Music in the Classroom:
Practical Suggestions for the Teacher of Young Students (Pre-school, Elementary)
"In music learning, variety teaches more than specialization"
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General Observations About Music Learning in the Young Student
- Young children are very flexible in their musical attitudes. This is the period when you can be a major influence in broadening the student's musical attitudes. This broadening of musical interest can have a profound effect on the rest of the student's life; it is particularly important in the student's musical development.
- You, the adult, may or may not be the best judge of what young students will like or can learn to like. Almost all adults have strong musical preferences. Adults' musical preferences are so strong that one researcher has called them "music prejudices". These musical prejudices work on a very basic level, and you may not even be aware of them as you choose and reject music to use with your students. As a rule of thumb, you could start by assuming that your young students are 100X more open to new music and musical styles than you are.
- Even if young students initially dislike certain music or a certain musical style, their preferences can be shaped and expanded with relative ease. What can you do to increase their acceptance of a particular song or musical style?
- Give students concrete information, adapted to their general level of understanding, about the composer, historical background, musical style, or general culture that produced the music. This need not be complicated; the CD booklet plus your own general knowledge of history and geography give you all the information you need.
- Relate the music to any ideas or topics your class has been studying.
- Show interest in and acceptance of the music yourself.
- Create a social environment in which listening to and enjoying a variety of musical styles is accepted.
- Listen to a particular piece or pieces within a particular style repeatedly over a period of time. Musical styles take time and a lot of listening to understand.
- Research has clearly shown that young students will accept, learn to like, and learn to perform (well!) music that most adults would consider quite strange and difficult. This includes atonal music(!), music in minor keys, music in various modes and tonalities, music in unusual, irregular, and changing meters (5/8, 7/4, 11/4, etc.), music written in unusual tuning schemes (i.e., music that couldn't be played on the piano because some notes "fall in the cracks"), music of various world cultures, and so on.
- Furthermore, research clearly shows that young students who learn to sing music with a variety of these different "strange and difficult" elements actually sing "normal" music better. For instance, students who spent a year learning to sing tonal and atonal melodies sang tonal melodies better than those who had spent the entire year practicing only tonal melodies. Those who practiced songs in usual and unusual meters sang songs in usual meters better than those who had practiced only usual meters.
- This principle, "variety teaches more than specialization", applies not only to singing, but also to young people's music listening. Listening is the basis of all musical learning. Children should do real listening to a wide variety of musical styles. Those who do so will have better musical understanding than those who listen to only a few styles (i.e., the few types of music found in the mass media) and far better than those who do little or no listening.
- An avalanche of evidence shows that young students who study in classes that integrate music (and other arts) into the curriculum learn more, retain better what they have learned, and do better on standardized tests. The artistic and creative way of thinking seems to be a better fit with cognitive capabilities of young students than the traditional lecture/logically structured verbal presentation. (See, for example, http://elwood.pionet.net/~hub7/diff.html)
- Evidence strongly suggests that most all children have an innate ability to learn to think and act musically. This ability to learn music is similar to children's ability to learn language. As there is a range of ability in language, there is a range in music. But the child who is actually unable to sing is as rare as the child who cannot speak.
- "The majority of five- to eight-year-old American children are developmentally delayed in music from two to five years." For instance, the average child is capable of singing in tune and with accurate rhythm at age 3-4. Yet many American children still cannot do this at age 5-6 or even older (Guilmartin, 2000, p. 41).
To put it succinctly: American students have vast musical abilities that are being wasted because of inadequate training in the early years.
This training is not difficult, costly, or time-consuming. Why are we not giving it to every student?
- Much evidence suggests that children learn to make music in the same way that they learn language (Gordon, 1974; Gordon 2000). In brief form, the elements of learning language/music can be summarized this way:
learning to speak by observing, imitating, trial-and-error
learning to sing/dance by observing, imitating, trial-and-error
learning to read symbols for speech
learning to read musical symbols
learning to write symbols for speech
learning to write musical symbols
- Note that in language learning, listening is the first step. Listening goes on for many months and years prior to and concurrent with the other stages. If it is so with language, why should it be different with music? Listening is the basis for everything else that happens later on.
- Note that in language learning, the second step--learning to speak--goes on for many years before the third step is begun. By the time the student starts to learn reading and writing, he or she has been speaking for years and has a large, practical store of vocabulary and rules of grammar. Why should it be any different for music learning? Why do we give a student a trombone and plop her down in front of a sheet of music when the student has no musical vocabulary or practical, hands-on knowledge of how music is "spoken"?
Therefore--listening, singing, and dancing are the musical essentials for children of this age.
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Listening to music--how to put it into practice in a classroom
Listening to music is important--the single most important musical activity. Give it priority.
- Make listening to music a regular part of your school routine, just as you do reading aloud from books. The length of time need not be long; more important is consistency and regularity.
- A $50 CD/tape player is the only equipment you need.
- You can appoint a student "music monitor" so that you need not fuss with the audio equipment or CDs. Rotate "music monitors" every week or two and let the old monitor train the new one.
- A dazzling variety of recordings can be found in most any public library and some school libraries.
