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Brain trust: Words of wisdom from early childhood experts

Brain trust: Words of wisdom from early childhood experts

There's nothing more invigorating than a room full of young children eager to learn music. And there may not be anything more important to all music educators than giving these young children a good start. 

In addition to a love of music and children, early childhood specialists need comprehensive training. Three top thinkers in early childhood music education—Music Learning Theory specialist Richard Grunow, Musikgarten's Lorna Heyge, and Ken Guilmartin of Music Together—were good enough to speak with me about learning, children, and music.

And now, let's get started: the kids are getting restless!

Richard Grunow is Professor of Music Education at the Eastman School of Music. His research and teaching focus on Music Learning Theory, and he is a principal author of Jump Right In: The Instrumental Series. He received a B.S. in Music Education from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and a Master of Music and a Ph.D. in Music Education from the University of Michigan. Our Skype conversation was detailedand fascinating.

SG: Can you give our readers an overview of Music Learning Theory?

RG: I met Ed Gordon [Edwin Gordon, who developed Music Learning Theory] in 1974. The thing that was stimulating to me back then was the fact that it was just common sense, but if there was anything radical about it, it was simply that it was a departure from much of what was going on in the current practice. The whole idea of a connection between singing and moving and playing an instrument and being musical is not a new idea, but somehow it just got out of the mix. 

Ed Gordon's work is steeped in research, and he's also very meticulous. Basically what he's saying is that you learn language in a manner that's very similar to the way you learn music and vice versa. There are four vocabularies: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. 

I think the one thing that's probably opened up for me is the whole idea of improvisation. In recent years, we've concentrated much more on developing a big listening vocabulary. If children have a big listening vocabulary, they probably will start to improvise.

The thing that I think probably frustrates a lot of teachers is the whole idea of solfège and rhythm syllables. But once they get a handle on it, it makes all kinds of sense.

SG: Is there a particular reason that the syllables "bah," and "bum" were chosen?

RG: I think that's a great question. First of all, there's nothing really sacred about those syllables other than the fact that if you use "Bah, bah, bah, bah, bah" for rhythm, and if you use "Bum, bum, bum" for tones, that helps you discriminate between the tonal patterns and the rhythm patterns. 

The tonal syllables are based on function, and perhaps that's one of the big differences between Music Learning Theory and a lot of other approaches. We are really leading to comprehension through hearing function—tonality, meter—and not through individual notes or individual rhythms. 

There's also the difference between sign and symbol. A sign is something you perform, like "do-mi-do," and then when you show them that, in notation,they read that in notation. But they don't actually read "do-mi-do," they read what's on the staff. 

The same thing is true about rhythm. So you perform signs, and you read symbols. That's another big issue about Music Learning Theory.

SG: And that's a big issue!

RG: And there's no prenotational system for us, either. We don't do stick notation because nobody reads stick notation in the big picture, so we do notation that's real notation.

SG: Could you talk a little bit about audiation?

RG: Obviously the word has been around for a long time. Gordon always uses the analogy that audiation is to music what thought is to language.

SG: I like that.

RG: And audiation gets deeper. If I say to you, can you hear in your head "Mary Had a Little Lamb," people say, yes, I can hear that. Now, can you hear chord changes that could go with that? Another harmonic part? Can you take it and put it into minor? Can you hear it in a feeling of three? Improvise another part? Can you develop it? And there's a difference between audiation and what a lot of folks think of as inner hearing.

Richard Grunow works with music educators at a Jump Right In Certification Workshop.

SG: So it's not just hearing it, it's thinking about it.

RG: Yes. Exactly. In your head right now, can you hear "Mary Had a Little Lamb"? Well, now, what can you do with it? That's where the audiation comes in. Audiation is about comprehension.

SG: How would a piano teacher start to work on these concepts with students?

RG: First of all, I would have kids play what they sing, and I would have them play at musical tempos. I would have kids singing, singing, singing, and then playing what they're singing on the piano. But not just the melody: I'd start to teach them a bass line and a harmony part. And I'd have them play the melody in the left hand and maybe the harmony part in the right hand—and in lots of different keys.

