When I first started teaching music at the Montessori at The Old Schoolhouse in Tivoli, NY, I didn’t quite know what to suspect. I had taught hundreds of adults and kids for almost 20 years but I had never worked with pre-schoolers. I did have the experience of being a dad of two boys (ages 3 and 5) so I had an idea of what I was getting myself into. To be honest, I was kind of freaked out. Two years later, that half hour music class has had a profound affect on how I learn and teach music. It brought me to a realization that, to put it simply, the best way to learn music is to think like a kid.
Kids approach a new song with a natural sense of wonder. When they connect to a song, they initially latch to the melody and the rhythm. Once a child starts to sing a melody she will repeat it an amazing amount of times. Adults have a harder time doing the necessary repetitions to get a song to the point where it is truly internalized; with kids this happens naturally. Whether you are old or young it takes the same amount of repetitions and if you turn your mind off and do your work, it will come.
Perfection is in the eye of the beholder
Kids celebrate every chance they get and music is no exception. A child will perform a song, mess up on half of it, play wrong notes, and restart twice. When they finish, they will stand, take a bow, and parade around like Lady Gaga at the Grammys. In contrast adults will play an almost perfect performance, make one mistake at the end, and feel so disheartened they will consider quitting music all together. Our perception of what we are doing can taint an otherwise beautiful performance. If we can get to into that kid mentality and lose the self-judging, our performance will improve dramatically.
Though it’s not a commonly held belief, music is a language that anyone can learn; my work at the pre-school has made that clear. Kids quickly learn to feel the notes they sing in their bodies. When we sing high notes I ask them to point to where they feel the sound and they point to their heads. When we sing low notes, they point to their chests. Good musicians are often said to have “a good ear” but in reality a good ear is essentially a sensitive body that can feel many different, subtle vibrations. When we sing from our body (through breathing, resonating, and tongue placement) we do away with much of the guessing game—our voice becomes an instrument—and we learn to sing just the way we learn any other instrument. Again, kids do this naturally; adults need a lot of convincing.
Absorbing and emulating
When I introduce a new song in class, I begin as the only one singing. After I’ve sung the song a few times slowly and we’ve all tapped out the rhythms, some kids will sing, but the littlest ones will stare out into the wind as if they were somewhere else completely. While the child may not say a word in class, later she or he will repeat what was absorbed to their parents, pets, cashiers, and teddy bears. The process of absorbing and emulating is fundamental to how humans learn. While most adult learners are good at emulating, absorbing music doesn’t come so easy. In order to internalize a song we must turn off our minds and allow the music to seep in. Considering our complicated lives, this can be a hard thing to do. We all know the feeling of being taken some-where new simply by listening to music. In the learning process, we must engage as if we are a child and in the words of Sly and the Family Stone, “Let the Music Take Your Mind.”
Thinking like a kid
Life to a child is limitless, most experiences are new, and there are no boundaries other than those set by our surroundings, our families, and our communi-ties. If we stay young in our minds, we can harness the same energy they possess; an energy we all possess.