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Possibilities for piano instruction.

When American Music Teacher asked several musicians and teachers to share their thoughts, hopes and concerns for music teaching in the twenty-first century, Ken Guilmartin, developer of the Music Together music and movement program, wrote about the exciting promises of new music making. His vision includes a restoration of the natural ability to speak the language of music by ages 3 or 4, which means that very young children will understand music and be able to audiate, that is, think musically.

Acquisition of these skills, in his opinion, is dependent not so much on innate ability as on proper environmental conditions. Guided by skilled early-childhood music educators, he believes, "The musically active family will be at the heart of this renaissance." (1) Families in the twenty-first century interested in participating in this renaissance will need to make informed decisions about when and how to establish the best environmental conditions for the music experiences of their children. Early-childhood music educators will need to continually re-examine old ideas and consider new ones to assure their teaching practices make good sense based on current research. Instrumental instructors will need to be mindful of and concerned about major issues in the music education field, so that along with parents and other music educators, they can work together in this period of new possibilities for developing independent musical thinkers who participate comfortably in music activities.

Instrumental instructors may be familiar with the gnawing feeling described by Guilmartin that somehow their job ought to be easier. Guilmartin does not advocate that children should work harder and achieve more, but believes that the work often is unnecessarily hard because of a lack of good development in early childhood. The result is that children often get lost in the methods, styles and techniques used to compensate for their developmental delay. Too many children never realize their potential, many quitting lessons in frustration. There is hope, however, because of extensive and focused research throughout the last fifty years on the development of music aptitude, that new possibilities in early childhood education and instrumental instruction can make Guilmartin's vision a reality in this millennium.

Instrumental instructors willing to become informed about and involved in developing readiness through a strong aural and movement foundation, and also willing to consider a "body-to-mind, ear-to-eye progression to playing an instrument" (2) will discover renewed energy and confidence along with the joys of seeing surprising results with their students.

The Nature-Nurture Issue

When does readiness begin? Is it innate potential or the result of a favorable environment, as Guilmartin suggests? Although conflict continues as to whether nature or nurture is more important, Edwin Gordon, well known throughout the world for his fifty years of work as a preeminent researcher and author in the music education field, clarifies this issue by saying it is reasonable to state that music aptitude is a product of both innate potential and musical exposure. He adds that empirical knowledge shows us that people are born with varying degrees of music aptitude. More importantly, Gordon states clearly, "Regardless of the level of music aptitude children are born with, they must have favorable early informal and formal experiences in music in order to maintain that level of potential. Further, unless they have favorable early informal and formal environmental experiences with music, that level of music aptitude will never fully be realized in achievement." (3) It is clear the earlier informal guidance and formal instruction occur, the higher the level at which a child's aptitude will stabilize. (4)

The Characteristics of a Favorable Environment

Play and Movement

What are the characteristics of a favorable musical environment? The answer to this question can assist you with developing your own early childhood classes or when recommending community programs to parents interested in developing their child's potential. Jennifer Hardacre summarizes her survey of past and current writings about young children by stating that play, "with its supposed benefits to the development of children, looms large in the world of early childhood education." (5) Mary Jalongo names play as the "essential style of learning during early childhood." (6) Suzuki's "mother tongue" approach to music education also advocates learning music using a playful, imitative approach.

The inclusion of movement in the musical play activities also deserves consideration. Patricia Shehan Campbell and Carol Scott-Kassner describe how movement is "the essence of children's play and the manner through which they come to know their world." (7) Gordon more specifically emphasizes the connection between rhythm and movement, stating, "Rhythm has its foundation in movement." (8) He recommends particular attention be given to the four movement elements labeled by movement specialist Rudolph von Laban--flow, weight, space and time. Each of these elements exists along the following descriptive continuums: flow as bound or free movement, weight as strong or gentle movement, space as direct or indirect and time as fast or slow. (9)

Acculturation of Sounds

In addition to play and movement, a rich environment of musical sounds must be available to young children to help them develop a musical listening vocabulary. Performing short songs and chants for children in a wide variety of tonalities and meters, as well as exposing them to a variety of live and recorded music, enables children to begin the process of learning the syntax of music. Provide the opportunity to absorb the sounds of music, just as there is the opportunity to absorb the sounds of language.

A Model for Musical Guidance and Instruction

Although play is well supported as the medium for appropriate instruction, it does not replace musical guidance and instruction, the teacher or the curriculum. It is important to consider how to connect the developmentally appropriate play activities with musical guidance or instruction opportunities in a comprehensive model. (10) Guilmartin's vision that young children be able to understand music is attainable in such a model because of Gordon's research. His reference to young children naturally learning to speak the language of music is happening across the country in programs based on Gordon's music learning theory.

