Eclectic Application of Major Music Education Methods

Version 2Elsewhere in this blog I have written about the strengths and weaknesses of Kodaly, Orff, and Gordon approaches to music education. Those articles assumed that it is beneficial to grab strengths from each approach, mixing and matching them into a teaching method that is better than strictly adhering to any one of them. In this post, I will discuss in more practical terms how those methods, and the practices of Dalcroze also, can be combined in a complementary fashion.

Regardless of the method used, music education involves teaching students to sing, play instruments, move and dance to music, create music, perceive, understand and respond to music, and connect music to the other arts, other disciplines, and to their daily lives. These are included in the national standards under the artistic processes of create, perform, respond, and connect. As we examine the major methods, it is helpful to determine how each approach goes about teaching each of these. Of them, connecting is arguably the least often addressed. Connecting sometimes gets lost in preparing performances for presentation or teaching concepts through listening activities. A careful look reveals that both Kodaly and Orff valued the connecting piece.

Kodaly insisted on using folk song literature from the children’s own culture as the basis for developing musicianship. This immediately brought cultural and structural familiarity with the music, and fostered connections with the everyday musical experiences of children who heard and sang this literature often. Beginning tonal training with the descending minor third is well known among Kodaly teachers, yet it was not so much that there was something intrinsically preferable about that interval, but that it was one that the children were most often exposed to and most often were



heard singing intuitively. Those who have debated over the supremacy of the descending minor third have pointed out that it is not so prevalent in musical cultures that are not primarily pentatonic based. American folk literature, for example, has many more instances of ascending major thirds than descending minor thirds, and for that matter has many more instances of the sub dominant which is completely absent form pentatonic songs. That is why successful American application of the Kodaly approach such as Feierabend’s First Steps in Music and Conversational Solfege early on use “do re mi” songs which of course feature that ascending major third.

Orff’s approach to rhythm makes fundamental connections to language. Orff took the natural rhythm of words, and transposed them into musical patterns to teach with the words. Learning poems, rhythms and chants that feature targeted rhythm patterns and meters is a natural way for children to progress musically. Those targeted patterns and meters can then later be read and notated using standard music notation. Movement,



dance and speech are all melded together as the way children experience music, develop creativity, and become artistically literate. As with intervals, it is best to use rhymes, chants and poems that are products of the child’s own culture, so that the patterns are familiar. Translations of texts from other countries and cultures can at times be awkward, creating rhythmic dissonance that makes learning more difficult. Again, grounding music education in culturally familiar contexts is the key.

The Dalcroze approach has not gained the popularity in the United States that those of Orff and Kodaly have. This may be due to the emphasis on the dance and movement aspects of the approach in a setting where singing and playing of instruments is more highly valued, or it may be that when it comes to singing, Dalcroze championed the “fixed do” type of solfege which has largely been ignored in the United States especially by Kodaly specialists who maintain a strong preference, for the “moveable do” system. Even so, Dalcroze’s emphasis on movement and dance can easily be found in Orff’s method because Orff also regarded movement as crucial to music learning and understanding. Orff practitioners use of body percussion and the playing of barred instruments with movements that transfer over from body percussion are rooted in Dalcroze principles. Dalcroze Eurythmics were built on the belief that movement gave meaning and depth to ear training and improvisation experiences. Those movements are put in motion in the form of playing percussion instruments in the Orff method.

The eclectic practitioner will seek out the cultural and musical context in which he or she teachers, and choose those portions of each method that are the best matches. My own teaching has developed over the years into a blend of elements from all of the methods I have discussed so far. After Kodaly, I regard the singing voice as the primary instrument through which music education takes place. After Dalcroze, I regard the body as the primary means through which rhythm and meter is understood, and freely have my students use movement, and prefer the fixed do system of solfege. As I have discussed elsewhere, I have found my students develop better pitch with fixed do, and it is helpful in transferring notation to instruments, substituting solfege syllables for note names. After Orff, I enjoy creating opportunities for children to improvise and explore their own creativity, especially through vocal improvisation from age 4 and upwards, and of experiencing movement to music through the movements used to play barred instruments. Movement, singing and playing instruments are all useful in teaching each of the musical elements, which I regard as rhythm, beat, meter, pitch, phrasing and timbre. The use of movement in particular also is useful in teaching musical expression, as the body naturally becomes expressive when moving to and interpreting music.

