Friday, April 13, 2012

By ear

I have been trying a new method with a piano student. All the methods I've seen, even the one that I learned, was by rote. "Look at this, play that. That's what music is! Ok, now you do it".

Unsatisfactory and no wonder so few kids survive elementary lessons and go on to play more than the beginning phrase of Fur Elise and Heart and Soul. SO SAD!

As I begin to learn more about music education - where it started abroad and here in the US, curricular and methodology fads that have come and gone, and more and more research about how the child actually learns - I am amazed and challenged and full of wonder.

I wonder why piano teaching is still "Look at this, play that."

Why aren't we teaching these little ones to be musicians right off the bat? Sure, it's a bit harder to teach that way at first when say, you (I'm meaning "I" here) haven't been taught that way but that's how your ideal philosophy of music ed. plays out so you have to find your way.

Make sense? Maybe I'll just explain what I've been doing versus what I've seen done (and done in the past, so I am not trying to pass judgment...necessarily. Just trying to present another, possibly better, way.)

How about, instead of "Look at this, play that," let's have "Hear this, figure it out, and play it in any key however you want because it's music and I want you to be creative and use higher thinking and not just reading symbols."

My student, S., is a 2nd grade girl at a private elementary school.  She comes from a lovely family who I know quite well - our former landlords.  I have seen this girl grow up from the time we moved in when she was three years old.  Such a sweet girl.  Good head on her shoulders.  I was thrilled when her mom called to ask if I knew anyone who could teach her piano.

I had a moment when I heard her message, where I thought, this is going to be too hard.  Now, not that teaching piano lessons is hard, but because I knew I was at a point in my music educating that I didn't feel comfortable teaching her the old way.  But the only method I knew I wanted to use has not been directly adapted to piano instruction.  I would have to forge the way for myself.  And, her.

I could take the easy way out and give her instruction to someone else.  But, in all honesty, I needed the money, and I love this family, and I really wanted to do it.  The mom said she would watch my boys for me while I taught her daughter.  So, we set it up.

The methods I use in my teaching are a combination of Orff and Kodaly.  John Feierabend is probably my biggest influence at the moment...I really think he makes a good case for teaching how kids learn, and I've seen the principles he applies to his method apply in other teaching areas as well, so it makes sense.  I have been trying to teach my students to use their inner hearing more, from the earliest age I have them at Kindergarten, so that by the time they reach 4th grade, they will be able to hear what it is they would like to sing/play/create and reproduce it using the basic building blocks of beat, pitch, and expression that I have been feeding them over the years.  It becomes an innate part of their musical self, as they are the ones creating the music.  My lessons are (trying, not always successfully, but getting better) geared toward giving them musical independence so they can create songs, rhythms, and expressive musical gestures based off of example.  The hardest, yet most vital part is training their inner ear so they can more easily access this part of themselves.

We begin with solfege and rhythms in duple, then triple meter.  Most traditional American folk songs are in duple or triple with simple solfege (using do-re-mi and sol-la)  They "learn" these songs - that is in quotations because they often already know them - and then I play part of it on an instrument, such as a glockenspiel.  I might ask them to sing one phrase of the song and figure it out on the glockenspiel, telling them what notes are used, but not the order or the rhythm.  They should sing and figure it out on their own.  And, they will!  It seems so simple to us musicians, but as young developing musicians, this can be quite frightening at first as it seems rather open-ended.  But, with a little encouragement, they realize they can sing the notes and match the pitch and figure it out.

Then we move on to the realization that the solfege matches what they played too.  We stay in one key for a while, getting used to it, then slowly introduce other keys, then other modalities, then harmonic ideas.  Slowly, they are able to master simple songs and even transfer them to any key and use their ears to make music.  When they have mastered a song, I give them the sheet music to help them remember it.  (This is an Orff-ism).  We go through playing it while looking at the music so they can get used to what the music looks like that they are playing.

I have been doing this same thing with my piano student...for a couple months without an official piano book, then I ordered (upon recommendation by Mr. Feierabend himself  - I emailed him to ask and he actually emailed me back!) Marilyn Lowe's beginner piano book.  Not quite sure what I think of it yet, but it does keep in line with training the ear before the eye.  It's just a bit confusing to me the teacher, but S. loves it.  It also comes with a cd for her to play along with, and chant rhythm syllables and solfege syllables to.  It even has exercises to encourage improvisation, which S. is really taking off with.  Every week I come to teach she sits down and starts "noodling" around on the keyboard playing little ditties she made up in any one of 4 keys we've been working with.  I'll listen and then ask her if she could play that in another key, and she promptly figures it out.  I love that.  She is playing with two hands, can often figure out the bass line of any given song when asked, and is playing in 5 keys as well as their parallel minors.  Her fingering work is excellent, and she really enjoys practicing every day, according to her mom.  She still does not like to "figure out" a new song I give her.  For example, this week was "This Old Man."  She kept waiting for me to give her the answer of the next note to play, and refusing to sing it for herself.  I think she gets insecure and then won't try it.  But, once I walk away for a minute to talk to her mom, she tries it out and can usually do it.  We improvise in any one of our 5 major or minor keys using duple or triple meter.  I can't believe how well she does, and I am so enjoying teaching this way. 

That's not to say I feel like I know what I'm doing, completely, yet....but it sure is more enjoyable teaching someone to make music rather than copy music.

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