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Teaching Music as a Language

I have always thought about teaching music in terms of language acquisition.  One of my most impactful experiences as a young musician was studying music with Dwayne Dolphin.  This master musician turned me on to the idea that music was really a language, and learning to communicate through this language was the goal of the artist.  The writings of the great pedagogue Suzuki also reflect this idea of teaching music as the “mother tongue” and is mostly applied to approaches to teaching music to the very young.  The Conversatational Solfege curriculum that we use at Hillview is based on the Gordon method, as written by John Feierabend, and also leans heavily on this idea of language acquisition.  The way I think about this, in the context of my classroom, follows a specific sequence.

1) Listen and experience

2) Echo and respond

3) Initiate and Improvise

4) Read, Write, and Recognize

In the first step of the sequence, the children are exposed to the musical element or concept in immersion.  They hear it and they use movement to reflect or experience the concept.  The concept is shown in context, although attention may be drawn to it as they experience the specific element.  This is similar to the way we first encounter and experience a language.  Hearing the words, the tone of voice, the context, and meaning of the communication; the language learner can become to familiar with the sounds they hear.  This is much the same way that a child must first experience an apple, hear the word, and know what it means before they will really be able to use the word “apple.”

The second step of the sequence is to have the students use the concept in an echo game.  They are simply using their voice or their body to echo the patterns, respond to the dynamics with movement, play an instrument, respond to the meter, or many other methods of response.  This is similar to the way a child begins to echo words that they hear, in their own way.  It has become important to me to allow the children to experiment during this step.  If their echo is imperfect, I don’t want to overly correct it.  I want them to have the freedom of a child learning to say words for the first time.  It might take a bit of time and practice for them to acquire the skills to “say the words” with clear diction.

After echoing, the students should learn to initiate or improvise using each musical element.  For instance, maybe they should lead the echo game.  They can improvise the pattern.  They can initiate the meter with movement.  They can direct the dynamic levels.  This is akin to a child beginning to form their own sentences, using the words they have learned for their own purposes, to communicate.  Now they know the word “apple,”  they can say it clearly, and they want to communicate that they want an apple.   In the same way, the students should be able to take these musical concepts and communicate musical ideas with them.  They should be able to make musical decisions and execute the elements to their own purpose.  This is the most often neglected and most difficult step to implement.  I think in classrooms in which singing is the primary form of expression, this becomes even more difficult.  The use of movement and instruments allows students to express these ideas in a variety of ways.

The final step of the sequence involves taking this communication and learning to read and write it.  This is the concept of “literacy.”  In the world of language acquisition, students are only taught to read and write once they can speak the language at a developmentally appropriate level. In musical terms, the students will learn to read and write notation faster if it is within the framework of a “language” with which they have already become familiar.  When we use familiar patterns, notes, meters, expression, and rhythms; the students can have a greater understanding of the written notation and its purpose.  Some forms of music education rely heavily on the written notation from the very beginning.  This creates a disconnect between recognizing the symbols of music and creating music itself.  We will often find musicians who cannot express music without written notation, and invariably suffer in the sensitivity and artistry of their performance.  Can you imagine if you couldn’t speak English, unless you had the text of your conversation written in front of you?  It would not be very easy to communicate, and language would not be as useful or as enjoyable.  Music follows this same principle.  We want our students to be able to communicate musically, with or without written notation.

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