I have found much success using Feirabend’s First Steps in Music to combine elements of Kodaly, Orff, and Dalcroze. While primarily a Kodaly application, Feirabend’s work also integrates improvisation (arioso) and movement into the lessons of First Steps. Learning from the sample lesson plans, I have learned to seamlessly include singing, movement and exploration in every lesson. Also, using First Steps in Music as an entry, Conversational Solfege continues this work, but with a greater emphasis on the Kodaly



elements, presented in a way that is consistent with Music Learning Theory (MLT). Music Learning Theory was developed by Edwin Gordon out of his research into how people learn music. He found that music is learned in a way similar to that used to learn language. While there is much more to MLT than what I will present here, the elements presented in Conversational Solfege reflect the sequence of teaching patterns by rote on a neutral syllable, teaching the same patterns by rote with rhythm syllables (not words as in Orff, or Curwin syllables as in Kodaly), associating patterns learned with syllables to notation, reading familiar patterns from notation, reading unfamiliar patterns from notation, writing familiar patterns, and writing unfamiliar patterns both in ear training activities and in creating music. Like Orff and Dalcroze, Gordon also found that rhythm and meter cannot be learned intellectually, but only though movement.

The most effective way to be an eclectic practitioner is to learn and practice the methods of each approach, adding in new ones as the teacher is able until they are comfortable and natural, and then to draw on any and all techniques and methods regardless of from which method they come, as the need, context, or purpose arises. Doing so equips the music educator to be maximally effective.

Conversational Solfege and the National Core Arts Standards

Version 2Conversational solfege is a curriculum for teaching music literacy developed by Dr. John Feierabend. It is a literature based curriculum that is grounded in Music Learning Theory and the Kodaly philosophy for music education. It is not a method that one uses to the exclusion of all others, but rather an effective way of teaching tuneful singers to read, write, and create music.

Given that Conversational Solfege (CS) was developed during a time when music educators were using the original NAfME (MENC) content standards and before the introduction of the National Core Arts Standards (NCAS), it is natural to ask if CS is conformed to the NCAS. Here, I will discuss the performing and creating artistic processes included in the NCAS, and how well CS articulates the NCAS for each of those processes.

Music teachers should begin Conversational Solfege only when students are able to sing in tune by themselves. For most children, this occurs at at or close to 7 years of age, second grade in school; so we must begin by limiting our discussion to the NCAS for second grade and above. For performance, according to the NCAS, second graders when analyzing music will “demonstrate knowledge of music concepts (such as tonality and meter) in music from a variety of cultures selected for performance.” They will also “read and perform rhythmic and melodic patterns using iconic or standard notation” when “analyzing selected music.” The term “demonstrate” is to “show musical understanding through observable behavior such as moving, chanting, singing, or playing instruments.”  When interpreting, second graders will “demonstrate understanding of expressive qualities (such as dynamics  and tempo) and how creators use them to convey expressive intent.” Expressive intent is “the emotions, thoughts, and ideas that a performer or composer seeks to convey by manipulating the elements of music>” Finally, after repeating repertoire during the coarse of instruction and rehearsal, the second student grade student will “perform music for a specific purpose with expression and technical accuracy.”

It is interesting that the only mention of reading music notation in the NCAS is for the purpose of analyzing. Nowhere in the standards is reading music included in ochetanconnection with actually performing or rehearsing music. This would seem to be a major omission in the standards, and would position Conversational Solfege to go beyond the standards in developing literacy as part of musicianship. At the same time, because CS is essentially an application of the Kodaly philosophy for music education, singing remains the primary means by which students learn to read and compose music. Being able to sing tunefully, beatfully, and artfully, which is the goal of Dr. Fierabend’s First Steps in Music, the preparatory curriculum for CS,  is necessary in order to be able to demonstrate understanding as it is defined in the NCAS. So in that sense, we could say that CS makes assessment of performing under the NCAS possible.