With language, students learn to listen with comprehension as well as read with comprehension. The same thing should be true in music: you should be anticipating and predicting as you listen. And that should get the attention of every music teacher.

SG: And parent!

Lorna Heyge is a grande dame of early childhood music education. She began her career as a traditional performance-oriented teacher, but, after being exposed to early childhood music classes in Germany, she found herself falling in love with teaching young children. She started working in early childhood music in 1971, and, in 1994, she and Montessori educator Audrey Sillick founded Musikgarten. She spends part of every year in Weimar, and I reached her there by phone.

SG: Tell us about your background.

LH: I went to the Eastman School of Music and did a bachelor's degree there, and then I was an exchange student in Germany. I did a master's degree at Northwestern University, and then I received another scholarship to Germany. I ended up doing two more degrees, a performance degree in organ and a Ph.D. in musicology.

I had a wonderful time living and studying in Germany. It was at that time that I had a job as a director of a music school and became exposed to early childhood. I became involved in early childhood, and that's where I've stayed for the rest of my life. 

If you want to teach early childhood, you have to have a very extensive background. In addition to your music background you have to have an extensive background in understanding children and how they learn generally, and specifically how they learn music. Once you have all that knowledge, you must always continue to be very open to the art of teaching. That's a real calling.

SG: Do your teachers follow a similar path? Are your teachers musicians who find their way into early childhood teaching, or do they have a mix of backgrounds?

LH: For the most part they are musicians. We have mothers who have had a lot of music along the way and increasing numbers of people who are orchestral musicians who realize that they want the music making side of our culture to continue.

With early childhood programs the most important thing you're doing is adult education. You're advocating for what the child is learning, and I think if there's one role that we as music teachers need to learn, it is how to advocate for what we're doing. The first step to that is to develop a trust relationship with the parents. You can't get any place until people know you're interested—genuinely interested—in the children, and that you have a well-thought-out plan for music to be part of the children's lives.

Music offers children and families so many benefits in addition to the obvious of making music. Music establishes community. It is something your child does with other children. In addition to that, when music is taught appropriately to young children, they are moving most of the time, and movement is the deepest way of learning for young children. Lastly, music is a preclinical dose of treatment for many things that have been labeled learning disabilities—speech problems, motor problems. I would never say, "Come to my music class instead of going to a therapist," but there are many therapists who might say, "Try a good music class."

SG: Since we're a piano magazine, I feel that I have to ask how this moves into later music study. I know you have your program that goes to about ages nine or ten. Our readership would ask, "And then what happens?"

LH: I think we do a fine job of making that first challenging bridge, moving from early childhood classes to piano. We highly recommend that children move to group piano classes. Our curriculum for group piano has a very high success rate, for being in a group keeps many children in music longer. They want to comeback to the group and to a good teacher. Movement and singing, basic necessary ingredients in early instrumental study, are so much easier and more fun in the group. 

There's still a bridge that needs to be made [after the student completes the Musikgarten group piano program and moves into more advanced study]. The key part here is that both teachers, the Musikgarten teacher and the private piano teacher, must be interested in communicating about what their approaches have been, yet leaving the other teacher freedom. 

SG: At what point do parents stop coming to class?

LH: We feel very strongly that the parents should be a part of the class through the three-year-olds. Starting at age four, parents come to the last fifteen minutes of class, and we continue that through the group piano lessons. We have such a fine opportunity to educate two generations—this I consider a big part of that advocacy piece. Many of these parents have never had a successful music experience in their own lives. We have got to get them excited about music so that they continue that tough road they've got ahead of them, supporting their child when interest wanes. 

One thing that I would say to piano teachers is: give serious thought to group teaching. The child learns so much more and is so much more motivated by it. But it's hard work, and you have to give it a lot of thought.

Kenneth K. Guilmartin conceived and led the development of the Music Together program for the Center for Music and Young Children in Princeton, NJ. A graduate of Swarthmore College, he studied composition and pedagogy at Manhattan School of Music and is certified in Dalcroze Eurhythmics by the Manhattan Dalcroze Institute. Ken Guilmartin is exuberant and energizing, and he begins by describing his path to becoming an educator of young children.

