“The Bremen Town Musicians” is one of my personal favorites among the tales of the Brothers Grimm. In this story, four old farm animals, in some versions having heard that their masters were going to have them — umm… put to sleep, decide to go to Bremen to apply for posts as Town Musicians. Along the way, they go up to a house to earn their dinners with a little impromptu performance. Unbeknownst to them, the house is at that moment being robbed. Their noise scares off the robbers, and they decide to move in and keep house there themselves.
There are several good picture book versions of this story. My favorite is the one illustrated by Hans Fischer, out of print but currently available at Amazon. Lisbeth Zwerger came out with one in 2007, and it has lovely, dreamy pictures. Eric Blair has a bright, cheerful version.
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There are also plenty of versions online:
- DLTK has a very simple version of the story, along with printables and crafts.
- Kiddoons has an interactive read-and-listen version of the story, and a game. The game involves listening to the four musicians singing in a variety of different orders and repeating the pattern. The pattern gets longer each time, beginning with only two sounds and going on up (I got to Round 8 before the noises got to me). While I think you will want headphones for this game, it is excellent for patterning and memory and concentration training.
- Mari Ness has an essay older students should enjoy, in which the story is examined from the point of view of displacement and poverty.
Once the story has been read and enjoyed, it is time to try some retelling activities:
- A Reader’s Theater script for the story.
- A coloring page
- A character map for the donkey makes a good starting point for discussions either of characterization in literature or of character issues.
- The four animals are too old to do their jobs. Some retellings of the story say that their masters are going to get rid of them, and some do not, but there is always a suggestion that they are too old to do their jobs. There is a difference between working animals and those who don’t have jobs. Ask your class what jobs the animals in their homes have, or what jobs animals have in the community. Discuss how this has changed over time. Now could be a good time to talk about working animals like seeing-eye dogs. It’s important not to interact with guide dogs while they’re working. Petting a guide dog or trying to call to these dogs when they’re working can distract them and even put the dog and owner in danger.
- At the time when this story was first written down, being too old to work was a problem for humans as well as donkeys and cats. How are old people supported in your community? The Social Security Administration has a lesson on Social Security that taught us some things.
- Here is a lesson plan (in a PDF file) on stereotypes about the elderly — and how similar they can be to stereotypes about teens.
- Some writers say that “The Bremen Town Musicians” is a story about workers banding together to help one another and overcoming their troubles by doing so. This story could make an interesting lead-in to your study of unions and labor movements with older students.
- The animals planned to be Town Musicians. Is this a job currently available in your town? Probably not, although your city may help support your symphony orchestra. But just about all towns have some jobs. What jobs does your city pay for? Ours has Urban Foresters, which sounds almost as cool as Town Musicians.
- Bremen is a real city in Germany. It is very unusual for a fairy tale to have such a specific location. Challenge students to plan an imaginary class visit to Bremen.
- This is a good story to use for 4 fact families.
- The musicians’ famous pyramid only works because each animal is smaller than the one beneath it. Have the students draw pictures of other animal pyramids, based on the actual comparative sizes of the animals. Emphasize that the animals must go from the biggest on the bottom to the smallest on the top. If the students aren’t sure how big various animals are, encourage them to look it up. This could make a good center, after the lesson is finished. Put names and pictures of animals of all different sizes on index cards, have students add the typical height or weight of the animal to the back of the card, and put all the cards in a shoe box or pocket folder to use for sequencing.
- The image of the stacked up animals might be more famous than the story itself. Check out TripAdvisor’s gallery of photos of the famous statue of the musicians which is in Bremen. Encourage students to draw their own version of the iconic image.
- Fold a piece of construction paper in half, with the fold at the top. Letting the fold be the back of the animal, draw a donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster. Cut them out. You should have animals that can stand up. Use the animals to retell the story, and then stack them up one on top of the other, using tape or glue to keep them in order.
- The animals are sad and worried as they tell their stories. Once they get together, they are excited and happy, looking forward to their new adventures. The robbers are frightened. The musicians are proud of themselves. In the end, they are contented. This makes a fine story for practicing drawing facial expressions. Here’s a neat lesson on drawing emotions that could easily be adapted to this story.
- Depending on the version of the story you read, the animals may all be singers, or they may plan to play specific instruments, like the lute and the kettle drum, or they may just have a general plan to be musicians. Study musical instruments and singing along with this story — it’s a natural extension. Try a virtual tour of the National Music Museum. The British Museum has an impressive collection of world instruments.