The other piece to music literacy in addition to reading is writing. For this, we must consider the NCAS for creating. Here we find many parts of CS, and of First Steps in Music. To begin, we find in the NCAS that second grade students shall “Improvise rhythmic and melodic patterns and musical ideas for a specific purpose.” In CS, “students begin developing improvisation skills which will enable them to later compose. Creating aurally “develops the ability to think and bring musical meaning to original musical thoughts.  Students create original rhythm or tonal patterns or melodies using rhythm or tonal syllables.” Take particular note of this next statement.  “Reading notation should not be introduced until students have achieved success at this.” This is often expressed in the phrase “sound before sight” yet it is so often violated in the common ways in which music is taught.

Later in the NCAS for creating, we find that a second grade student will “convey expressive intent for a specific purpose by presenting a final version of personal musical ideas to peers or informal audience.” Here we come to the area of interpreting music; what Feierabend refers to as “artful” singing. Dr. Feierabend wrote that “one of the mysteries of notation is that the subtleties of expression cannot adequately be represented in notation.  It is the inherent expressiveness, however, that is the art part of music. What appears in notation is merely the skeleton of the music.  The interpreter of the notation must breath life into the skeleton.  This expressive sensitivity development must be assimilated from good musical models and from quality literature that embodies expressiveness.”  So just as reading and writing must be preceded with aural experiences with musical ideas, so to the ability to interpret music expressively must be preceded with models of good musical expression found in performances by great musicians. In responding to such performances, students learn what musical expression is, and what can be expressed with music. They then assimilate those experiences with hearing the models into musical expressiveness of their own. Once again, CS provides the means for teaching students how to accomplish what is called for in the NCAS.

This impacts responding as well. The NCAS includes a standard concerning interpretation. Second grade students will “demonstrate knowledge of music concepts and how they support creators’/performers’ expressive intent.” We have seen that demonstrating understanding is done through moving, chanting, singing, or playing a musical instrument. This is in fact how we would present models of artful musical performance. By responding to expressive music with movement, or by imitating artfully performed musical phrases or ideas, students acquire the knowledge of music concepts, and how those concepts are manipulated by performers and composers, to create an interpretation that is expressive. Just as music can be read and heard through inner hearing, music can also be interpreted through inner hearing using notated music. Dr. Thomas Duffy, Director of Bands at Yale University, stated that, and I paraphrase, when sight reading, everything must be included, not just pitches and rhythms. All expressive markings must be included. The musically literate person can silently read a musical score with all the expressiveness that is notated and with the additional expressive nuances that are suggested by the musical context but which are not explicitly notated or able to be notated by the composer.

For the artistic process of connecting, we find in the NCAS that second grade students will “demonstrate understanding of relationships between music and the other arts, other disciplines, varied contexts, and daily life.” The literate students, trained in Conversational Solfege, is able to experience and understand music in written form as the conveyance in that form of ideas preserved in music for their benefit, in the same way that a poem, novel, play, short story, or piece of non-fiction is a written record of ideas preserved in language. Music literacy and therefore Conversational Solfege makes possible connecting music with language arts. Music literacy also builds connections to visual art, as concepts common to both are interpreted from examples of both. And of course, the very interpretation of music brings into play dance, storytelling, and drama; interpretations that often are only possible from written music, and that require musically literate interpreters. Taking all of this into account, it becomes clear that Conversational Solfege is both the development and at the very core of the National Core Arts Standards.

Should We Be Teaching The Names of Lines and Spaces on the Musical Staff?

