A Slave To The Page

A position on early music education.

A Language Learned
How do children learn language? It is the aural learning that provides the elemental basis for language skills. We do not first learn what the sounds look like – we learn first by hearing. The visual is learned by connecting the knowledge gained through aural perception to the symbols that represent the sounds. Only when there is a firm understanding of the aural language do we learn to read the language – to decipher the symbols.

Music, as a language, is exactly the same. We learn it by listening. It is the fundamental basis for internalizing, and understanding this highly complex and beautiful language. Symbols are only a mere representation of music – they allow us to communicate basic ideas – they do not communicate feeling, passion, soul, or musicality in any real sense. Music on the page can be decoded, and understood within given parameters, but it cannot be felt, or internalized without having a strong aural background to fully realize what all those dots and symbols truly mean. Music is an expressive art form – it exists only in performance (or remembered as such), while the written page is merely a storage device that preserves the music and allows for analysis and preservation beyond the performance. Even analysis of the page is moot without listening to a performance or having the analysis direct the performance. Here, the page is used as a tool, a means to an end, if you will. In and of itself, the page does not live in the metaphysical ether, that timelessness of performance which engages the musical ear – the ear that has been taught to listen and the soul that feels the music. Language works the same way. Even while reading a book, there is that inner voice that is speaking the words we read. The symbols of any language are just an aural connection to the elemental perception of letters, words, and, by extension, musical notation.

Teach Our Children Well

How do we teach our children spoken language? Do we immediately introduce them to the letters and words, and then hope that they make the connection? Do we put a pencil in an infants hand and show him how to write? The short of it: no. Babies need to hear their parents speak the language – they model what they hear – even if they don’t understand it for some time. Why then should music be treated any differently? The music education standards in this country seem to preclude the aural learning that is so essential to music education. We expect young children to learn music through the written form of music, rather than the natural experience of hearing. As it relates to language, the letters and words take some time to become phrases, sentences and thoughts – a true written language that is a representation of human thought. Music education, and the prescribed ‘standards’ expect children to make the connection to the written page too early.

An Aural Syntax

How do children understand that they are being asked a question? We don’t hold up a picture of a question mark – we change the inflection of our voice, perhaps raise our eyebrows, and use a syntax that implies the question – it is purely auditory. By extension, how then, do children innately understand musical phrase? Children can understand that a half-cadence, or a phrase that does not resolve to Do (or Home Tone, if you prefer) is incomplete – it demands an answer. The musical answer provides a completion to the question phrase. Children can tell when a complete musical thought has occurred. Just as the aural syntax of spoken language is innately understood by children, the musical equivalent can be understood just the same – provided we put enough emphasis on teaching musical concepts from an aural position.

The Current Model

I have fallen victim to the knee-jerk reaction to throw music in front of a young child while I was teaching piano lessons. I started to realize that some of the first experiences of my students involved visual examples of music. To be clear, there are certainly helpful visuals such as examples of posture and hand position – but it became readily apparent to me that my students were missing something – the very basic element of music education: exploration. I was inadvertently limiting my students’ inventory of music by taking the easy road and trusting the teaching sequence to a book. Most of my private students were beginners – roughly grade 3 or 4 – in good school systems. I began to change my approach – building on what they were learning in general music at their school – using Solfedge, songs they were singing, etc. However, it became clear that they were already ‘hooked’ on the visuals of music – the ear was not being developed. The reading seemed excellent, but it was a shallow reading. This was evident in many of my students when they did not realize that they were playing mistakes – very obvious note mistakes. There was a disconnect between the eye and ear – they were not hearing what they were seeing – and why should they at this age? Then there were the exceptions.

The few that had an uncanny raw talent for music were able to hear the mistakes, and these ‘exceptional’ students, seemed for the most part, to have a richer experience with music and art in the home. The CD collections in the house were wildly diverse and the parents took the children to the library, to music events, etc. The children’s ears, and minds, were being engaged by the community arts (which are readily accessible in Fairfield County, CT) . The parents took a keen interest in the experiences of their children. These ‘exceptional’ children, turned out to really be ‘cultured’ children. Their minds seemed more receptive to the abstract. So, I tried simply playing songs, chords, patterns – and having them talk about it, then play some of their own. We were experimenting with sound – purely from their own minds – and it was surprising to hear how many of the musical ideas had some basic musical concepts at the core – like rhythmic breath, resolution, range, etc. I started incorporating exploration into the lessons, and sure enough, the students’ ears began to hear mistakes immediately, and musicality improved – dynamics, articulation, etc. It was such a simple task to explain staccato after doing some exploration on the piano playing ‘hot notes’ – emphasizing quick release of the notes. All I had to do was point out that those little dots simply meant to do the same thing we were doing during our experimenting. This sequence seems to make much more sense – use aural examples of the musical language as the basic of understanding a specific term, then, when the time is right, introduce the visual symbol. So, when is the right time? This is a crucial moment in music education.

End Part 1.

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