Friday, March 21, 2014

You Can Teach Every Student to Play a Musical Instrument

Fourth grade was my favorite of all the elementary years. We had mastered the dreaded cursive writing as third graders and learned our multiplication tables "by heart." We felt more than equal to the task of long division which awaited us. Fourth grade was the year we had Mrs. Brown. She was young, and pretty, and fun, and nice.

Fourth grade was the year we embarked on our study of Alabama history. We learned all about the Indian tribes, DeSoto's journey, and the road to statehood. Our year culminated in a trip to the state capitol building and the First White House of the Confederacy. But the best part of all was that fourth grade was the year we learned the Tonette.

Not just the ones who expressed an interest.
Not just the ones who demonstrated the greatest aptitude.
All of us.

As third graders, we had been envious as we walked down the hall past the fourth-grade classes. The sounds of Mary's little lamb and the ever-popular "Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star" echoed through the hall. We couldn't wait until the day we, too, would be learn to play a real musical instrument.

In fourth grade, our music teacher was stretched thin. Education funding was tight then, too. So, Mrs. Brown and the other fourth-grade teachers had a plan. When the music teacher was in our room, so was Mrs. Brown. She listened as he taught. She learned right along with us. As a result, music was not something we had only when it our day for the music teacher to visit our classroom. Playing the Tonette was a natural part of every school day, because we had Mrs. Brown.

...it all becomes easier to understand when you can visualize the keyboard.
We could take the Tonette and music book home, and therefore, playing a musical instrument was something we could enjoy during leisure time. As I look back decades later at those parts of my formal education which made a difference and which did not, fourth grade and the Tonette shine.

How could that fourth-grade experience have been better? I suppose if we had piano labs for each fourth grade class, that experience would have been better. After all, when it comes to understanding music reading, knowledge of the piano keyboard is, without a doubt, the best foundation. Sharps and flats, intervals, chords, and scales: it all becomes easier to understand when you can visualize the keyboard.

The ideal situation would have been for each of us to have our own piano keyboard. Furthermore, if each of us had a piano keyboard at home, we could extend our learning and play a music instrument during our leisure time.

"Ideal, but impossible," you might say. Can you imagine the expense, not to mention the space required? Impossible then and impossible now. After all, today's reality is that music been eliminated from the curriculum altogether in many places.

Ironically, while we can't seem to offer what Mrs. Brown's fourth-graders had, what we can offer is even better, and it is something we could offer our students today with equipment we already have.

Technology makes it easily doable
Technology has assumed a major role in education, and providing the tools to make it effective has become a focal point across the curriculum. How does that point impact music in the regular classroom? It boils down to one simple question: Does your school have at least one classroom set of iPads or other touch-tablet devices? If the answer is "Yes," then the ideal of a piano keyboard for every student becomes not only possible, but easy.  

When we look at piano keyboard apps, the options, including free ones, are plentiful. If the tablets are available, the apps are but a download away. So, too, are teaching materials for beginning keyboard readily available.

The next step
To provide suggestions for what apps and teaching materials to download, I am going to call on an expert in the field. Dr. Sara Womack is the music teacher at Greystone Elementary School in Hoover, Alabama. Dr. Womack is Past-President of the Alabama Music Educators Association and President-Elect for the Southern Division of the National Association for Music Education. In additional to the doctorate in the field of music education, Dr. Womack also holds a Master's degree in school administration. I am proud to say that she is one of my former students, having played clarinet in my middle school band. In the next post, you will hear Dr. Womack's specific recommendations.

The challenges of time and money are not new. The best of us have always found ways to provide quality experiences for our students. Mrs. Brown was one of them. Whether the topic was DeSoto's travels, how to perform long division, or how to finger F# on the Tonette, Mrs. Brown knew how to teach fourth-graders what we needed to know. The good news is there are many like her in classrooms all across America and beyond.

If your school does not have a music teacher, your students can still have significant musical experiences. Learning the keyboard is great preparation for future participation on band, learning guitar, singing in the choir, or any other musical endeavor.

Check back to read Sara Womack's recommendations. Share what you learn with your principal and other teachers who believe music is an essential part of a complete education. Music for all students need not be a memory from a time gone by, nor a lofty goal for a time somewhere beyond. We have the resources. Our students can learn to play songs on the keyboard and gain a life-long understanding of the structure of music.

Not just the ones who express an interest.
Not just the ones who demonstrate the greatest aptitude.
All of them.
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