Piano Instruction Cannot Be at the Center of General Music Education

Version 2Recently I have read the proposition that music education centered on singing as a means for teaching music literacy is ineffective and obsolete. The author maintained that the methodologies of Kodaly and Orff were products of a time when nothing better was possible, and that now with the availability of technology, keyboard centered music education should replace singing as the primary means by which music reading. It should be noted that the author who advanced these views is the author and purveyor of a computer based system of teaching music reading to keyboard students. Nevertheless, I feel this offers the opportunity to critically consider the place the voice does and ought to assume in music education.

First, there is agreement among music educators that the best practice is to utilize the best of several methods of teaching music. Kodaly, Orff, and Dalcroze all emphasized different aspect of musicianship in developing their pedagogy, and so each offers valuable approaches to different aspects of developing musicianship and music literacy. Kodaly was dedicated to singing, Orff to rhythmic speech and movement, and Dalcroze to movement. The website for the Organization of American Kodaly Educators lists key points of the Kodaly method. Among them are:

  • We should first learn to love music as human sound and as an experience that enriches life.
  • The voice is the most natural instrument and one which every person possesses.
  • Learning through singing should precede instrumental training.
  • It is in the child’s best interest to understand the basics of reading music before beginning the difficult task of learning the technique of an instrument.
  • The development of all skill areas begins very early with simple tasks required of all the students. As knowledge grows, skills are developed further in a sequential manner.
  • In addition to music reading and writing which are begun at an early stage, the following skill areas are also developed: part-singing, part-hearing, improvisation, intonation, listening, memory, phrasing and understanding of form.
  • Presentation of materials, concepts, and development of skills can be done in a meaningful way only if the curriculum is well sequenced.

It is well established that music education can and should start at a very young age. Formal musical training should start around age 3 years. At that point in a child’s development, he or she has already begun informally using the voice to create sounds and approximate pitch, so it is pedagogically sound to take advantage of that development which has already begun by beginning to formally train the child’s pitch and rhythm perception and reproduction. Adding an instrument at this stage is unnatural and an intrusion into the natural progression of musical development. Using instruments at any stage, particularly keyboard instruments, must be done judiciously because playing a keyboard instrument from notated music makes it possible to bypass inner hearing and audiation, which in turn inhibits musical development. This is not to say that instruments are always an inferior task to singing, but it is to say that a child should be able to audiate from notation (hear in his or her imagination) the music he or she is about to play before being taught to play it.

It follows that using a keyboard, or any instrument, to teach music reading is bad practice. When reading music is reduced to matching a notated symbol with a key or combination of keys on the piano, it is no longer music reading that is being taught, but rather music decoding. A student should be taught to sing accurately from notation, and only then be allowed to apply music reading skill to the playing of a musical instrument. Some will object that not all children are able to sing accurately. There is research that supports this view, with findings that inaccurate singing is recite-1vf7btcmore likely to be a deficit in physically controlling the singing apparatus than in perception; however, early training using the Kodaly approach can overcome many of those deficits. In extreme cases, it can be valuable to use Suzuki violin training. In this case, the child is able to match pitch on the instrument as if it were his or her voice. Because the violin requires the player to make adjustments in pitch as a singer does, the impediment presented with keyboard instruments of a pitch being fixed to a key with no exertion by the player is removed.

Pitch accuracy is also in play for part singing and part hearing. While it is true that keyboard instruction can involve part hearing, the benefits are entirely perceptual; that is, students can learn to hear two simultaneous melodies and the resulting intervals and sonorities, and to play them from memory, but they cannot learn to adjust intonation or be as intimate with the enormities produced from an external instrument as they can with those produced by their own voice, and resonated in their own body. This is what the phrase, “music as human sound” refers to. There is no other way to make musical sounds that is as intimate as with the human voice.

Where improvisation is concerned, there is a tendency at times to use musical instruments as a convenient way to explore. A child is given a musical instrument and perhaps restricted to notes of the pentatonic scale, and told to play what ever they want. With the pentatonic scale, chord changes can be added and the child is insulated from producing much if any dissonance. While this method produces pleasing results instantly, it does little to teach students how to select the best fitting musical idea from several he or she may imagine and generate. If the pentatonic improvisation is done with the voice using a neutral syllable or solfege, the child must imagine a sound prior to producing it so that even the most novice effort requires some intent, whereas it is possible to randomly play notes from the pentatonic scale on a keyboard with no intention of playing anything in particular; however, once the student has learned to imagine and produce well intonated pitches from the pentatonic scale, they can then improvise on a keyboard with authority and specific intent.

All of this requires that all that a child is expected to do with his or her voice be within the constraints of their physical and intellectual development. This is where proper sequencing is so important. For example, having five year olds sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for a holiday concert is developmentally inappropriate. Children at that age will not learn to sing in tune or to be good audiators by singing melodies fraught with difficult intervals such as perfect fourths and even tritones. Songs in a variety of modes with a limited range and simple interval content are much better suited for young children. Gradually more difficult intervals and wider ranges can be added as children mature physically. At these early stages, what children play on instruments should not exceed what they can sing. Eventually, of course, the instrumental music will surpass the vocal music in complexity, but by then, music literacy and musicianship will be well established, making the instrumental music appropriate.

Performance opportunities need not and should not be limited to traditional ensembles such as band, choir and orchestra. Students should be given the opportunity to use their musical skills on a variety of musical styles, including those that are most popular with them. No matter how skilled the arranger, concert band is not the place to teach popular music performance, or to satisfy students’ desire to play their favorite songs. That said, no instrument should supplant voice centered music education, for it is only there that music literacy and musicianship can effectively be taught.


One thought on “Piano Instruction Cannot Be at the Center of General Music Education

  1. You’re right to emphasize singing as a focus for instruction, especially as opposed to focus on a machine as artificial as a keyboard. In a perfect world, we might focus on dancing, singing, simple percussion together as elements of early music education. Perhaps strings and simple flutes next: They’re voice-like in expressiveness and open the way to an intuitive grasp of musical sound, pitch and timbre, as the product of a vibrating body moved by the musician. This is the heart of music, body and soul, the source and subject of musical understanding.

    In a keyboard, the relation between the physical layout of the keys and the physical sounds produced by striking the keys is hidden in a black box, mediated by an arbitrary and complex technological design and conceptual framework. Of course there’s profound musical understanding embedded in the culture in that produces these keyboards. I suggest such understanding is not best cultivated, especially in the young, by treating “notes” as abstractions and “tones” as sounds produced by any available technological means.

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