Music Is Repetition and Patterns - Your Learning Should Be Too
A young piano student demonstrates the pattern pieces he's learning.
When I was a young child learning to play music, I learned like most people do: by learning to read notes on the Grand Staff as I was learning to play notes on the piano. I loved the piano but I was bored by the simple children's songs and overwhelmed by the YEARS it would take me to learn enough written music to play something interesting. My mother was in the Air Force and when I was 8, we moved to Turkey. I was sad that we weren't able to take our piano but my mom kept pointing out that I didn't like to practice anyway. I insisted I really wanted to learn and she insisted that it didn't seem like it. I just didn't like the music I was playing but I didn't have enough experience to know how to explain that to her. It seems to me this is where many children would give up on music and many do, even if they have a passion for it and the instrument to play. I was lucky that my family was musical - they all play instruments and sing on my mother's side - but I also wasn't pushed. It was always my choice to learn or not and come back when I was ready. Of course, I was bound to be involved in some type of performing arts anyway. For a shy kid, I was kind of a ham on stage. I wanted to be a ballerina when I was 5. The performance pictures show me smiling widely while I talk to my friends, watching the other dancers, and dancing out of step. That's me in the picture above with the short brown hair watching my neighbor's feet. I even did community musical theater productions through high school and college but playing music was always my passion (and clearly I was better at it than dancing). I chose to play flute when I was 11, continued piano later, and eventually learned ukulele and guitar well enough to get away with playing them in pubic but it wasn't until I started teaching music that I truly understood the importance of playing patterns more than reading written music.
When I started teaching piano from my studio, I initially chose the method books I was familiar with from my own studies like Bastien, Piano Adventures, and others that teach from a "Middle C" position. In these methods, thumbs share Middle C and students can focus on reading music instead of being worried about where their fingers or the keys are. It allows them to learn to read music right away and to play the piano without having to look at their hands. This is great if your goal is to show progress in music READING. My goal is to show progress in BEING musical.
After the first few lessons, I started to noticed some of my students lost that excitement for learning the instrument. It became work and I had to really struggle to get them to practice. Why? What changed after the first couple lessons? Well, I never began in the books anyway because they never made sense where they start. Our first couple lessons are all about learning to understand the piano itself and how it's made of patterns. They learn a few children's songs to play for fun and then we launch into the books - where they're stuck in Middle C for a very long time.
I started to look for ways to bring the joy back into the music for them through rote or pattern pieces but some of the students were having a lot of trouble understanding rhythms. So we backed up and the played rhythms games I had played with my K-6th grade students when I was an elementary music teacher. It worked! Suddenly my piano students were having more fun learning and they sounded musical but I was spending a lot of time making materials and reteaching things that weren't in the books.
So I went back to square 1 and asked around. I tend to believe that if I need something then other people do too so maybe it has already been made. It's not always true but in this case it was. I joined as many piano, elementary, ukulele, and general music teacher groups as I could find and just started reading what they were recommending. 2 piano methods stuck out right away: Music Moves and Piano Safari. I still haven't found a ukulele book for very young children that I'm happy with...so I'm writing one. That's a future post.
I didn't know which I wanted to introduce to my students and needed to become familiar with them myself first, of course, so I bought both. I was attracted to how they both place an emphasis on rhythmic understanding and allow the students to play all over the piano right away. Because Piano Safari also begins written music within the first book, I chose to learn it and introduce it to my beginners as a supplemental source. Eventually all my beginners were starting in this book and they LOVED playing these pieces. I could see their joy in playing like I'd never seen with Middle C methods. As my studio grew and I was teaching early childhood music classes, parents often requested that I teach piano to kids younger than I was comfortable. Yet, I knew these young children could learn so what method book could they possibly use? And Keyboard Games, the introduction to the Music Moves series, kept coming up. Over time, I've decided to start my beginners in both as they actually work very well together and they work for older kids as well.
Why both? The simplest explanation is that while both series of method books focus on rhythmic understanding, musicality, and playing the entire piano right away, Piano Safari teaches students to read written music but Music Moves (and Keyboard Games) teaches the patterns of the piano related to scales and chord structure in a variety of keys. In Piano Safari, students get to play fun songs right away through rote/pattern pieces that teach musicality while they're learning the boring parts of written music. In Music Moves, students learn how to put rhythmic and melodic patterns together in order to begin composing their own music.
But you have to use it ALL. When they titled their series Music Moves, it wasn't just because it's a cute musical name. You have to MOVE to the MUSIC while teaching and your students have to follow. Each time I'm having trouble getting a student to understand a musical concept, we get off the piano bench, sing and move to the music, then play the rhythms on drums so they can feel it. I've been surprised how quickly they can translate that into their piano playing but I shouldn't be. Experiencing the music with your whole body is part of what my music therapy training and career has been about.