The basis of this theory is an expansion and refinement of the "sound-before-sight-before-theory" (11) and is similar to the work of another pioneer in music education, Shinichi Suzuki. Both Gordon and Suzuki emphasize how children learn to "process" music as well as make comparisons to language development. (12) The cornerstone of Gordon's music theory, however, lies in the development of audiation of tonal and rhythm patterns, which is similar to the development of thinking in language. Audiation, a term coined by Gordon, "takes place when one hears and comprehends music silently when the sound of the music is no longer or never has been physically present." Gordon contrasts this with imitation by explaining that imitation is a product; whereas, audiation is a process. "Imitation is learning through someone else's ears. Audiation is learning through one's own ears." (13) Pete Seeger adds insight:
 Music teachers sometimes overemphasize
 the importance of learning to read
 music early Would you teach a baby to
 read before it could talk? Should a teenager
 study dance notation before learning
 to dance? Musicians need, in the
 beginning, to train their ears, their
 vocal cords, or their hands, and to
 develop the sense of music that tells them
 when to sing what. (14)

With these words, Eric Bluestine suggests that Seeger is recommending children should learn musical skills the same way they learn language skills--by hearing and performing before reading and writing. In addition, Seeger is emphasizing that children must develop two skills simultaneously--performance ability and "the sense of music that tells them when to sing what." That "sense of music" is audiation. (15)

The learning structure in Gordon's music learning theory takes place in a pyramid-like hierarchy with listening as the foundation layer, singing, chanting and moving as the second layer, reading music as the third layer and writing music as the top layer. A comparison can be made to language development in which we first listen to language, then experiment until we are able to communicate and, finally, learn to read and write. The sequential development then to music literacy, which begins at birth, is the same as that of language literacy: listen--speak (sing and play)--read--write. The importance of environment in this process is emphasized: How children learn to think in language is largely dependent upon how they have been prepared to use language in the first few years of life. (16) Similarly, "how children learn to think musical thought is largely dependent on how those children have been prepared to audiate during the first few years of life." (17) This preparation for audiation is the focus in early-childhood informal music education for young children birth through approximately age 5.

Informal Early Childhood Music

How is this music education model, which is based on audiation, practically realized in an early-childhood music classroom? Lesson time would be spent with caregivers and children actively participating in playful and developmentally appropriate activities that encourage a repertoire of each of the following: movements, songs and chants, and both tonal and rhythm patterns. A wide variety of tonalities, meters and movements would be included in the lesson to not only enrich the experiences, but also to help children better understand the more common ones by experiencing the differences between each. The simple songs and chants would be based not only on major and minor tonalities, but also on Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian and Locrian. Rhythm chants would be based not only on the usual duple and triple meters, but also on unusual meters. Most of the songs and chants would be presented by the human voice without words, because children will respond more quickly and can pay more attention to the music. (18) The playful activities would include babbling, imitation, repetition and exploration of tonal and rhythm patterns along with free-flowing movement.

Parents, teachers and caregivers interested in early childhood classes may want to consider using an available resource entitled, Music Play. (19) Based on A Music Learning Theory for Newborn and Young Children, (20) this developmentally appropriate music curriculum guide assists with planning informal, playful lessons to develop singing, rhythm chanting and moving in very young children. A CD with performances of many songs and chants in a wide variety of tonalities and meters accompanies the book. Informative and easy-to-read sections discuss topics related to music development and music play in very young children.

Formal Piano Instruction

Music Literacy

How one takes this movement and aural readiness to the reading of notation is an important step and one that needs careful examination. All piano instructors are familiar with the three major approaches to music literacy: (a) the middle-C approach, appreciated for its logic and ability to stand the test of time; (b) the intervallic approach, appreciated for its development of spatial and directional reading, as well as development of good beginning technique and (c) the multi-key approach, appreciated for its early introduction of chordal playing, as well as its emphasis on transposition and harmonization. Although each of these approaches has strengths and weaknesses, it is most important to recognize that none fits well into the model similar to language development: listen--speak (sing and play)--read--write. They emphasize a mind-to-body, eye-to-ear progression rather than a body-to-mind, ear-to-eye progression. An alternative to these traditional approaches is one that incorporates the development of musicianship away from the keyboard and will help students continue to develop audiation so they can see what they hear and hear what they see.

The steps for developing this independent musicianship through audiation in formal piano instruction can be accomplished easily in the context of an enjoyable group lesson combined with additional private instruction. Marilyn Lowe suggests that students spend forty-five to sixty minutes in group activities revolving around four particular aspects of piano instruction (a) teaching audiation and skills: movement, singing and chanting; (b) developing keyboard technique; (c) encouraging keyboard exploration, creativity and improvisation; and (d) presenting keyboard pieces. (21) Instruction in the audiation/skills section would focus on rhythmically chanting, singing and moving with music that eventually will be performed on the keyboard. Continuous fluid movement, as well as other Laban movements, would be integrated throughout the lesson. With younger children, the rhythmic movement first would focus on the smaller microbeat and eventually move to the bigger macrobeat. Later, students would be asked to layer the three components of rhythm: the small beat, large beat and melodic rhythm of the piece. In addition, rhythm and tonal pattern instruction would continue to help students develop a music vocabulary. Initially, the patterns would be sung or chanted on a neutral syllable such as "bah" for rhythm patterns and "bum" for tonal patterns. When the students are able to accurately imitate, solfege syllables would be introduced to help them remember and organize the patterns. Once students can associate the syllables, they would need additional practice recognizing the tonality or meter of familiar music. Once these steps are completed, students can begin to learn to read and write the tonal and rhythm notation of the patterns that are now familiar to them. Soon they are performing pieces that begin on F as do or on G as la. To assure technical as well as tonal and rhythmic understanding are well in place before students are asked to coordinate these skills with reading from the staff, keyboard performance pieces initially would be taught by rote.

