If educators really want to know how students learn best, they should observe 3- and 4-year-old children. Over the last several weeks, one of the activities my 4-year-old class did was to improvise melodies for the rhyme, “Jack Be Nimble.” The children were asked to sing the words, using their singing voice. Naturally, some children sang the first time, while others needed several trials to sing rather than speak. Some sing right out, while others quietly sing almost just to themselves. Over several weeks, though , all were able to sing the rhyme, and deepen their understanding of the difference between singing and speaking. I mention all of this by way of providing background.
Today, one of the 4-year-old classes was given boom whackers. After discussing that the longer ones make deeper sounds, and the shorter ones make higher sounds, I told the children that I would play a drum beat, and they could play their boom whackers however they thought it would sound good. We all began to play. The children were having a great time, and the music they made conformed to the beat I was playing. After a minute or so, something wonderful happened. One child started singing “Jack Be Nimble” over all of the instruments. The children immediately changed what they were playing in response to what was being sung. Others then joined in and sang in their own way. Children dropped out or joined singing as they chose. This continued until one of them said “that’s enough of that song,” and they all agreed to stop.
Here’s what I observe form this marvelous session. First, the improvisation had a lasting effect on the children. They were, through their timid and tentative trials over the last weeks, assimilating musical patterns that they could use with that poem. Second, they intuitively connected a new improvisation activity with a familiar one, combining them into one. The new experience of improvising without words and with boom whackers was combined with improvising with words and without instruments. I never suggested that they sing while playing the boom whackers, and in another class, no one thought of doing so. Third, the familiar improvising activity, which was singing provided words, led one child to sing with different words while playing her instrument. In a lovely head voice, she sang a beautiful melody that captured her friends attention, as they kept playing but listened attentively to her improvised singing. Children will go places that you as the teacher will not think of directing them, especially when it is in the context of play. That leads to the fourth observation. Because children are naturally curious, and enjoy playing, they will learn a great deal from playing with things we give them to play with and with which they can do things we want them to learn how to do. If we want them to learn how to play musical instruments, we can give them musical instruments that are age appropriate, like boom whackers, and let them explore and play. Remember though, that they need some basis for their creative thought and play. Having material to work with, which in this case was the improvisation on “Jack Be Nimble” gives them a starting point; a home base, if you will, from which they can venture to explore other possibilities, and to which they can return when they need to ground what they are doing in something familiar or structured.
What does this kind of play look like in people that are grown up, instead of four years old? Yesterday, I played keyboard on the worship team at my church. Friday, at the end of the rehearsal, the leader told me that for the offertory we would improvise something. He would play drums, the bassist would play, and I should improvise over bass and drums. That was it. Sunday morning came, the offertory was taken, and while it was, we jammed. It was a funky, fun piece, and we could see the ushers taking the offering were moving about with an unusual bounce in their step. After the service, many people complimented us on how fun the offertory was. We had fun playing, and the worshippers had fun connecting to what we were doing.. There is a joy in expert spontaneity that cannot be matched by performing from a score. We all need more of that. Let’s all play and let play with our students.