The importance of syllabic counting in both methods can't be understated. Having used Kodaly techniques in the elementary classroom, I know how students without any musical training can instantly understand rhythms using syllabic counting. I had reverted to using these sounds for quarter, eighth, and half notes (ta, ti-ti, two, etc) in lessons before finding Music Moves and Piano Safari but found the Kodaly system quickly became inadequate for explaining complex rhythms. I still begin with Kodaly's system if the students have had exposure to it in school before starting lessons, but I find they have no trouble adding Edwin E Gordon's system in Music Moves and switching between the two.
I still use rhythm games but the Teacher's Manuals for these methods also include their own as well as many other music activities. Music Moves and Keyboard Games are designed to be used with classes of young children so there are duets for kids to play together but some of my talented students have learned to play both parts. If you're a teacher considering either of these methods, it's very important that you invest in the teacher's manuals and do it all.
I have even incorporated these techniques into my ukulele and flute lessons. Granted, it's been harder over Zoom since many of my young students feel silly moving and singing in front of the screen with their families in the next room. Clapping rhythms is easier to get them to do. I've tried to find ways we can move while still sitting on the piano bench and looking at each other on the screen. They are much more likely to move this way and not feel so self-conscious, making their movements more fluid and easier to translate into musical playing - which is the whole point anyway.
I never thought I would enjoy teaching lessons so much. I love designing music therapy sessions and playing music with my clients, I love teaching large music classes of elementary kids and small early childhood music classes, but I started teaching private/group lessons to pay the rent while the studio grew. Even before Covid shut down the classes, though, I had shifted my focus. As a music therapist I have a unique way of teaching young children who might choose to quit music in a traditional setting. I actually enjoy teaching in this way, blending music therapy goals while increasing musicianship. I know many piano teachers who will argue with my approach - delaying written music - and they have loads of success with their methods but I also know they have high turnover in their studios and it's expected that many children who begin piano lessons won't continue after a few years. I've actually heard this argument several times, "It's my job to get them to a point that they can continue on their own if they don't continue with lessons." What a bleak way to look at teaching music. My job is to make them love playing music whether it's with me, someone else, or on their own.
If you're here reading this, then you're already interested in exposing your child to "good music" and you might be looking for complex or more interesting children's songs than Old MacDonald to share with your kids. The thing is, when singing with your baby you want to use Simple Songs and it's important that you YOU sing along too instead of just playing videos of others singing to your baby. Research shows that young children are more likely to imitate a person in front of them more than a person on a video and that they are more likely to imitate a family member over a stranger in front of them. Even with all my education, musical training, and pedagogical knowledge, your baby will imitate you faster than they will imitate me. So don't be afraid to sing with them, even if you think you can't sing.
Besides, I truly believe that everybody who can speak CAN sing. It's true that some people seem to instinctively know what to do and sound better than others. However, in my 15+ years as a music therapist and 4 years as an elementary music teacher in a school of over 600 students, I have never once encountered a child who couldn't at least follow the shape of the notes with their voice and be trained to sing better. My personal theory is that because language itself is already musical (it has rhythm and limited melody or we sound like robots), our brains and ears are already trained to hear and imitate musical sounds. Some just do it easier than others. People who don't instinctively have correct vocal technique are ridiculed as children for not being able to sing so they stop trying. Yet children using correct technique, even if it's not perfect, are encouraged to continue. One group stops singing and one continues to practice their instrument so the divide between those who "can" sing and those who "can't" gets wider as they get older. And honestly, this is something that has developed from our elitist system of teaching Western classical music as if it's the only "good" type of music. Once we get away from this type of thinking and allow people to sing without ridicule, they get a chance to practice their natural instrument - and that's all you need: PRACTICE. So keep singing with your babies. They don't know you "can't" sing anyway: systems of music notes are a social construct that they have to learn no matter which culture they're born into. Let them enjoy your natural voice while all sound is still amazing them.
The reason it's important to use Simple Songs when singing with young children is that they are able to pick up on the melody and words fairly quickly and their success encourages them to continue singing. This increases communication and social skills, which are important goals for this age. Using clapping and other body percussion (and of course, dancing) while singing encourages an increase in motor skills and proprioception (your sense of your body and how it moves in space). My classes are filled with singing, dancing, and playing instruments to encourage a whole body and whole brain experience.
In my Early Childhood Music Classes for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, I use a variety of children's songs, folk and traditional songs from around the world, symphonic music, Disney, and modern popular songs. However, the songs I use for encouraging vocalizations and singing are always simple in structure. One of the sources of curriculum I use is First Steps in Music by the Feierabend Association for Music Education, and they actually title one section in the teacher's books as "Simple Songs." Most of the songs in First Steps are generations old and can be found in a variety of sources but the way they've collected the songs and researched the lessons to be developmentally appropriate makes it a great source for music teachers and music therapists. Here are a few of my favorite simple and echo songs. Have fun singing and playing music!
Had a Little Rooster
A sequential animal song but not annoying like Old MacDonald.
Frog in the Meadow
No More Pie