As I taught my pre-kindergarten three year olds today, several of them were really good teacher’s helpers. I don’t mean they shared a snack, or helped a friend put on a jacket, I mean they helped me teach them their music class. Children will tell you a lot about how to teach them if you’re observant enough to notice. For example, at one point during the class, I told the class to walk to the beat of the music I would play. The music was the first movement of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Most of the children walked around the room, most of them doing very well to follow the beat. As I watched, I noticed two children were noticeably not stepping in time. One looked like he was running, and the other was hesitating, not knowing quite what to do. I was just about to admonish the first child for running when I noticed he wasn’t trying to run, he was stepping in perfect time to the eighth notes he was hearing. His beat was not the tactus quarter note, but the divided eighth note beat. I complimented him on his beat, and left him alone. No one else was as precise as he was. The other child wasn’t getting any better, so I said “walk to the beat, like this.” I began to walk beside him taking is hand, but his feet still didn’t move. Earlier in the class, we had moved expressively by moving our arms but not walking around the room. Perhaps this child remembered that. In a moment of brilliance, he began moving his arm to the beat, not his feet. His arm moved in perfect time to the quarter note tactus. Then, once his arm was going, he began to walk in time with his arm. As long as he kept is arm moving, his steps were in perfect time. No one can walk to a beat before they feel the beat in their body. This child couldn’t feel the beat by walking alone, but sure could feel it by moving his arm. After that, his whole body new what to do.
Later in the day, I had a class of third graders. These children were trying to do a body percussion activity designed to teach them to recognize eighth, quarter and notes longer than a beat in a familiar piece. The music was the first theme in Tchaikovsky’s “Marche Slav.” They were to stomp on notes longer than a beat, clap on notes equal to the beat, and patsch on notes shorter than the beat. I had already taught the same activity to another third grade class earlier in the week, and they succeeded at it quickly, but not so with this class. It is one of the essentials of teaching that the same method rarely works exactly the same with all all children, so I was not surprised when this group of third graders had more difficulty. I thought there might be fewer auditory learners and more visual learners in this class, so I wrote the rhythm of the theme on the board, and taught them which motions went with which durations. I told them that all of the notes that were not colored in (half, dotted-half, and whole notes) were to be a stamp. Notes colored in (quarter notes) were to be a clap, and notes colored in that were connected (pairs of eighth notes) were to be patched. I presented it this way because although they frequently read rhythms, we use rhythm syllables, and I had not reviewed the note names lately. Almost immediately over half of those children who had been struggling were able to correctly perform the rhythm with the correct body percussion after three tries. Switching to a notation based presentation was better suited to the learning styles of those students. When students are struggling, often they are telling you something very important; “I’ve tried but I can’t get it this way. Is there another way I can do this?” Those challenges and the need to find another way are, for me, what makes teaching exciting and fresh every day.