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An interview with Christine Barden

An interview with Christine Barden

An internationally recognized authority and leading music educator on early childhood music, Christine H. Barden is a coauthor of Alfred's Music for Little Mozarts preschool piano method, along with Gayle Kowalchyk and E.L. Lancaster. A graduate of San Francisco State University with a degree in piano performance, she also spent four years studying, performing, and teaching in Europe. 

Christine was one of the first teachers in the United States to study with Yamaha Music Foundation instructors in Japan, and for seventeen years she was the Teacher Trainer and Early Childhood Music Specialist at Yamaha's California headquarters. 

A popular clinician, Christine has presented workshops throughout the United States, and in England, Norway, and Singapore. She also has piano solos published by Alfred, including National Federation of Music Club Junior Festival selections. An independent piano teacher in Reno, Nevada, she teaches piano and composition in addition to Music for Little Mozarts preschool classes. She is the mother of two children and the grandmother of three.

How did you become involved in teaching preschool music?

Not long before graduating from college, my high school piano teacher told me that the Yamaha preschool music program, which was then being introduced in the United States, was looking for teachers, and he encouraged me to apply. 

I had not had a lot of pedagogy, since San Francisco State did not have a program, but it didn't concern me, since at that time I thought I was going to be a famous pianist! I always wanted to be a concert pianist or a preschool teacher.

Are you serious?

Yes. Young children always fascinated me, perhaps because I was a shy child and lived mostly in the world of adults. My parents were symphony musicians and started my piano lessons at three. Mother was Concertmaster of the Sacramento Symphony, father was the principal cellist, my grandmother was also a violinist in the Orchestra, and our house was always filled with musicians. Mom and Edna Mae Burnam were friends, and my parents played chamber music with her husband. I spent many hours counting tiles on the ceiling and books on the shelves in the room where they rehearsed. My parents also performed as the Heilbron Trio, and I couldn't wait to be the pianist! 

My brother was seven years younger, and his kindergarten teacher, who was also a cellist and family friend, entertained us with stories about things he did at school. This sparked my curiosity about children and their development. 

When I started teaching Yamaha group lessons, I loved seeing the excitement of first musical experiences on children's faces. I played pieces from my repertoire for them to sing and dance, and I felt very comfortable. The teachers at the Corporate School in San Francisco where I was teaching all received intensive training from Japanese staff sent to work with American teachers. Later, eight of us toured Japan observing classes and working with their best teachers. We even had tea at the home of the Yamaha Corporation President. I traveled to Japan many times through the years.

What is the major difference between teaching young children and older ones?

I've never forgotten what my mentor, Ikuo Tominaga, said to me as we rode the bullet train in Japan. "The important thing with young children is not to explain too much. Doing things is the most important. The children will see the smile on your face and have a great musical experience. In the beginning, you are doing most of the input. As they mature and progress, they will come in excited to show you what they can do." Demonstrating is essential, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how to say things in as few words as possible. I have seen novice teachers almost talk young students to death since their university training was so different from what young children need.

How did you begin to train Yamaha teachers?

After I had been teaching nine or ten years, I was asked to move to Yamaha headquarters in Buena Park, California, to be their Chief Teacher Trainer. The major part of my job for seventeen years was to lead training seminars for teachers throughout the United States, to work with regional and local teachers, and to make presentations to university piano pedagogy classes. That is how I met E.L. Lancaster and his wife Gayle Kowalchyk; at the time he was Director of the Piano Pedagogy program at the University of Oklahoma.

How did Music for Little Mozarts come about?

When Gayle and E.L.'s daughter Kelsey was about four, she had finished Kindermusik. They wanted her to begin piano lessons, but continue the creative and movement activities she had been doing. Since there was not a program like this, and they both had doctorates in piano pedagogy, they decided to develop one. Needing someone with expertise and experience in early childhood music education, they asked me to join the project.

What is the value in starting music lessons so early?

With preschoolers, you have the opportunity to develop the equivalent of "natural talent."

How can "talent" be developed?

Young children soak up musicality through a wide variety of activities like singing, ear training, and listening and dancing to many different styles of music. Also, playing the keyboard with MIDI accompaniment teaches students to listen to the tempo lead-in, then begin and play together as a group while keeping a steady beat. They also learn to adjust tempos, since the group may be playing slower or faster than they practiced. They get very excited about gradually increasing tempos. 

They are exposed to many different musical styles by conducting famous classics like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and operatic selections, pretending to play famous classical piano pieces, and hearing jazzy accompaniments to traditional folk songs. Since many schools have little music instruction today, often even the parents have not had exposure to standard classical repertoire or good jazz. 

