Most of the time in my professional life, I don’t wear my ”singer song writer” hat but I do wear my holistic music teachers one. Music in education is not doing so well at the moment ( due to economic cuts) and I am therefore well situated to make observations on the importance and in fact the necessity of having a universal quality music education for all. Today I will concentrate on the early years.
I speak from the point of having trained as a Kodaly music teacher- which uses the voice as the primary instrument and teaches musicality and then musicianship in a gently spiral progressive approach, aiming to develop the “whole brain”. It moves the student through an organic process of first understanding music as a physical , concrete and unconscious experience to a progressively more intellectual, conscious, abstract and written one, developing the” inner voice,” so that the brain becomes as musically adept as we are with internal word based thoughts. This happens so gently over a span of years that it is achieved almost by osmosis, meaning that enjoyment and achievement are the generality rather than the exception. It is a highly social, collaborative, movement and kinaesthetic based approach. Children learn pitch through a movable doh and use their hands and bodies to fix pitch and rhythms are given syllable names that fit the note length. This creates a strutture that encourages exactness and creativity. Research has found that the schools who use this approach in Hungary,( where this method is from,) excel in all other subjects and wellbeing than schools that don’t. And, in other studies around the world music is found to have a profound developmental and positive effects upon our brains no matter what age we are. This methodology is also well respected in the music world for creating musicians who know music with their whole beings and who can reach a high standard of musicianship.
So, why is music so important in those early years (0-3, 3-7)? Here are my reasons based on daily experience that I observe time and time again. Firstly there is the personal and wellbeing area – which I consider the most important aspect of a child. To learn and to engage requires several fundamental aspects to be in place: to be able to listen, to be able to communicate effectively, to be able to concentrate, to feel good in yourself, to understand the basics of group dynamics ie to take turns, to step forward and be a leader, to engage person to person, to think creatively.
Then there are the more “formal” types of learning at this stage ; using enhanced vocabulary, questioning skills, sequencing, memory work, co-ordination, counting, cultural and spiritual awareness which all feed into curriculum based subjects later on.
A well delivered early years music session – will develop all these skills. Firstly the leader has to have age appropriate material which also has a number of music learning objectives hidden within them. The leader also needs to understand, most importantly, the psychological stage that the children are at and to be able to use different learning styles to create development and growth- visual, kinaesthetic and auditory learning. It is also helpful if the leader can understand that at this stage the “Ego” of the child is very paramount and it yet has little understanding of self and other and how the self is perceived by others.
Children at this age naturally learn through their bodies and have an absurd sense of humour. This helps them define what is real and not real in their world, they like a strong sense of order and respond well to boundaries and a practical rhythm in a session that creates pace and balance. There are also different personality types that the leader has to intuitively manage- the child who can only think of his own gratification, the shy child who is too nervous to join etc.
A teacher has to be able to “read’ the children and the group constantly and flow and adjust the session in accordance to these above psychological requirements. The leader can then plan lessons that consciously develop the above factors and use learning elements to create a lesson that meets the child where they are at and create a level of joy and enjoyment that creates a lifelong love of music and an unconscious musicality.
Sitting together in a circle with some simple props, toys and percussive instruments provides the scaffold for this to take place. The music learning is pentatonic in pitch, and emphasis is placed on physically feeling/learning pitch, pulse and then rhythm. Peekaboo games, hide and seek games, clapping, skipping, dancing, being animals and having actions to do, all helps make the learning immediate, memorable, engaging and fun. Adding in absurd humour, encouraging gentleness, thoughtfulness, listening and creative imagination and also some improvisation develops a number of wider skills. Gently using socratic questioning (open ended questioning) and closed (obvious answers) helps expands the children language and enquiry, alongside singing adjectives that describe an object- eg glittery star.
Co-ordination singing games help develop the brain, memory and sequencing . Difficulties with this can sometimes be an early indicator of dyslexia etc and can be used to help this too. These games create an unconscious musicality, an ability to pitch and intuitively understand pulse. Kodaly considered this stage to be the most important stage of musical development- not the conservatoire…but the early years! Whats the good of learning an aria, or a sonata or an incredibly fast, difficult guitar riff if you can’t sing/do the basics! This is the stage where an innate musicality is acquired.
I include 5-7 in this stage as the brain is still infantile and reason has not developed a great deal and the child still responds best to very play based, informal style of learning. However, if the child has already been doing music then an introduction of simple and progressive intellectual and conscious musical learning can begin. I teach a body based game of shapes to the names of doh,Re, Mi, etc which then progresses to an interval game where we jump to the right shape eg Lah to Mi. This is hugely popular combining body based unconscious learning with the Solfa names which will be so useful later on. It also takes the fear out of singing intervals and one can make this progressively more challenging as the children’s “inner ear” develops. Introducing the Kodaly rhythm cards which have given syllables to show rhythm length and are read from left to right unconsciously prepares the mind for reading, encourages concentration, sequencing and memory skills. This backs up some of the literacy programme as does singing rhymes, clapping the rhythm and syllables of words etc.
Songs are also a great vehicle for learning about the world, nature, different culture, history and a humanitarian caring element. My classes can range from talking about what a cobbler was, to harvests/seeds and plant growth to caring for each other, the world and having a positive attitude. A small song about a wishing star can be a talking point about science/stars and creating wishes for others to be happy- extending the mind beyond their immediate surroundings and self. These types of songs can extend into simple improvising.
All it takes is a little imagination, a creativity and music becomes the medium through which an extended amount of learning can be reached. With this in mind, music should be central to a child’s learning from as young as three. It is met with such enthusiasm and joy no matter the background or attainment ability of the child and can be used to bridge attainment gaps and lack of enthusiasm in learning. There is really no argument for taking it out or belittling music in the curriculum . There is every reason for it to become a well taught, universal subject at the core of our children’s learning, delivered by well trained professionals. We also all have a voice- making it an organic and cheaper way of introducing music. Singing is like breathing- it is something we can all do- even those who consider themselves tonally challenged. Music should be for everyone, not just a privileged few and it can be the springboard for so many other forms of knowledge and development. Let us rethink the place music has in our classrooms today.
Next time I look at music education from 8-12.