Version 2Chances are, if you are a musician, you were taught somewhere along the way, the names of the lines and spaces on the musical staff. Chances are also good that the teacher used some kind of mnemonic device, like “every good bird does fly” for the lines of the treble staff, and “face” for the spaces. The reasoning is that once a child knows the names of the lines and spaces, they will then know the names of the notes, and will be able to read music. Teaching the names of the lines and spaces would be all well and good if these benefits actually followed, but the truth is they rarely do.

Children are confused by the names of the lines and spaces. Were it not so, we music teachers would not have to go to such lengths, and repeat our cute little sayings so often. Then, once a child has finally mastered “every good back does flex” or whatever, they are at a loss as to what to do with that knowledge once they are singing or playing an instrument. They can’t recite the phrase before performing every note, so they still don’t have a usable way to read music in the practical sense. They also don’t know what an f on the top line is without reciting the whole thing, so the whole system is cumbersome, unmusical, and in the end of little practical value.

The essence of reading music is recognizing location on the staff, and associating a note with a specific sound that has pitch and duration. Teaching little ditties does nothing to teach that. Kodaly teachers will tell you that you should never say tonal syllables; you should only sing them. That is because the tonal syllable is a label for a sound, which is heard and not a symbol, which is seen. The written symbol is associated with the syllable and its sound after the syllable and sound is learned together. Fixed do syllables can be written, because they are labels for a symbol, but the sound is again attached to the syllable.

After syllable and sound are successfully associated, it is helpful to begin playing on instruments. For all you band teachers, notice what has preceded putting an instrument into the students’ hands. If they can’t sing in tune, and associate the note name with the sound they will struggle to read music in your band class. For my general music students, I give them glockenspiels. The names of the notes are already stamped on the bars, and I write the fixed do solfege syllables on the bars with a Sharpie as well. Using echo songs or call and response songs sung in fixed do solfege, I have the students first sing and then play their responses. Because they already can sing the song with solfege, playing it on the barred instruments is a natural next step that presents little if any difficulty. I usually have to explain the difference between high and low do, but beyond that it goes smoothly.

From singing and playing, we go to reading notation. They read only the notes they have sung and played, and they learn the notes by location. I put la on the staff on the board and tell that la is written between these two lines (showing them on a staff.) Do is written between these two lines (showing them on a staff.) The call and response song they have sung and played has a response using only do and la, so now they can do the (familiar) song again, this time reading their response off the notes written on the board. I continue to work other notes in the same way. I’ll use what Feierabend calls a “do-re-mi” song, teaching it to them with fixed do syllables (making it a fa-sol-la song). I’ll prepare them by doing tonal patterns using fixed do that use fa, sol and la, with the patterns written on the board. “Which pattern did I just sing?” “Sing that pattern again while you look at the notes.” Then when they sing the song, the patterns are familiar.

When they have done that song for two or three consecutive classes, I will begin Dance-and-Movementteaching decoding. I sing the same patterns as before, but this time I sing on a neutral syllable and the students repeat the pattern using fixed do syllables. This is critical to training the ear as well as the eye. This will come slower, so I may not use notation at all the first time or two I do this. When the students can decode, I will then put the patterns back on the board. I’ll sing a pattern on a neutral syllable and have them read the pattern with fixed do solfege. By this stage, they are reading music, truly reading music, not just naming notes. Also, notice that they are reading music without ever having to learn the names of the lines and spaces, and without the usual confusion that slows progress when they are required to learn the names of the lines and spaces.

You may have also noticed that I have not addressed duration. I find that teaching pitch and rhythm separately is more effective. I also find that for most of my students, reading rhythm comes easier than pitch, so it is a better sequence to add rhythm, which is easier to pitch, something at which they have already become proficient. Once again, my students have chanted rhythm patterns, learned rhythm syllables, and associated the syllables with the meter and durations they identify. Having written or read a tune notated in note heads only, they now listen for how many sounds they hear on each pulse. If they hear one sound on one pulse, they know it is a quarter note and if they hear two sounds on one pulse they know it is two eighth notes. I tell them that the rhythm syllable is the sound of the rhythm and the note type (quarter, eighth, etc.) is the name of the symbol, similar to the relationship between solfege and sound. We simply add stems to the note heads and then either connect two for pairs of eighth notes, or leave them alone for quarter notes. I stick with just these rhythms at first, in addition to quarter rests. I wait to teach notation of half and whole notes, because they involve changing the appearance of the note head. I want them to be as secure as possible with reading pitches before I do that, so I wait. If introduced too early, students become confused as to how, for example, a half note F and a quarter note F can be the same pitch even though they look different. One way of looking at this issue is to teach them that notes are made shorter by adding things (stems, flags) and are made longer by removing things (flags, stems, shading of note heads). The exception is the dot which is added after a note to make it 50% longer.

