Starting a musical journey: Learning how to learn Pt 2

It’s 2006 and I have a new baby. I love music, so I look for a local baby music group. I’m not even sure what to look for, and as a new mum, I cannot find a central directory of services. Finally, I google the right keywords to find a local franchise, but it has a waiting list. (A waiting list? For baby music?!) I look further afield. I find another franchise about an hour’s drive away, with free spaces. Chatting to the teacher after the session, she suggests that because I live so far away, I sign up to the same low-cost franchise and start delivering my own sessions – that way, my little one will definitely attend! Being fairly musical (I had taught myself guitar as a child and sung in the school choir for a couple years), I did it.

I found out that, firstly, Kodály, Dalcroze and Orff were names of composers from Europe; secondly, they had very similar ideas; and thirdly, they were all, if not friends, then contemporaries who knew of each other and had slightly different views on “the best way to learn music” as a child. “Learning music as a child” is the operative phrase, because learning as an adult is very different – as adults, we already have experience in learning that helps us to relate new knowledge to what we already know. Children have much less experience, and depending on the age of the child, community music leaders may even be their very first experience with teachers. Researching the music education approaches, I noticed a clear progression in 12 skills, loosely divided into supporting skills and musical skills, and all easily introduced using easy-to-learn singing games. This article is Part Two of a four-part series describing the musical behaviours that we can see and encourage from birth to 7 years old.

Supporting skills: (Part 1)

  • In a circle, children can: (move in a circle, learning relationship)
  • In a line, children can: (move in a line, learning sequencing)
  • When leaving out the last line of a song, children can: (planning skills)

Supporting skills: (Part 2)

  • Children use language by: (language skills)
  • Weekly sessions: (concentration skills)
  • Children can learn: (memory skills)

Musical skills: (Part 3)

  • Children keep the pulse through: (pulse skills)
  • Children recognise: (rhythm skills)
  • Children can use: (percussion skills)

Musical skills: (Part 4)

  • Listening to music, children can: (listening skills)
  • Children match the pitch by: (pitch skills)
  • Children recognise: (interval skills)

Supporting skills: (Part 2)

Children use language by: (language skills)

Language development plays a big part in singing. It helps to introduce and develop awareness of the child’s surrounding culture and conventions, and introduces ideas and activities from history. We see how language develops from pointing to things, to learning names. Role-play and games allow for language concepts to be explored, particularly games in songs, where characters may perform or behave in a particular way in one line, and then stop in the next. This gives children the opportunity to practice healthy ways to express emotions like being happy, sad, angry, surprised. By allowing children to experiment with behaviours and expressions in a safe, undemanding space, they can safely return to being themselves within moments, helping to develop mastery of emotions by understanding that they are temporary states.

Weekly sessions: (concentration skills)

Private music sessions with new or unfamiliar people are often advertised from between 30-60 minutes, and part of the reason that many children work well with this arrangement is the novelty of seeing a new person or going to a place. At home or in a nursery where the adult is familiar, it is easier for children to lose focus and attention – put simply, it is easier to say no. However, we know that to learn effectively, like reading and writing daily, playing music daily is an effective source of creative expression. The compromise is to recognise that not every music session needs to be instructive – we can play for enjoyment. The weekly time guidelines suggest instructive periods with familiar people, ranging from 10 minutes of focussed musical play a week, gradually building to 15, 20, 30 and then 45-minute sessions. Focussed musical play involves deliberate skills scaffolding, sensitively following the interest of the child, and this can be done by introducing a new song, developing a known song (matching the pulse or rhythm), or even creating a new song using newly developed skills.

Children can learn: (memory skills)

Just as children develop skills gradually in languages, sciences and humanities, so music is a progressive development of skills. Different studies have shown that younger children are able to show recognition of 3 out of 5 new songs that are introduced to them. As they get older, this increases to 6 out of 10 (including the original 5), and then 11 out of 20, (including the original 10), 12 out of 28 (including the original 20), 16 out of 35 (including the original 28), 22 out of 42 (including the original 35) and finally 28 out of 50 (including the original 42). This recognition may be in the form of eye contact to start, progressing to movement and singing along, and will vary between children – some will memorise all 50! While it is true that there are some young children that can sing long and complicated songs, they often have significantly more experience from home. Choosing child appropriate songs with smaller pitch ranges (fewer notes) allows for all children to be successful and therefore enjoy music. By choosing more complex songs with wide note variations, it is a little like expecting all children to perform complex calculus equations in their heads, or perform Olympic gymnastic routines, or create photo-quality drawings – some children can, but most are not interested enough to practise sufficiently. It can be challenging to find songs with two and then three notes, but a good starting point is the internet, which is full of Kodály material, often free.

These foundational skills set the stage for your child’s future success in learning: once we learn how to learn and not just copy, we can literally learn anything. Sharing skills progressively, one step at a time, helps both adults and children learn new things more thoroughly, and they are remembered for much longer. This is why we take out time in the beginning: using limited pitches/notes helps us to recognise individual notes more clearly; limited rhythms allows us to repeat rhythms more accurately; introducing dynamics one at a time (instructions on loud or soft, fast or slow) allows us to explore the emotion created by playing quickly or quietly, slowly or loudly. And then using these skills in more complex songs in your favourite style, whether pop or rock, country or classical, becomes even more fun! Next month, we look at the ways in which musical skills develop by looking at pulse, rhythm and percussion.

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