Schools using this approach in Hungary (where Kodály was from) excel in all other subjects – and children’s wellbeing
Singing is like breathing – it is something we can all do – even those who consider themselves tonally challenged. Music should be for everyone, not just a privileged few, and it can be the springboard for so many other forms of knowledge and development.
In this article I look at the benefits of teaching music as a gradual process – introducing it as a natural experience from earliest childhood to the first years of primary education.
I trained as a Kodály music teacher. With the Kodály method the voice is the primary instrument. Musicality and musicianship are taught using a gently progressive approach aiming to develop the “whole brain”.
It is an organic process. From a physical experience, it gradually becomes a more intellectual, abstract and written one, developing the ‘inner voice’ so that the brain becomes as musically adept as it is with word based thoughts. This happens so gently it is achieved almost by osmosis. A highly social and collaborative approach ensures enjoyment and achievement are the rule, not the exception.
Children learn pitch through a movable doh, using their hands and bodies to fix the notes. Rhythms are given syllable names that fit the note length. This creates a structure that encourages exactness and creativity. It produces a high standard of musicianship. But there are other benefits.
Research has found that schools using this approach in Hungary (where Kodály was from) excel in all other subjects and wellbeing, compared with schools that don’t. In other studies around the world music is found to have a profound developmental and positive effects upon our brains no matter what age we are.
Early years means from 0 to seven
So, why is music so important in these very early years? (Here, I’m talking about 0-3, and 0-7.) From my experience, it’s about the essential wellbeing of the child. Learning requires several fundamentals to be in place. Young children need to be able to listen, communicate, concentrate, feel good, take part in groups, form person to person relationships, to think creatively…
The more “formal” types of learning at this stage involve enhancing vocabulary, questioning skills, sequencing, memory work, co-ordination, counting, cultural and spiritual awareness. They all feed into curriculum-based subjects later on.
A well delivered early years music session will develop all these skills. The leader works with age-appropriate material, and needs to understand the stages of child development. Different teaching styles – visual, kinaesthetic and auditory learning – can be used to create development and growth. It is also helpful to remember that at this stage the ‘ego’ is paramount. A young child has little understanding of self and other, and how others see them. There are also different personality types – the child who can only think of his own gratification, the shy child who is too nervous to join. A teacher has to be able to ‘read’ the children and the group, delivering planned lessons, but constantly adjusting the flow of the session to changing moods.
Tuning into childlike sense of the absurd
Children at this age naturally learn through their bodies. They have a delightfully absurd sense of humour – it helps them define what is real and not real in their world. They like a strong sense of order and respond well to boundaries, and a practical rhythm in a session that creates pace and balance.
Sitting together in a circle – with simple props, toys and percussive instruments – provides the essential structure. The emphasis is on physically feeling/learning pitch, pulse and then rhythm. Games and actions – peekaboo, hide and seek, clapping, skipping, dancing, being animals – all help make the learning immediate, memorable, engaging. And fun. Other skills can be sensitively introduced. Adding absurd humour and improvisation – encouraging gentleness, thoughtfulness, listening and creative imagination – develops wider learning. By introduing simple discussions – using open questioning and obvious answers – the music teach can help expand language and enquiry. Along with singing adjectives that describe an object – a glittery star.
Co-ordination singing games help develop the brain, memory and sequencing. Difficulties with this can sometimes be an early indicator of dyslexia (and can be used to help this too). These games create an unconscious musicality, an ability to pitch and intuitively understand pulse. Kodaly considered this stage to be the most important stage of musical development- not the conservatoire…but the early years!
What’s the good of learning an aria, or a sonata or an incredibly fast guitar riff if you can’t sing and do the basics! This is the stage where an innate musicality is acquired.
Play-based learning in primary school
I include 5-7 in this stage as the brain is still infantile. Reason has not developed a great deal and the child still responds best to a play-based, informal style of learning. However, if the child has already been doing music then an introduction of simple and progressive intellectual and conscious musical learning can begin. I teach a body based game of shapes to the names of doh, Re, Mi, etc. This progresses naturally to an ‘interval game’ where we jump to the right shape: e.g Lah to Mi.
This is hugely popular. It combines body based “unconscious” learning with the Solfa names which will be so useful later on. It also takes the fear out of singing intervals. You can make this progressively more challenging as the children’s “inner ear” develops. Introducing the Kodaly rhythm cards – where given syllables show rhythm length and are read from left to right – unconsciously prepares the mind for reading, encourages concentration, sequencing and memory skills. This backs up some of the literacy programme, as does singing rhymes, clapping the rhythm and syllables of words.
Songs are a great vehicle for learning about the world: nature, different cultures, history and human empathy. My classes can range from talking about what a cobbler was, to harvests, seeds and plant growth. To caring for each other, and having a positive attitude. A small song about a wishing star can be a talking point about science/stars and creating wishes for others to be happy – extending the mind beyond their immediate surroundings and self. These types of songs can extend into simple improvising.
All it takes is a little imagination. Creativity and music becomes the medium through which an extended amount of learning can be reached. With this in mind, music should be central to a child’s learning from as young as three. It is met with such enthusiasm and joy no matter the background or attainment ability of the child and can be used to bridge attainment gaps and lack of enthusiasm in learning.
There is really no argument for eliminating or belittling music in the curriculum. There is every reason for it to become a well taught, universal subject at the core of our children’s learning, delivered by well trained professionals. We all have a voice – making it an organic and cheaper way of introducing music. Let us rethink the place music has in our classrooms today.
This is the second part in a music education series by music teacher and songwriter Abi Rooley-Towle. In Part Three: Songs of Freedom she introduces music to primary school children aged 7-12
Featured image by QuoteFancy.com