I have found that abandoning teaching the names of the lines and spaces of the musical staff has improved my students’ learning when it comes to reading and writing music. I know that to many of you, especially Kodaly specialists, using fixed do will seem like sacrilege. I believe that movable do is useful for training the ear to audiate tonalities, and I personally benefited greatly from becoming proficient at it as a result of Kodaly certification training. Even so, I have come to believe that eventually movable do becomes an impediment to music reading and more advanced singing and ear training. I have written on the use of fixed do elsewhere in this blog, and I hope you will read those posts on the subject if you are interested. In any case, the principles I have discussed here hold true regardless of which solfege system you use. Letter names can be used in place of fixed do syllables for those using movable do.

Musical Fractions That Make Sense

Version 2The nomenclature we (except for those who use the quaver family of names) really is not very useful. Whole note, half note, quarter note, eighth note, and sixteenth notes are the terms by which teachers, both of music and of other subjects, connect music to fraction arithmetic. As far as it goes, they are correct. All of those names, that is, quarter, half and so forth are fractions, but fractions of what? They are fractions of a measure in common time. Because those names only apply to four-four meter, their meanings are irrelevant to every meter except four-four. What’s more, I’ve never, in 31 years of teaching, found a student for which knowing a quarter note was one quarter of a whole note really helped him or her perform the more accurately. Of much more value is that the quarter note is, at least frequently, equal to the pulse of the music; the ictus, the beat the coincides with what an ensemble conductor is conducting.

From there, it is helpful to know that eighth notes are two equal divisions of the quarter note pulse. It is not at all helpful to know that one eighth note is one eighth of a measure in four-four time, and, as I have pointed out, even less helpful if the child is not performing music in four-four meter. Eighth notes are the division of the quarter note pulse into two equal parts, or the dotted quarter note pulse into three equal parts. Stated as a fraction,  one eighth note is either one half or one third of an ictus beat. That is the sort of musical fraction that is helpful. There are two or three sounds of equal duration during each pulse. That is helpful, because musicians mostly divide beats, not measures. Quarter note pulses can be further divided into four equal durations, and dotted quarter note pulses can be further divided into six equal durations. When this occurs, those divisions of the beat are called sixteenth notes, and each sixteenth note is either one-fourth or one sixth of a beat. Even this fractionalizing is of limited value, because the performing musician is not measuring individual durations in relation to the beat, he or she is gauging how to evenly distribute a number of sounds over a single pulse. Nevertheless, fractions of a beat are more useful than fractions of a measure. Every note value less than the value of the ictus is a division of the beat, and the process by which beats are divided are an example of the mathematical operation of division, which includes fractions.

Notes that are longer than the duration of the ictus are elongations of the beat, and the process by which beats are elongated are an example of the mathematical operation of addition, including adding fractions. Once more, we don’t really care that a half note is half of a measure in four-four time, or that a whole note occupies the duration equal to an entire measure in four-four time. We do care that a half note is the duration of two ictus beats added together, and that a whole note is the duration of four ictus beats added together, though in both cases the quarter note must be the ictus for this to be true.

