|Tuning into the Musical Brain||Creating Music in the Classroom||Taming the Practice Monster||Living with Music||A Different Kind of Wealth|
Beyond "Twinkle": Creating Music in the Classroom
Scales, arpeggios, theory, practice. Sound tedious and boring? Not to third graders at a public school in Belmont who are using the rudiments of rhythm, tone and their knowledge of the music staff to create original melodies.
One student decides how to stretch his melody so that it slithers from the low to the high register of the piano like a snake—the title of his piece. Another child excitedly announces that he is going to use the harmonica to depict his bird flying away. Some concentrate intensely on writing out their manuscripts by hand. Others are learning to play their tune using solfege (do re mi) syllables. To these students composing music is fun and games. They seem unaware that their melodies are the end-product of many lessons on tonal and rhythm patterns; duple and triple meter; scales; solfege; and the treble clef staff—in other words, music theory.
Most subjects in the elementary curriculum have successfully combined the “back to basics” movement with imaginative teaching approaches. Music instruction, however, lags behind, frequently missing both the basics and the imaginative aspect. Repertoire and methods remain largely the same as those used decades ago, and often the fundamentals of the discipline—rhythm and tonal patterns and learning to read and write notes—are not even covered.
It’s time for a change! Just as young students now practice grammar and punctuation by writing original stories and poems, so can they create their own melodies, rhythms and harmonies to learn how musical sound is organized and notated.
Some may argue that the fundamentals of music are too hard for young children to comprehend. But as the composition project in Belmont shows, children are hooked into this learning process from the first note to the last. Composing gives voice to a child’s natural creative instinct and brings out the same kind of joy and pride as learning to ride a bike or hitting a home run. Then, too, children love things that are all theirs, and music is no exception.
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A World of Order
The very idea of studying music theory is daunting to many adults. For children, however, music is “play” in every sense of the word. They are drawn to music as surely as they are drawn to rocks and mud puddles. Order and repetition—things that children thrive on—are the magic ingredients of this medium. The regularly recurring patterns of tone and rhythm in music appeal to a child’s instinctive need for order.
Children are also attracted to the clear, mathematical structure of music’s written language. By elementary school, they are experts at counting, simple addition and puzzle solving and delight in finding the math in written music. A scale with do re mi fa sol la ti do syllables is a new and different kind of number line, where do is less than re which is less than mi. Learning intervals—the distance between two notes—becomes a game of musical hopscotch. Making sure that each measure has the same number of beats is like solving simple addition and subtraction equations. As one student delightedly put it after completing an exercise on grouping beats, “This is just math!”
Thus, not only are young students ready for theory and notation, they are thrilled to have the tools to create something that is distinctively theirs. Students are quick to complain about too much work. But in composition class, the request is usually for “more”: More time with the instructor to work on the project. More practice turns on the resonator bars. More staff paper to make a neater manuscript copy or to write an additional melody or two... or three...or four! One might think that writing out music would be an unwelcome task, but students can’t seem to get enough of it.
More Than Notes on a Page
Bringing original melodies to life with instruments is exciting for both student and teacher. This is the stage where everything begins to come together, where theory moves to application and notes on a page become meaningful sound. Some students decide to play their tunes on recorder or xylophone. Others use percussion instruments to perform simple rhythm accompaniments. Children studying privately take their melodies home to learn on piano, flute or violin. All work hard to get notes, rhythms, and ensembles “just right”. No complaints about practice here!
Observing students as they drill, write and perform music, it is evident that there are many benefits to this mode of teaching and learning. At rehearsal, classmates listen attentively to their peers’ pieces. Spontaneous comments such as “That sounds cool!” and “I just love that piece!” underscore the atmosphere of support and appreciation in the classroom. Imagination and creativity are highly stimulated as students learn to think and problem-solve in new ways and in a new arena. Practicing as part of an ensemble, each child learns teamwork and the relationship of his part to a final whole. And he is introduced to a discipline with a standard of excellence few other subjects have.
At the final performance, the room is alive with excitement. Each child waits with great anticipation for his piece to be presented. Some can hardly contain themselves: “Mine is next. Here it comes! Now listen to this one!” Students glow with tremendous confidence and pride. Even children not at a stage to perform their pieces themselves take ownership of the final product with a proud bow. The unique spirit of each and every student is acknowledged, valued and celebrated. The experience of creating and writing their own music, to these young students, has been fun. It has been enriching. It has been vital.
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