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
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