” and “ch” sounds that give it a nice timbre and the way they feel when I say them.
  • Encourage students to give some more information about some of their choices, especially overlaps. What about the sounds do you like? How often do we listen for the sound and/or beauty of words as opposed to meaning?

Brief Introduction to Water Walk by John Cage

  • Check prior knowledge: “Can anyone tell me who John Cage was?”
  • Fill in gaps as necessary with the following information:
    1. John Cage was an American composer who was especially active in the mid-20th century
    2. He famously wrote a piece called 4’33”
    3. He was especially interested in philosophy, particularly East Asian philosophy, and it inspired a lot of his work.
  • Introduce song: “We’re going to watcha recording from 1960 of John Cage performing one of his compositions called Water Walk for a television show called ‘I’ve got a Secret.’ The premise of the show was that each person on the show had a secret that a panel of guests had to guess the secret of the people who came on the show. I’m not going to tell you what John Cage’s secret was right now, but if at the end of our session you’d like to guess I think that would be fun.”
  • Instruct students to watch and listen closely, noting any interesting points or questions that it inspires for them.

View to Water Walk

  • Play the video “Water Walk”
  • Note: it is probably best to view the video a second time when returning to whole-group discussion to allow students to refresh themselves and check their questions/interests before discussing.

Small Group Discussions

  • Break students up into small groups (3-4 students per group) to discuss their questions or points of interest. Ask each group to return with one questions or point of interest to propose to the whole group for discussion.
  • In small groups, students should take turn discussing their questions/points, before subsequently deciding as a group which question or point to propose.

 Whole-Group Share and Discussion

  • Ask students to share their questions/points from their small group discussions.  The teacher should supplement these as needed depending on the anticipated depth of discussion arising from the suggested questions and points (I.e., if it seems that the questions /points will be rather quickly discussed, the teacher should supplement with one or two questions from the discussion questions).
  • The students will vote as a whole group for 2 questions/points to discuss.
  • The group who proposed the first voted discussion question/point will begin discussion, which will continue popcorn style from there.
    1. If/when discussion of the initial topic quells, move on to the second voted topic.
  • Follow the thread of the students interests! 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.)
  • Inform or confirm for the group what John Cage’s secret was: that he was a professional composer and musician, in addition to being a professor of “experimental sound” (which the audience knew beforehand).

Possible Extensions 

  • Watch or perform 4’33” and compare and contrast the two pieces: is one more musical than the other? Why or why not? How might the intentions behind or meanings derived from the pieces be different? (for example, is one more about sound while one is about silence?)
  • Listen again to Water Walk and consider the role of feelings (if this hasn’t come up already): How does the music make you feel? Why do you think it makes you feel that way? What do those feelings “do”? Do they make us reflect critically or do they move us subconsciously? Would you listen to this on your own time or go to a live performance of it?
  • Explore musical adaptation: if we wanted to create our own version of this piece, what would we change and why? Could we do it over Zoom?


Discussion Questions

  • How does this piece make you feel?
  • Do you think this piece is music?
  • What is (or is not) music? How do we know what music is? What are the parameters for something to be considered music?
  • Who decided whether or not something is music? Is it the creator, the performer, or the audience? Or someone or something else?
  • What do you think the composer’s intentions were in creating this piece?
  • Is this piece beautiful? What makes it so, or not so?
  • Why do you think the audience responded as they did? How do you think the host felt about this piece?
  • What do you think John Cage’s secret was, and why?


This lesson plan was contributed by: Jack Flesher.