It is useful to think of note values as not only fractions of the ictus, but also as fractions of note_hierarchyeach other. Practicing sixteenth note passages while audiating an eighth note beat in a piece where the quarter note is the ictus, a practice referred to as subdividing, is used by many students and teachers as an effective way of achieving rhythmic evenness. Such thinking also facilitates shifting the ictus from, for example, the quarter note to the half note when the feel of the music suggests as much. This often happens when the composer transitions the music from a rhythmic section that is best understood in quarter notes, to a broad melody that comfortably soars above all in half notes. Understanding that those still present quarter notes are each half as long as the now predominant half notes makes the shift natural and enjoyable.

Thinking of note values as fractions of other note values also facilitates understanding rhythm when the ictus is not the quarter note. Knowing that  a quarter note is half of a half note, and that an eighth note is half of a quarter note makes dividing or elongating the half or eighth note ictus possible, and the concept of divisions and elongations of the beat transferable. Indeed, it is important for students to understand once they have begun to read music that any note value can be the ictus, and that it follows that any note value can be divided or elongated. Indeed, a whole measure can be the ictus, and a half note a division of the beat. It is also important to understand that before students begin to read divisions or elongations of the beat, they must learn them aurally, so that when they do read them, they have a sound to associate with what they see. Music Learning Theory (Gordon) and Conversational Solfege (Feierabend) both provide well researched and classroom tested procedures for doing this.

We cannot conclude our discussion without raising the issue of meter signatures. Though these look like fractions, and are frequently wrongly notated in texts as fractions and aurally referred to as fractions as in “three quarter time,” they are not fractions. Three-four meter does not indicate three fourths of anything. Instead, it is a convenient way of indicating that there is the equivalent of three quarter note durations in each measure of music. There is no way of knowing from a meter signature how the ictus is divided, whether into two or three divisions, nor is there any way of knowing what the ictus is. The bottom number of the meter signature may, and often does coincide with the ictus, but it frequently does not as well. That said, more often than not a meter signature with a 4 as the bottom number and a number evenly divisible by two but not three as the top number  has beats divided into two equal durations, and a meter signature with an 8 as the bottom number and a number evenly divisible by three as the top number has beats divided into three equal durations, though eight-eight meter is an exception to this (see Toccata by Frescobaldi).

Attempts to correlate music with Common Core Mathematics with fractions can be made with note value nomenclature, but such connections are not helpful or even confusing to music students. Connections between music and fractions are more advantageously made concerning fractions of ictus beats and fractions of other note values. While traditional nomenclature can and does continue to be used, the bases for names such as quarter and half notes is only relevant to four-four meter.

Music Literacy is More Than Reading Music

2011 Symposium2

I saw this post recently on Facebook. “What do you teach?”
“Music.” “Oh, okay. So, do you read music?” “You teach English, right?” “Yes.” 
“Can you read English?” My first reaction, as a Music teacher, was probably similar to the author of this post. I was irked, maybe even offended. Of course I read music. It seems so obvious that I would, doesn’t it? Well, not so fast. I have come across many high school students or even graduates who played in band for years, and yet don’t read music. They learned everything by rote for years, and got so accomplished at it that they were able, in some cases, to rise to first chair in their school bands, even though, mind you, they couldn’t read music. 

Then there are cultural differences to consider. There are master music teachers in many parts of the world who are respected musicians and music teachers who don’t read music because theirs is an aural tradition, so written music is not used to pass along music as it is in American culture. But wait, is even that entirely true? Paul McCartney doesn’t read music, and look at what he has achieved. Would anyone seriously consider him of being musically illiterate? And what about the hundreds of young people who learn guitar or bass  riffs by ear, or from a friend who shows them how to play those riffs without ever using written music? There is a whole musical culture populated with our music students that exists outside our classrooms that is characterized by different ways of teaching and learning, and in many cases including a different repertoire of music as well.

