How Children Learn Music
This article is taken from a lecture given by Marvin Blickenstaff, a piano teacher that I studied with for a short time in the greater Philadelphia area, and also information based on my own experiences of teaching music.
A music teacher needs to capitalize on a student’s natural learning strengths.
How children learn best:
- Through their own discovery
- Through exaggeration
- Through repetition and reinforcement
- Through imitating a model, i.e., the teacher, or another musician.
- Through creative activity
- Through integration of eye/mind—ear (not done enough~such as transposing a simple melody, which I have my students play every other week in many different keys); hand/body
- Through correct first experiences
- Through lesson summary
- Through affirmation
The preparation for teaching:
For presentation in the early stages of learning music:
- Use pre-notation symbols
- Then notation name
- Name other symbols in music
When teaching the very first piano lesson to a child, I usually have them learn a simple tune called “Engine Engine Number 9.” It is all played on the black keys, and I teach it in four parts. The student has to immediately use their ear, and listen for when the pitches go up, or down, or repeat. They have to imitate what I play. And it gives the student confidence, that they can play a simple tune by the end of their first lesson! It has words to it, so they can sing along while they play.
Also in the first lesson, it is important to establish the direction that the keyboard goes in. Usually, one looks up toward the sky, or the ceiling, to go up. Down is on the floor, or on the ground. On the piano, one goes upward on the keyboard to the right, where the pitches get higher and higher, and down the keyboard, where the pitches are lower, is to the left.
Teach students to see shapes.
On the musical staff, emphasize the notes on the lines, and notes on the spaces. For example, saying things like “skip up, skip down, step up, step down” helps the student see the shapes on the staff. Flash cards are also good to use. There is a very good app. that I also like to use, called Note Rush. It has different levels of difficulty, and your smartphone suddenly looks like a flash card. The student identifies and plays the note, the microphone in the smartphone identifies if the note is correct or not~and if it’s not, there’s a big “X” that appears on the screen, until the note gets identified correctly. Then the screen changes to another note. The notes are presented randomly. The app. also times you, and the goal is to be able to identify the notes more and more quickly as time goes on.
The teacher also needs to train the eye of the student.
When reading music, the eye and notes go from left to right. Once the end of the line of music is reached, the student’s eyes tend to get stuck there. They are not ready to play the next note on the second line of music, for example. Ideally, the student ought to be reading the music a few notes ahead, and train their eye to go to the next line of music without stopping the music.
Playing duets and sightreading
When the student gets advanced enough to read some simple music easily, playing duets is very nurturing for them. Every two weeks I work on sightreading with my students, and I play duets with them often as a part of their sightreading training. Sightreading means that the student is playing music for the very first time. It is a fun way to improve their note-reading skills, and fun for the teacher too! It gives them good ensemble-playing experience, they have to listen to another person, and play with the correct rhythm also, or we cannot play together! I don’t believe that this is done enough. So many students study an instrument for up to five years, and if you put a piece of music in front of them, they can’t play it. My job as their teacher is to ultimately enable the student to enjoy playing most any music that their heart desires to play, on their own, for the rest of their lives, or as long as they want to play.
Teachers need to exaggerate when they express themselves, to convey concepts, motions, and ideas. Exaggerate lifts, i.e. coordination problems, and movements. Eventually motions will get refined, but as some of you may remember, you wrote your name in Kindergarten in really big letters. After some time, you learned how to write the letters in your name better, and the letters got smaller. The same goes for motions using your fingers, hands, and wrists, and arms on the piano.
Learning takes place through repetition
Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, who created the Suzuki method, said that “Ability equals knowledge plus 10,000 times.”
In his 2009 book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle cites recent research that proves Dr. Suzuki’s assertions about repetitions to be true. In the brain, each time a task is performed, the nerve pathways that converge to perform that task are wrapped in a layer of something called myelin. Each wrapping of myelin allows that specific task to be performed faster and with greater ease. However, just mindlessly repeating the task many times is not sufficient. You must push yourself to the edge of your ability, making a systematic effort to improve at every step.
I tell students to repeat something 3-5 times. No more than 5 times, because after that I find that the mind starts wandering. This helps students retain what they are learning.
Learning music correctly the first time makes a difference
Divide new pieces of music if necessary, and make sure the students are learning the music correctly the first time. If there are problems, it is important to focus on the problem, and not the child.
Learning about composers and performers/concert artists
Often, I ask my students (if they are old enough), what videos they have watched. It is important to learn about the composers they are playing, and concert artists.
Motivation and inspiration are two of my favorite words in the English language! This helps a lot, to listen to music you are studying, or listen to other pieces of music by the same composer. Learn what their life was like, and what kind of person they were; when the music was written. It helps bring the music to life that much more. It is highly recommended that parents play Classical, Jazz, or Broadway music at home, or in the car. My parents did that for me, and to this day, it brings back some really wonderful memories. Going to live music concerts is great too, and can be a lovely family event.