Because the use of solfege is key to bringing what students hear to learning to play an instrument, it is important to consider which tonal and rhythm solfege systems to use in instruction. The most important goal when choosing syllables to associate with tonal and rhythm patterns is to make sure the syllables are based on musical syntax. (22) Of the familiar tonal systems--the interval names, numbers, fixed-do, moveable-do with a do-based minor, and moveable-do with a la-based minor, the only one that is based on syntax is the moveable-do with a la-based minor. Familiar rhythm systems are eurhythmic words, mnemonic words, 1-e-and-a syllables, Kodaly syllables and beat-function syllables. A rhythm system based on beat function rather than phonology, notation or theory is the best choice for helping students organize the sounds they are audiating. This beat-function system is easily learned: (1) Du (pronounced doo) is always the macrobeat. (2) Duple meters use du-de (doo-day) for beat divisions; triple meters use du-da-di (doo-dah-dee). (3) Further divisions in either meter use the syllable ta. (4) Unusual meters with uneven macrobeats use the letter b for divisions, such as du-be-du-ba-bi.

Those unfamiliar with the moveable-do system with a/a-based minor and the beat-function system may find the MLR Verbal Association Skills Program (Melody and Rhythm) (23) by James Froseth and Albert Blaser to be a helpful resource. In addition, Gordon's recent book, Rhythm.' Contrasting the Implications of Audiation and Notation (24) contains a thorough examination of the beat-function system and includes an accompanying instructional CD.

The possibilities for new music making are clear. A strong aural and movement foundation that prepares students to think musically and a formal piano instruction model that continues an aural-to-visual path to music literacy can help students realize their music potential. Moreover, it is the children's understanding that will keep them involved in making music long after the lessons stop. (25)


(1.) Kenneth Guilmartin, "Early Childhood Education in the New Millenium," American Music Teacher, 49 (6), (June/July 2000): 40-41.

(2.) L. Heyge, J. Hannagan and M. Wilson, Music makers: At the keyboard, year 1 (Greensboro, NC: Musikgarten/Music Matters, 2001), vii.

(3.) Edwin Gordon, Introduction to Research and the Psychology of Music (Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, 1998), 9.

(4.) Gordon, A Music Learning Theory for Newborn and Young Children (Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, 1997).

(5.) Jennifer Hardacre, "What is This Thing Called `Play'?" Early Childhood Connections, 3 (3), (1997): 15-19.

(6.) Mary Jalongo and Laurie Stamp, "Play: The Foundation for the Arts in Early Childhood," The Arts in Children's Lives: Aesthetic Education in Early Childhood (Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1997), 64.

(7.) Patricia Shehan Campbell and Carol Scott-Kassner, "From Theory to Practice in Teaching Music to Children," Music in Childhood: From Preschool Through the Elementary Grades (New York, NY: Schirmer Books, 1995), 189.

(8.) Gordon, Rhythm.' Contrasting the Implications of Audiation and Notation (Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, 2000), 117.

(9.) Wendy Valerio, Alison Reynolds, Beth Bolton, Cynthia Taggart and Edwin Gordon, Music Play (Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, 1998).

(10.) Danette Littleton, "Music Learning and Child's Play," General Music Today, 12 (1), (1998): 8-15.

(11.) Eric Bluestine, The Ways Children Learn Music: An Introduction and Practical Guide to Music Learning Theory (Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, 1995).

(12.) B. Creider, "Music Learning Theory and the Suzuki Method," Readings in Music Learning Theory, eds. Darel Walters and Cynthia Taggert (Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, 1989), 260-271.

(13.) Gordon, Learning Sequences in Music: Skill, Content, and Patterns, Rev. ed. (Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, 1997), 9.

(14.) Pete Seeger, Henscratches and Flyspecks (New York, NY: Berkley Medallion Books, 1973), 9.

(15.) Bluestine.

(16.) Gordon, 1997.

(17.) Valerio, et. al., 8.

(18.) Cynthia Taggart, "Early Childhood Music Classes." Information presented at parent orientation meetings of the Community Music School, Michigan State University.

(19.) Valerio, et. al.

(20.) Gordon, 1997.

(21.) Marilyn Lowe, "Music Moves for Piano." Information presented in Springfield, MO, 2001.

(22.) Bluestine.

(23.) James Froseth and Albert Blaser, MLR Verbal Association Skills Program (Melody and Rhythm) (Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, 1999).

(24.) Gordon, Rhythm: Contrasting the Implications of Audiation and Notation (Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, 2000).

(25.) Heyge, et. al., viii.

Barbara J. Hendricks holds a master degree in music education from Michigan State University. She is the mother of five and an experienced music educator living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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Author:Hendricks, Barbara J.
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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