In Music for Little Mozarts, students learn solfège or sight singing with fixed do to match pitch and sing expressively. They sing legato and staccato, and learn to breathe within phrases sort of by instinct. We dance with scarves in lyrical passages and tiptoe and hop in staccato passages. Musical form is learned through singing and movement activities. For example, in Robert Schumann's "Wild Rider," we pretend to be horses in the barn, tapping the beat on our knees in the A section. In the B section, they gallop freely and then return to the "barn" before the A section returns. Students are absorbing musical elements, such as emotional and dynamic contrasts, that their fingers may not be able to do this early. As they progress, they will apply all of this to their piano repertoire.

I see how general musicianship is being developed, but can average children this young really learn to play the piano?

They certainly can. Playing begins with black keys and rhythmic reading, without the added layer of learning lines and spaces. Many young children do not know their finger numbers and may have difficulty separating them, so Finger Play songs are important. The first MLM book is pre-reading, then reading in treble and bass clef begins. At the end of the course (two years), students can read and play in Middle C, C, and G positions. Concepts such as intervals are introduced through songs in the Discovery book such as "The Step and Skip March." They enjoy singing and dancing in Motown style in "You Move it to the Right" (for sharps) and "You Move it to the Left" (for flats).

I just graduated seven students from MLM, and clearly see their skills because they are all taking private piano lessons with me now. (I often send MLM graduates to other teachers.) These students don't have bad habits to fix. I am just continuing to develop their technique and I am so excited about their progress. Their parents are even more excited about their enthusiasm and excitement about practicing in "big kids" books! 

They were able to begin Level 1B of the Premier Piano Course, and also play the Repertoire and Technique books in Exploring Piano Classics, Preparatory Level. These children are playing original classical pieces, have reading skills, and possess an extensive musical background and knowledge at an age when many children are just beginning.

MLM is designed for four- to six-year-olds, but is it possible to begin children at two or three?

For students younger than four, I recommend the MLM adaptation by Donna Brink Fox and Karen Farnum Surmani. Designed for preschools, it substitutes rhythm instruments for the keyboard, along with the singing and dancing activities. It has the same musical friend characters with a different story. Because of the physical development of the hand, most children cannot do much on the keyboard prior to four. Some may play at three-and-a-half, but it is not typical. 

Believing their three-year-old is exceptional, parents often think they should begin at that age, but it is not about intelligence. It is about the socialization process—if the child is able to follow directions in a group setting—and most are not that civilized at three. It takes a little more maturation before they function well as part of a group. Also, the ability to read is not a reasonable expectation at three, although it sometimes occurs.

How did the stuffed animals, Mozart Mouse and Beethoven Bear, come about?

We were developing this course when the Mozart Effect was first being discussed—the theory that exposure to classical music in early childhood aids mental development. With preschoolers, learning is done best through a story with characters. Gayle and I have the same sense of humor, and being silly, we suggested that the story would come alive for the children if they had stuffed animals of the characters. E.L., who was a university professor so many years, thought this was impossible. When we finally did it, the warehouse and music retailers had to figure out how to deal with them since it was unique. I was very excited to see the stuffed animals in the Juilliard bookstore a few years ago.

They're cute, but how do they contribute to learning?

The children have their own animals. During class Beethoven Bear sits on the low end of the keyboard because he likes low sounds, while Mozart Mouse sits on the high end, near his favorite sounds. At home the animals are "helpers" with the direction of the pitches on the keyboard. In the class I also use them as puppets. Clara Schumann Cat will say to me, "That was so lovely, I would like to hear it again in your most beautiful voice." Other animals whisper in my ear, and I tell the children what they have said—perhaps Elgar E. Elephant will remind them to play with curved fingers or to sit up tall. 

Children have fantastic imaginations at this age, and they become dear friends to the children. In the Book Four story, since Beethoven Bear and Mozart Mouse won the Talent Show in Book Three, the animals are going to the city to attend the opera, ballet, and orchestra. On the train platform, J.S. Bunny realizes he has forgotten his cello and goes back for it, and the train starts to pull out without him. One of the songs is, "Oh Dear, Oh Dear. Our friend J.S. Bunny is not here." 

As I was singing this song, one little girl had tears welling up in her eyes. She was so concerned her friend J.S. Bunny was going to be left behind. They really relate to these characters. 

In developing MLM, we combined traditional keyboard pedagogy with the kind of "whoo-hoo" experience I wanted the children to have singing and dancing. My purpose in these energetic activities is always serious and pedagogical, while the children think they are just having fun.