- Try setting up a listening station where students can go when they've finished other assignments. With even a small selection of tapes or CDs in a variety of styles, this can be an extremely valuable resource. Tapes and CDs can come from the library and be changed every week or every month (another good job for the "music monitor"). With headphones, it will not disturb the rest of the class. With one or more headphone "Y" adapters (available for about $3 from Radio Shack) and extra sets of headphones, two or more students can listen at once.
- To maximize interest and relevance, try listening to music that relates the rest of your curriculum. If you study Columbus, listen to music from his time. If you study the planets, listen to Holst's "The Planets". If you study World War II or the Civil War, listen to popular music from that period.
- If you study China, listen to Chinese music. If Africa, African music. If the South, then Southern music, and so on. In an almost magical way, music encapsulates and communicates the essence of a culture and way of thinking. Hearing the music of a particular culture or historical period gives students a concrete experience with that culture that is hard to improve on--short of visiting that culture in person.
- Do take some time to do some real repeated listening to musical styles from different cultures--students won't learn to understand Chinese music from hearing a 20-second excerpt any more than they would learn to understand the Chinese language from hearing two or three spoken sentences in Chinese. But with some repeated listening, students can learn to understand unfamiliar musical languages as well as their own.
- Listen to popular music you or your parents liked. It will be a revelation to your students and you will have little trouble showing enthusiasm for it.
- Listen to popular music from various eras (1920s, 1950s, 1970s, 1800s, 1600s). Listen to music from musicals, movies, TV shows of various eras.
- Classical music is a universe in itself; one advantage of classical music is that it often has more musical elements than popular music; you get more educational "bang" for your buck. Another advantage is that classical music from a wide range of historical periods (800AD-present) is easily available.
- Jazz music has a long history now; listen to jazz from the 1920s, 40s, 60s, etc.
- One approach to encourage understanding of a style is to choose one type of music as your "theme" for a week or two. Listen to this daily during that period, then choose a new theme for the next period. Choosing a theme can be as simple as choosing a CD. For the next theme, just pick a different CD.
- Aim for a wide range of styles, musical cultures, instruments, tempos, and so on, in your listening over the course of a year.
- At least once in a while, listen to something you know students will dislike. There is no law that students must like everything; it is very worthwhile to teach students that they can study and learn a level of appreciation for things they don't like. Also--you might be surprised to find that a certain percentage of students like what everyone else dislikes.
- If students do complain about certain music or dislike it, just reply "We don't have to like it, we're learning about it." You will be surprised at what students will learn to like with repeated listening and familiarity.
- Listening volume need not be loud. (You don't shout when you read aloud, do you? No need to use a shouting level of volume for music listening, either.)
- Live performances can be much more compelling than recorded performances. Ask a local college, university, or high school music department if they would like to have several music students come and perform for your class over the course of the year. Often such students are looking for opportunities to perform and perform inexpensively or even for free.
- You should encourage students to attend live musical events outside the classroom. This is done very easily by requiring students to attend X musical events every semester, extra credit to students who attend such events. Because of the impact of social context in developing music preference, live performance can be much more powerful than recorded performance in developing students' interest in music. (Recorded performance is in many ways divorced from any social context; while it is ubiquitous in our culture it is also relatively powerless.)
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Singing--How to put it into practice in the classroom
- Sing new songs to the students and let them learn the song by listening only (as opposed to letting the students read the song--even the words--in a book). If you--the teacher--feel more comfortable singing with a music book in front of you, go ahead and use one. But young students don't need to learn to sing from a book any more than they need to learn to talk from a book.
- Start with songs you know and are comfortable with.
- Deliberately pick songs with unusual characteristics for at least part of your songs. For instance, choose songs in minor keys or in unusual meters. Choose songs from other countries or musical cultures. Choose songs in a variety of different tonalities. (Be aware than textbook editors tend to select songs that fit our musical norms and may "smooth out" any irregularities in the original. Your best choice for interesting music may be elsewhere than your elementary music textbook.)
- Make it fun! The best way to help children have fun singing is to have fun yourself . . .
- If you are teaching young children and you feel uncomfortable with music, then maybe you, the teacher, need to change your attitudes and learn some new skills. All research seems to point to the fact that young children are naturally and innately musical. So if you are uncomfortable with music, then you are out of step! The basic musical skills you need are not that difficult to learn.
- The easiest (and best) way for you to learn new songs, especially if they are a bit irregular or unusual, may be to listen to a recording, then sing along with the recording until the song is learned.
Jump to: [ General observations
| References ]
Akin, Jeanne. Music makes a difference: Resource guide to educational research. Available online at http://elwood.pionet.net/~hub7/diff.html.
Gordon, E. (1974). Toward the development of a taxonomy of tonal patterns and rhythm patterns: Evidence of difficulty level and growth rate. In E. Gordon (Ed.), Research in the Psychology of Music (Vol. 8). Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
Gordon, E. (2000, October). What is audiation? Lecture given at the World Piano Pedagogy Convention, Las Vegas, Nevada. Notes in my possession.
Ken Guilmartin, Early Childhood Music Education in the New Millenium, American music teacher, June/July 2000, 40-41.
These ideas are based on my research into music preference over the lifespan. More ideas, information and references relating to this research can be found at www.BrentHugh.com/musiciq/musicpreference.html. Some songs I have written to us with young people are available for free download at mp3.com/musiciq. Email: email@example.com