SG: I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about how you became interested in teaching very young children.

KG: That was quite an adventure for me. My first piano teacher was Frances Clark, and my most frequent piano teacher was Richard Chronister.

SG: That's a good pedigree.

KG: I was a difficult piano student. I began as a teenager; I didn't like reading all those black dots. I wasn't that interested in classical music. They were very good with me, however, and I learned so much about teaching from the way they handled me. My own interest in early childhood music education began when I was a Dalcroze teacher. I was working with opera singers and dancers, but also three- and four-year-olds. Then I had my own child. There were many other influences, but that was probably the most profound one!

SG: Why do you mix the ages in class? That's something I found intriguing.

KG: Early on, my coauthor Lili Levinowitz and I had the usual classes of toddlers and twos, and then the threes. What happened is that parents would bring babies in portable car seats and put them on the side of the room. It was only a matter of weeks before Lili and I noticed that the babies weren't asleep. They were kicking, and they were rocking. Then we recognized that some were singing on the resting tone of the song we were just doing. So we thought, well, let's bring the babies into the circle [with their older siblings], and we saw that they were totally engaged in what we were doing. 

What we realized is that when children have what we call basic music competence, defined as being able to sing in tune AND at the same time with accurate rhythm, then maybe they're ready to understand what the music teacher wants. If development is truly normal—not normative, but normal—children often achieve that by age three or four, sometimes even a little earlier. 

In our culture, grown-ups don't make music anymore; they turn it on. So children don't get the idea that, "Oh, I can be a music maker." Consequently they don't practice music behaviors in their play, and most children don't reach this basic music competence level in our culture till between the ages of five and nine. We say that music development is typically delayed as much as two-to-five years. Our mixed-age, developmentally appropriate approach accommodates this wide developmental range.

SG: Delayed as opposed to what it used to be?

KG: As opposed to what happens in so-called musical families where everybody is making music in one way or another. The same thing happens in indigenous tribal societies where everybody sings, everybody dances. So we try to replicate this making-music-is-normal-and-everybody-can-do-it learning environment for families in class and at home.

SG: And how about the transition to "traditional" piano lessons?

KG: Our Big Kids program is for five-to-seven-year-olds. Our focus in the older group is on the primary instrument of yourself— singing, movement, rhythm. The real readiness is inside, and that readiness will translate to instrumental study. In regular Music Together, the goal is basic music competence. In Big Kids, the goal is basic music literacy, becoming fluent in "speaking" the language of music while also experiencing the symbol systems for that language.

SG: Would you talk about the music? I know you use folk music and that you draw from many cultures and backgrounds.

KG: In Music Together, what the "Together" means is with grown-ups. We understand from research and from early childhood educators that the way very young children develop is through the model of grown-ups that they're attached to, so we want the grown-ups to be music makers. 

The music cannot be kiddie music. It drives the grown-ups nuts! So our strategy from the beginning was to do music that they would like and that would be accessible to young children. It might be a song like "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain," but with a certain sophistication in the arrangement or in the adapted lyrics. 

There are quite a few original compositions, many of which I wrote in response to the environment. We use a rich variety of tonalities and meters—not just major and duple—in styles from jazz and blues to classical. We have lots of songs without words because so many of the children are not using words yet. Those create a wonderful playfulness that gets people out of the performance orientation of having to remember the words right.

SG: Could you tell me about the kind of people you look for as teachers?

KG : It takes a special breed to be interested in early childhood as opposed to preparing children for performance. Perhaps we find our best recruits in parents who used to teach music or dance and who sing well, early childhood people, and theater people in general. Theater people have multiple skills, and they understand a crowd. 

I'd encourage more piano teachers to consider this kind of teaching. It can be so much fun, really gets you out of your box! And it deepens your understanding of music development in ways that help your work with students of all ages. It's also a great morning job when all your regular students are in school. 

So many people who have gotten excited about what we are doing say, "This has been such a blessing to do this work because I get to use all of myself: my love for children, my love for music. Somehow I've been able to put it all together."

SG: I think those sound like perfect parting words.

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