Finding the right balance took a great deal of thought and planning. E.L. directed the pedagogical development of the keyboard curriculum. We all worked on everything together at first, but individual roles evolved. Gayle wrote most of the stories. I composed and arranged most of the music. E.L. organized the layout and secured copyright for the recordings. It was very important to me that there be enough repetition of each concept, since young children need that. Through different pieces, they think they are learning something new, but are often getting different experiences with the same concept.

How many is ideal to have in a class?

It depends upon the teacher's energy level and ability to control a group. I have taught in a twenty keyboard lab with fifteen children and their parents in a class, but it is exhausting. I like to have at least five to seven students because the group energy is helpful, and they encourage each other. Sometimes I have the children see how wonderfully one student is curving his fingers, or how beautifully someone played a staccato. They are encouraged by, and emulate, other children their age.

I have heard some teachers say they do not use the Discovery book.

That's sad because it is the heart of the curriculum—the musicianship activities of sight singing, listening, dancing, etc. This develops their love of music and helps them "experience" it through listening and singing. Their little fingers may not be able to make expressive crescendos and diminuendos, but the intention is developing! Listening to the CDs at home or in the car also helps them absorb the sounds, as Suzuki advocated.

How do you get such young students to actually play the piano when you are teaching in groups?

I sing or play a short pattern to the children and have them repeat it. 

I say, "First it's my turn, and then it's yours." When it's my turn, what do you do? 

"We listen." 

When it's your turn, what do you do? 

"We play and sing." 

I think it's very important for them to both sing and play. I tell them singing when playing helps their fingers remember what to do. If you are singing and your fingers get tangled up, you'll be able to jump back in.

To start them I say, "Ready. Listen. 

C-D-E-F G—My Turn. 

C-D E-F-G—Your Turn.

When it's my turn, you listen and read the music in your book. 

When it's your turn, you play and sing."

How do you fix things such as poor hand position?

I constantly patrol the room, which is why it is important to have a "music box" (MIDI, flash drive, or CD player) playing the accompaniments. It maintains tempo so they can play and I am free. Sometimes I support the little hands with mine under theirs. We make a circle between the thumb and pointer finger. I try to keep their wrists flexible and get them to play on their fingertips. Some are able to do things almost immediately, and others may take two or more years. Never give up and never criticize. I also educate parents on the importance of working with their children at home.

How do you do all of these things in one class?

My classes are 40-45 minutes, and I don't talk a lot. If we are going to do Schumann's "Wild Rider," they stand behind the piano bench. I say, "Pretend we are horses in the barn, and we're going to keep the beat. When I say go, we're going to gallop around the room, and then come back to the barn." 

I demonstrate this, and they copy. 

If we are playing, as I tap my baton on the music stand I say, "This is what the orchestra director does. Everyone sit up tall. Hands ready. Are your fingers curved? We are going to play together like a famous orchestra." And we begin. 

To keep the children engaged, I change activities frequently!

Click here to download a .pdf of a teaching sequence used by Christine Barden.

File Name: Barden_Teaching_Sequence.pdf
File Size: 67 kb
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Some teachers teach MLM in a private lesson. Do you think that works?

Yes, I do it myself. I have one student now who I am teaching privately. Since it is only a half-hour lesson, there are fewer singing and movement activities (that I believe are so important), and it's not as much fun. I have also had MLM students privately when the older siblings were my piano students. Then siblings and parents join in the activities.

Sometimes parents are adamant about their child having private lessons. Then I try to have two MLM students in back-to-back lessons. One has a private twenty-minute lesson, followed by the two students for twenty minutes of singing, dancing, and other activities, then twenty minutes with the other child. Although possible, I prefer the first experience be a group lesson.

After forty years, are you getting bored with this?

Absolutely not! I enjoy the excitement of the children over the musical experiences, their sweetness, and the emotional connection with them. I love seeing their development over a period of time. Of course, I enjoy working with my teenagers who are playing Chopin and Bach on an entirely different level. They also keep me practicing.

Working on MLM with Gayle and E.L. was one of the most interesting, rewarding, and pleasurable things I have done in my life. It was truly my life's dream to create a program like this for children—to give them a jump-start into the world of music. 

I was fortunate to have grown up in a musical household, surrounded with music all the time. When I was young I thought everyone had this kind of experience. I want children today to have musical experiences that will remain with them throughout their lives. That is my motivation.

By the way, did J.S. Bunny get to the City?

The next song is, "I Have a Surprise for You." The train conductor enters the car where the music friends are riding, and tucked in his pocket is J.S. Bunny and his cello!

I'm so relieved!

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