I found Music Learning Theory (MLT) when trying to reach my non-traditional piano students but it has quickly become the way I teach ukulele, flute, and voice as well.
I'm not an expert on MLT. This blog is just to explain why I've changed the way I teach and what that means for your child in lessons, classes, and music therapy.
If you want more information than I have here about MLT, please visit the Gordon Institute for Music Learning:
Some background explanation as to why I've changed things is important first. When I opened this studio, my purpose was to blend my 2 professions - music therapy and early childhood music education. I worked for many years in a variety of public and private schools, private homes, and other music studios before opening my studio. My focus in both music therapy and lessons has always been how to reach the child who doesn't respond to "traditional" methods. Yet, I've been frustrated most of my career by what felt like outside forces making me use traditional methods that I could see didn't work for my kiddos. In music therapy, this looked like insurance companies forcing me to use behavioral techniques that I could see were not helpful and might even be harmful.
In music classes and private lessons, this looked like forcing my students to read music before they understood how to play music.
Before changing the way I teach, my piano studio had the normal turnover of students in and out every semester with the few who really stick it out but my other students' love of music just seemed to grow. What was I doing differently? Now I know it was because I was making piano students read music before they even understood the instrument and how to play it - because this is how I was taught and I thought it was right. After my studio had been open for about a year, I noticed that the very students who came to me for piano lessons because they know I'm a music therapist who tailors lessons to a child's needs and abilities were actually the ones who were struggling the most. I began to research different piano method books because I believe that if I need something then others do too and it's probably already been invented. I was right and found something that has changed everything: Music Learning Theory.
Music Learning Theory by Edwin E. Gordon says that music is a language like any other and we learn it best when we learn to play and understand music patterns BEFORE learning to read and write them - just like learning our first language where we listen, then try words and put them together before learning to read and write them. When we teach musicians to read and write music in the beginning while they're still learning about the instrument itself, still learning about musical patterns, and still learning how to make their fingers work on the instrument, then they become frustrated at not being able to "do it right" and often their music sounds "stunted" instead of musical. In practice, it sounds like you or your child plunking away at single notes instead of playing music that sounds like songs.
For ukulele, flute, and voice students this means that we're backing up and focusing on rhythms and tonal patterns then applying it to the methods books, if we even use one. Students who aren't reading music or have trouble reading music are not being forced to anymore until they're ready. Instead, we're playing songs that teach the same concepts using "rote learning." This means I play and show them, then they imitate me. We then use the written music as a reminder for what they've learned instead of making them decipher it before playing. At first, this seemed backwards but now making them decipher before playing seems just wrong. My entire philosophy on teaching has changed.
They still get exposure to written music as we go, which actually helps their understanding when they begin learning to read it. Remember, our ultimate goal is to PLAY music. Reading it can come after playing and understanding. Since teaching this way with my piano students, I've found it helps understanding of written music later anyway. They all tell me "It's so easy, Ms. Tonya!" and I say, "Of course it is. We did all the hard work earlier and now you're just putting it together."
For piano students, I found 2 piano method series that help me teach this way. After moving away from traditional methods, all my new students were started in Piano Safari and we're continuing this series. I love its emphasis on rhythms and playing ALL OVER the piano in the beginning. Plus the duets are FUN and music should be fun. Traditional methods make students play in "Middle C position" for a year or more so that they can play by feel while staring at the music - because the emphasis is on reading there, not playing. And the music sounds like it. And kids get bored with piano. I was taught this way too and stopped playing at age 8 until I went to college for flute and had to play again as a music major. I don't want my students to stop loving to play piano like I did. This method will teach students to read music in the staff but it will be delayed until they are ready and already playing for fun.
The other book I found, Keyboard Games, is part of the Music Moves series, and follows Music Learning Theory EXACTLY. This method has also changed my own playing in ways that I can't explain. I love the piano again and play for fun like I haven't done in years. If I were to use only this method, my students wouldn't learn to read music at all until age 11. Please understand that as a music therapist, I believe every child learns at their own pace so to me focusing on age is arbitrary. I gauge each child's readiness for learning to read music on their own current abilities. However, I now also believe that EVERY musician should be taught about music patterns and understanding their instrument before learning to read and write music so I now delay reading for ALL students to set those foundations.
What does this look like in practice? If your child was part of my studio before I required Keyboard Games, we'll back up and use them as "warm-ups" to get them ready for the Music Moves series, which will be required. For students who started in Piano Safari and don't have Keyboard Games yet, you may want to order Book B. Unless they're very young, then order Book A. The students have played some of these songs but I haven't used them to teach some important concepts yet and there are many more songs in the book. We're using this with the Scale Patterns Page during their warm-ups. Check the Student Portal for the Scale Patterns Page or email me directly. Please help students understand that warm-ups in their practice notes are actually more important than their repertoire songs even though they don't take very long. We're preparing for the Music Moves series, which will help them write their own songs, play without written music, and understand music theory as a whole but most importantly develops audiation.
Audiation is the term coined by Edwin Gordon to describe what happens when a musician not only hears music but is also able to understand the musical and tonal patterns they hear in order to reproduce it. Not all musicians are able to do this and those taught to read FIRST before learning to play and hear the music are the worst at being able to audiate. I know because I am one of those musicians who was taught that way and I was very frustrated in college during listening tests and sight-singing classes. It was a terribly hard experience and I had to teach myself how to do it. Sink or swim in music school but I was very determined. I want my students to be prepared if they choose to continue with music. I'm so happy to have found Music Moves. I wish I had been taught this way. I want all musicians to be taught this way. Maybe I'm a bit of a fanatic at the moment, but it really has changed everything for my students. It's been a wonderful experience.
Students may notice as they go along that their peers are learning to read music sooner and may wonder why they have to wait. I hope to explain it to them as we go so they really understand that what they're learning is important but also fun, but if there is ever a time when they feel frustrated about being "behind," remind them of all the cool pieces they are learning to play instead of taking extra time reading boring pieces just to learn how to read music first. When they do begin reading music, it will seem easy and move more quickly than reading in the beginning anyway. I have several students in the studio now who will attest to that.
The most amazing thing I've noticed since changing the way I teach is that not one piano student has dropped out of piano lessons, even in 2020. In fact, when all my social music classes stopped because of Covid, the private lessons studio increased. Each week in lessons I ask, "what did you play for fun?" and students love to tell me about the Keyboard Games, Music Moves, and Piano Safari songs. That never happened with the "Middle C" method books. All my piano students are playing music for fun now and no one has dropped even though school is hard this year. Amazing.
Because so much has changed in the studio based on this way of teaching, some confusion as to what students are required to learn has come up. Also, I know this is a lot of information about music and many of my students' parents are not musicians. Please feel free to call, text, or email me if you have any questions but if there's ever a doubt as to what students should be practicing, my answer will always now be "Play for fun. Don't practice." Because practice is work but playing for fun is still playing music - and that's our ultimate goal. Have a wonderful, musical day!
Music Learning Theory - https://giml.org/mlt/about/
Music Moves (Keyboard Games) - https://musicmovesforpiano.com/books/student/
Piano Safari - https://pianosafari.com/product-category/method/children/level-1-children/
Questions about ABA therapy - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5489637/?fbclid=IwAR2LnBND7VkPH7fk7-3AMrRAwXWBsr99k1Zv35NDAsGFKpkQWSv88QV1J3Y