On Monday I embark upon my second year of teaching Elementary Music at Logos School. Last year’s experience was extremely rewarding and enjoyable, even though I was simultaneously relearning so much of what I thought I knew about musical instruction. Each week I planned out my lessons about a day in advance because it was the first time I’d ever taught classroom music. I know I botched a lot of things and that there is a lot to improve upon this coming year. But what made the year overall very satisfying was seeing how much the children looked forward to music class every week. And as we all know, when students love a subject or class, they are much more likely to succeed in it. Therefore, despite my inexperience, each and every student progressed in significant ways in only 30 minutes a week. That’s what makes me want to go back this year…next week even!
What makes the children love music class so much? Isn’t music as a school subject something only “musical” kids enjoy? Isn’t it a bunch of boring theory worksheets and tedious choral exercises? Zoltan Kodaly, a Hungarian composer and music teacher, says NO. I took a year-long class on Koldaly’s (pronounced “KOH-dayh”) philosophy of music education and the method of teaching that complements it, and that’s why I said above that so many preconceptions about teaching music were being challenged and changed. For the good.
Kodaly believed that children were to be educated in such a way as to develop them into:
1) Performers (that is, people who make and share music)
2) Stewards of musical and cultural heritage
3) Critical thinkers
4) Creative human beings
In order to achieve the #1 objective, that children be performers, he fittingly stresses the importance of singing. He said, “There is a well-known saying of Bulows: He who cannot sing, be his voice good or bad, should not play the piano either. What did Bulow mean by this? He did not mean that every movement and part of a Beethoven sonata should be sung before it is played. But that nobody can play it well if he does not feel and know where the essence of the melody is, and if he cannot bring it to life with his voice whatever his voice may be like” (Kodaly, “Who is a Good Musician,” in Bonis, The Selected Writings, 193).
Singing has a way of internalizing music that hours of practice on no instrument can compete with. Children ought to learn, then, to play their own instruments first, which are themselves. If they learn to sing in tune and locate, feel and understand the melody in any given piece of music, taking up a new instrument becomes a mere branching out from what they already know, rather than a huge new chore that is disconnected with anything they’ve done before.
Furthermore, as far as music is concerned, a voice is the only thing about a child that he is sure to have in common with the rest of the class (and humanity, for that matter). Singing then becomes the most logical and natural place from which to begin instruction, since the teacher makes use of the one thing already in place in every single child. Then, singing makes single children into one whole, as they grow and learn to listen to and control their pitch so that they each match one another. For the educational method associated with Kodaly, this first step happens in Kindergarten…and in the following years, all the magic happens.
I will come back to this topic several times. So far I’ve listed the five main goals for students of music and delved a bit into the first. For now, here is a memorable quote from Kodaly that reveals why children learning under this philosophy can’t get enough of music class and also why it is essential that music be taught as a subject at school along with English, History, Math, etc.:
“Teach music and singing at school in such a way that is not a torture but a joy for the pupil; instill a thirst for finer music in him, a thirst which will last for a lifetime. Music must not be approached from its intellectual, rational side, nor should it be conveyed to the child as a system of algebraic symbols, or as the secret writing of a language with which he has no connection. The way should be paved for direct intuition. If the child is not filled at least once by the life-giving stream of music during the most susceptible period – between his sixth and sixteenth years – it will hardly be any use to him later on. Often a single experience will open the young soul to music for a whole lifetime. This experience cannot be left to chance, it is the duty of the school to provide it” (“Children’s Choirs,” in Bonis, The Selected Writings, 130).
All the best,