None of this is all bad, in fact most of it is quite good. We want our students to be musically engaged outside our classrooms, and we want to enjoy the rich musical diversity that exists in the world, and when we listen to someone like Paul McCartney, we really don’t care if he reads music or not. None of this is to say that we should not teach our students to read and write music–of course we should. But it is to say that standard music notation is not always necessary or even the best means for teaching particular genres of music. There’s a good reason why the music of West Africa is not taught with standard music notation, aside from the conventions of an oral tradition. That music is rhythmically complex, often much more so than anything we experience in notated musical traditions such as European art music.  I suggest that West African music developed the exciting, engaging, addictive, irresistible complexity because it was not constrained by the necessity of writing it down. In truth, our Western standard music notation, invented for art music, can barely if at all handle such complexity.

So yes, we should be teaching our children to read and write music with our notational system of a five-lined staff, a clef, notes, sharps, flats, and all the rest. There are excellent techniques for doing so, chief among them Conversational Solfege by John Feierabend. But recite-esam1teven here, it begins with what we here, not with what we see. What does it sound like, how do I perform it, and then what does it look like. Writing it down is the last step in process, and it is lieu of teaching it aurally. If a music teacher places a page of music in front of a student and then teaches that music by rote, the student is not reading music. They are only the victim of the wishful thinking of a teacher who thinks that somehow the child will pick up how to read on the fly just because the music is on the stand in front of them. Teaching music reading must be much more targeted, focused and specific than that. Feierabend gives a way of going about that business.

That said, even if someone can read and write music perfectly, are they then musically literate? If someone cannot read or write music, are they musically illiterate? The answer in both cases is not entirely. The national core arts standards makes it very clear that musical literacy, like linguistic literacy, includes much more than reading and writing. “Artistic literacy requires that [individuals] engage in artistic creation processes directly through the use of appropriate materials (such as … musical instruments and scores, …and the actual human body) and in appropriate spaces (concert halls, stages…. For authentic practice to occur in arts classrooms, teachers and students must participate fully and jointly in activities where they can exercise the creative practices of imagine, investigate, construct, and reflect as unique beings committed to giving meaning to their experiences.” Some of that activity does emanate from the recorded work of composers in the form of scores and instrument parts, but some of it emanates from what is heard, imagined, created, and improvised, all of which can be performed. Furthermore, competencies in these other musical skills (imagining, creating, improvising, performing from what is heard) are appropriately taught and developed before written music is brought in. Music literacy encompasses all of this, not just reading and writing.

Once a student can read and write music, then an entire world of creative possibilities opens up for them. An individual who can read music can examine it as a text, just as surely as that individual can examine a piece of non-fiction. Written music can and should be analyzed, evaluated, and interpreted. The author’s (composer’s) intent should be discussed to learn what the composer expressed through his or her musical work. Determinations of how the musical elements were used to make that expression, and how they will be used by students in performing a work to communicate that expression are at the very soul of being a musician. When music is studied this way, it is elevated beyond the sonic experience of beats and rhythms that make us feel good. Music is elevated beyond being purely utilitarian to being expressive and therefore art. It changes the significance of what students are doing from merely following instructions in order to produce a particular performance, to creative activity that is artistic, not mechanistic. Only an understanding of music literacy that includes all of this can present music to students, administrators, and communities as something that matters in everyone’s life.

Resources for The Amazing Human Musical Mind

2011Symposium_1_2Over the last ten posts, I offered a series on early childhood music education. Today, I’d like to share with you some of the songs I mentioned and recommended in that series. Below you will find some videos of music educators performing these songs. The materials from John Feierabend are available from GIA Publications.

“The Crabfish” is a delightful song that children enjoy. It is one of those stories one can sing to children while they just listen and enjoy.

“No More Pie” is an echo song used to develop a good singing voice and accurate repetition. I also suggested using the song with your own words to help children memorize days of the week, the weather, or whatever you are teaching them.

Here is a video of an early childhood music class with parents participating. You will see children trying to time their movements to those of the adults, and you will see the adults swaying and moving their child to the music as they sing. There is extensive use of percussion instruments, especially claves and shaker eggs. These add sound to the movements. In the video, the parents are moving their child’s arms while the child holds on to a shaker egg. By doing this, the child can hear a sound that coincides with each movement. Locomotor moments are also used when the children get up to jump and dance with their parent. There are many good things going on in this class.

Once children pass from informal to formal instruction, there can be an expected response from children. The child is no longer in music babble, but can now repeat musical patterns with some accuracy. An activity like this one, where the child is expected to tap three times, skip a beat and pass an object on the skipped beat is an example of a musical activity with an expected response form the child. The child is applying timing, beat and motor skills to a musical activity. You could use a story you read to the class that has a repeated phrase. Have the children clap to the rhythm of the words of that phrase overtime they hear it.

I hope these video examples help you to better understand how to implement music in your classroom. They are intended as a companion to my previous ten posts, “The Amazing Human Musical Mind.” Be sure to contact me if you have any comments or questions about using music in your classroom or with your own children at home.

The Music Specialist Trap

2011Symposium_1_2Whether we want to admit it or not, we music teachers are all to some extent caught in the specialist trap. This trap has been built out of people who claim to have little or no musical talent and who must rely on us to provide all of the musical training for their children. The problem with this belief is that very few people actually have as little musical talent as they think, and when they abandon all opportunities for being a musical influence on their children, they are dong more harm than good.

This situation was brought to mind at a conference session I gave recently to a group of early childhood educators. These were not music teachers, but teachers of children ranging in age from infants to five years old. As I shared the wealth of research that has shown what even the new born’s brain is capable of doing musically, and how important music is to even infants, some of my audience began to feel the trap closing on them. I can’t speak for everyone in that group, but one teacher came up to me after the session and after making a point of telling me that she didn’t want to ask this when everyone was there, said she was already singing to her students, and having them sing in class, but that she was dismayed at how closely her students’ singing sounded like her! She was concerned that she was doing more harm than good. I assured her that singing to her students was a good thing, and that in the very act of trying to imitate her singing sounds, they were gaining in their musical development, and that she should continue to sing to them and have them sing to her. I commended her for her efforts.

Afterward, I reflected on how she showed great love and courage in doing what she was doing. When those children are singing-kidsolder, there will be time for them to learn how to sing more correctly, but at ages 3 and 4, just having a teacher who is singing to them and expecting them to sing what she is singing to them accurately is age appropriate and positive.  I suggested she purchase the CD and book of Music for Little People by John Feierabend, practice doing the activities on her own, and then do them with her daughter. By then she would be more confident in her singing for teaching, and would have enriched her own daughter’s development with priceless mother-daughter time together.  In addition, I encouraged her to suggest that the parents of her students purchase the book and CD set, and begin using them with their own children at home. Children need musical interaction with responsible adults, and there are none better for this than parents, teachers and caregivers.

Somehow, we must convince ourselves that music is not a privilege or an exclusive activity that only the most proficient minority can enjoy. Music is part of every human culture; it is a shared part of who we are. At times it reflects who we are and at other times it instructs us on who we could or ought to be. It should be sung, played, moved to, danced to, clapped, stomped and enjoyed by everyone and in community, not in the isolation made so convenient by personal music playing devices. We need to rediscover the joy and higher quality of life people enjoyed when, before recorded music replaced home and community music making,  music had to be a shared experience. We need to allow ourselves to trade technology created perfection for personal, joyful, meaningful music making, even if it is less perfect than what the professionals do. Imperfection is part of the human condition, and pretending that artificially created perfection in a studio is what music ought to be is stifling the very human spirit that craves and thrives on sincere if imperfect musical expression. None of this is to say we ought to allow sloppiness to take over our music education. Far from it. But it is to say that we need to get our priorities right. Perfection at the expense of people being afraid to open their mouths in song is not worth the cost. Let’s teach our children to make music, and to love making music, and may the children teach their parents that the best way to approach music is the way children approach it: singing their hearts out with happiness and excitement. What is so captivating about children singing isn’t that they are our children or that they are cute, it is that they have a love and happiness for what they are doing that we somehow let get away from us as adults. May we all return to our child-like love for music, and share it as equal partners with our children and for those of us who are teachers, our students.